How Do I Motivate My Students?

Prepared by Mekiva Callahan                                                                             See the PDF version


Motivating students is one of the greatest challenges instructors face. While it is true that as instructors we have little, if any, control over external factors that influence our students’ behavior and engagement, we do play a vital role in shaping what occurs in our classroom. In fact, our instructional choices can make a positive impact on student motivation.

The purpose of this paper is to provide instructors with a general understanding of student motivation from a psychological perspective and to recommend specific strategies to help motivate students in the classroom.

A Framework For Understanding Student Motivation

According to Jere Brophy, a leading researcher on student motivation and effective teaching, “Student motivation to learn is an acquired competence developed through general experience but stimulated most directly through modeling, communication of expectations, and direct instruction or socialization by others (especially parents or teachers).”   

Before exploring some practical applications for motivating students, we should examine the issue from a theoretical perspective. One thing to consider is the expectancy-value theory as it serves as the underlying theme for a number of the strategies we suggest to enhance student motivation. According to this theory, the degree to which a student is motivated to engage in an academic task is jointly determined by his/her expectancy for success and by the value that he/she has attached to a specific task. This theory suggests that students can be successful if they apply reasonable effort and appreciate the value of the learning activities


Expectancy-Value Theory Summarized

Why am I doing this? +
Will I be successful at it? -> Level of student motivation





Strategies for Increasing Student Motivation

Given the insight gleamed from motivation theories such as the expectancy-value theory discussed above, we should consider what steps instructors can take to maximize student engagement and success in the classroom. As instructors, we can create an optimal classroom environment that is conducive to learning, and research suggests this is most effectively achieved through instructional behaviors and course design. In the following sections, we will offer strategies that you can implement in your own classroom to capitalize on student interests and encourage course engagement.

Course Design
As Barbara Davis writes in Tools for Teaching, “Students respond positively to a well-organized course.” Therefore, it is important to be mindful of the fact that how you structure the course and the teaching methodologies you use can greatly affect your students’ motivation to learn. By providing students with a basic framework of expectations and guidelines, students often remark that they feel empowered and are better able to shape their semester.  The following are some strategies to consider when planning your course and creating lessons (Brophy, 1987; Cashin, 1979; Davis, 1993; Forsyth and McMillian, 1991; Svinicki, 2005):








While it is unlikely that one single agent or event will dramatically alter a student’s motivation to learn, or will positively impact all of your students, it is important to acknowledge that student motivation is dynamic. Through your own behavior, course design and teaching practices, you can create classroom conditions that encourage engagement and motivation to learn on a variety of levels.  By implementing an array of strategies that fit your teaching style and classroom environment, you can greatly stimulate and sustain students’ motivation to learn both in your classroom and within your overall subject matter.   
In addition to the resources on motivation provided below, the TLPDC offers workshops throughout the academic year on topics such as student motivation, student engagement, learning styles, and classroom management.


Online Resources

Vanderbilt Center for Teaching
Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching provides a list on motivating students that is similar to that of the The Teaching, Learning, and Professional Development Center. This website explores the advantages and disadvantages of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation as well as how learning styles effect motivation.  Strategies, such as how to learn student names, are found throughout the center’s website.

 “Capturing and Directing the Motivation to Learn,”  from Speaking of Teaching, Stanford University’s Center for Teaching and Learning’s newsletter on teaching. Vol. 10, No. 1. (PDF)
This newsletter reviews the literature on student motivation and provides techniques and methods that can be incorporated into your instruction which can improve student performance.

Davis, B.G. (1993) Motivating Students. Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
This chapter is on motivating students from Barbara Gross Davis’s book. It was referenced in preparing this document and offers some great strategies for keeping students involved in the classroom. We have this book available in the TLPDC library, but if you want to read just this chapter, you can access it online at the UC Berkeley website.

Svinicki, M.D. (2005) Student Goal Orientation, Motivation, and Learning. Idea Paper #41.  (PDF)
This paper looks at the impact teachers can have on student motivation and offers specific suggestions for positively affecting it.


Additional References
Ames, Carole A.  “Motivation:  What Teachers Need to Know.”  Teachers College Record 91.3 (1990): 409-421.  Academic Search Premier. 12 November 2009.

Angelo, T. A., and Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco, 1993. (2) 121-125.

Brophy, Jere. Synthesis of Research on Strategies for Motivating Students to Learn. Educational Leadership 45(2): 40-48.

Cashin, W. E. Motivating Students. Idea Paper, no. 1. Manhattan: Center for Faculty Evaluation and Development in Higher Education, Kansas State University, 1979.

Davis, Barbara Gross. Motivating Students. Tools for Teaching. Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco, 1993. Available online:  

Forsyth, D.R. and McMillan, J.H. (1991) Practical Proposals for Motivating Students. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. 45: 53-65.
Forsyth, D.R. and McMillan, J.H. (1991) What Theories of Motivation Say About Why Learners Learn. New Directions for Teaching and Learning.  45: 39-51.
McKeachie, Wilbert J. Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. 9th. Lexington: D.C. Health and Company, 1994.

Paulsen, M. B. and Feldman, K.A. (1999) Student Motivation and Epistemological Beliefs. New Directions for Teaching and Learning.  78: 17-25.
Svinicki, Marilla. Student Goal Orientation, Motivation, and Learning. Idea Paper, no. 41. Manhattan: Center for Faculty Evaluation and Development in Higher Education, Kansas State University, 2005.