Engaging with Student Motivation

One of our favorite books is How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching by Susan A. Ambrose and others. The chapter we turn to again and again is “What Factors Motivate Students to Learn?” Ambrose, et al, make it clear that while we may worry about how to engage students, ultimately it’s the students who have to make decisions about how they spend their time and focus their attention. The authors frame their chapter on motivation under this principle of learning: “Students’ motivation generates, directs, and sustains what they do to learn.”(Ambrose et al., 2010, p. 69) They then use education and cognitive science research findings to highlight two factors that affect student motivation: whether the course holds value for the students, and whether the students believe they can be successful in the course. If students believe that they can be successful in a course that holds value for them, they will be more likely to devote time and attention to succeeding in your course.


How can you help students understand the value of your course? Students must believe that the course is relevant to their personal, academic, and professional interests. RIT students are career and goal focused. For instructors who teach general education courses in particular, this fierce attention to career goals can leave students with a misunderstanding about the benefits of a liberal education. One way of helping students understand how working hard in “unrelated” coursework benefits them is to help them connect the dots. R. Eric Landrum at Boise State University uses revealing statistics about the disciplining and termination of new collegiate hires to help focus his students’ attention. Spoiler alert: behavior that leads to poor class performance looks remarkably similar to behavior that leads to poor job performance.

Another way of helping students value your course is to provide them with “real-world” tasks. Let’s say that one of the learning outcomes in your class is that your students will be able to write a research paper. Perhaps they don’t need to write that paper for you. Students can present their research to a panel of local experts, stage Oxford style debates (Boucaud, Nabel, & Eggers, 2013), or a number of other types of authentic assessment.


Students need to know that they can succeed in your class. This does not mean students want to know that your class is easy, but they do want to know that hard work applied toward your course will lead to success. Clear communication regarding your expectations for assignments and good, targeted feedback on student work are critical. Using rubrics helps you communicate what good work looks like in your discipline. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center, University of Texas at Austin Faculty Innovation Center, and Stanford University Teaching Commons all have excellent information on grading and on rubrics.

Students should also know that doing the reading, completing the practice problems--whatever else you have them doing in class--has a direct link to being successful. Tell them how you’ve structured the course. Show them how objectives, instructional strategies, and assessments align to provide them with the opportunity of mastering this content if they devote focused time and attention to the course.

Finally, be sure to talk with students about how your discipline views success and failure. If failure and iterative improvement is expected in your discipline, let students know. Reflect these values in your course and how you assess their work.

For more information on student motivation, we encourage you to read How Learning Works. We will end this article with two recommendations from the authors for helping students to combine the value they’ve found in the course with a sense that it is possible to succeed.

  • Provide students with some flexibility and control over the assignments and the topics covered in the course. Let them select paper topics or even the form of an assignment—does it need to be a paper? Can it be a video? An annotated bibliography? A screenplay?
  • Encourage students to reflect. Ask them to spend five minutes at the end of each class summarizing the important points. Ask them to write about what they still don’t understand. Get them to think about how they prepared for a test and how that worked out for them. Encourage students to start thinking about their thinking.

Student engagement is an important part of Universal Design for Learning. For more information on UDL, review the articles linked from our Inclusive Teaching page.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., Norman, M. K., & Mayer, R. E. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (1 edition). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Boucaud, D. W., Nabel, M., & Eggers, C. H. (2013). Oxford-style debates in a microbiology course for majors: A method for delivering content and engaging critical thinking skills. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education : JMBE, 14(1), 2–11.

Gardner, P. (2007). Moving up or moving out of the company? Factors that promote the promoting or firing of new college hiresResearch brief retrieved from College Employment Research Institute, Michigan State University.