Motivating our Students

Motivation and learning are inextricably intertwined: “motivation influences learning and performance and what students do and learn influences their motivation” (Schunk et al., 2008, p. 5). Theories of motivation have developed over decades. In recent years, Svinicki (2004) developed an amalgamated model of motivation for use in higher education based on expectancy value theories, Bandura’s social cognitive theory, and goal orientation theory. According to Svinicki’s amalgamated model, two important concepts contribute to students’ motivation to achieve a goal: the value the goal has for them and their expectancies (expectations) that they will be able to attain the goal. These concepts can be summarized by two key questions that students consider when given a task:  “Do I want to do this task, and, if so, why?”  (value) and “Am I capable of doing this task?” (expectancy). As instructors, we can use a variety of strategies to help increase students’ perceptions of the value of a given task as well as their expectations of being successful with that task.

Instructional strategies to increase value

  • Make the learning interesting. Right from your first class, pose questions and identify paradoxes in your discipline to engage students’ curiosity. Use novel examples as well as real world examples to demonstrate a concept. Vary your teaching methods and your materials. Give students a reason to value your course.
  • Provide authentic assignments. Increase students’ intrinsic motivation by designing meaningful assignments in which students make connections with their life experience. Explicitly tell students the rationale behind the assignment and explain the relevance of the assignment to their future professional life in the discipline. One way to do this is to give a final assignment in which students describe “future uses” of the course material (e.g., “select 2 or 3 ideas from class that you’ll use in your future career as a  ______”). Another example would be to have students make connections between course material and previous learning experiences.
  • Teach a skill right before students need to use it. Students are more likely to remember information that they have just learned if they can use it as soon as they have learned it. For example, teach library search methods right when students are assigned a research paper, rather than at the beginning of term.   
  • Promote a mastery orientation. Most students value succeeding in a course. Help to define success in your course as a mastery of the outcomes (Elliot & Dweck, 1988) more than as a one-off performance. For example, give students the option to resubmit work or submit draft work for comments from either you or their peers. To encourage a deeper level of understanding, you can identify additional resources at specific points of the course rather than just providing a list of supplementary resources on your course outline. You can also model mastery by working out problems in class and including errors and how to spot and overcome them. 
  • Give students some choice. Tap into students’ intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000) by allowing them to select some aspect of their learning. For example, allow students to choose a topic for their assignment, even if their choice is selected from a limited menu of options. Another example is to enable students to choose the medium in which they will convey their end product. Giving some choice can increase students’ sense of ownership and responsibility for their learning. 
  • Help to foster a sense of community. Students’ motivation is affected by those around them. When others value the work in a course, they will too when they feel a sense of connection. As an instructor, you can help students to connect with one another, and with you. Set a positive, welcoming tone in your course outline, in online space, and in the classroom. Monitor the emotion in the classroom, avoid negative emotion when speaking to students, and use humour, where appropriate. In large classes, use online discussion forums to increase a sense of community. In fully online and blended courses, post a video welcome message as well as audio news announcements.
  • Tell students what you value. Help students find value in your courses by being clear. Explicitly tell students what you value with regard to their learning, provide feedback on that, and reward it with marks. For example, if it is important to you that students write concisely with proper spelling and grammar, then provide feedback on their writing and allot a percentage of the grade to writing. It is also important to model what you value (e.g., coming to class prepared, persisting with a problem, or admitting what you do not know and finding an answer). 
  • Show your enthusiasm for learning the subject. Tell students when you find certain concepts particularly interesting and communicate your interest through the tone of your voice and with your body language. It might be helpful to videotape yourself giving a lecture so that you can then review how you come across to students to ensure that your enthusiasm shows.

Instructional strategies to increase students’ expectancies

  • Encourage your students. Let students know that you believe they can be successful in your course and help to build their confidence, or self-efficacy (Bandura, 1993) as learners. Identify effective study strategies that fit the assessments you use in your course, and let students know that they can be successful by using these strategies.
  • Help students identify their learning gaps. Be explicit and tell students your expectations for the course. Clarify what they should already know from previous courses and consider identifying supplemental resources to assist those who need help. For example, early in the course, give students a diagnostic quiz to help them identify what they should already know. During the course use pre-tests and assignments to help students identify where they need help and ask them to articulate these gaps. The key is to promote students’ self-awareness as learners.
  • Connect the learning tasks to other tasks. Seek to connect assigned work with work done in students’ previous course so they have some familiarity with the material being taught. Within your course, where possible, connect your assignments and tests and help students build their skills incrementally. Providing some scaffolding early on can also be helpful (e.g., study guides, concept maps, guidelines for writing, etc.). Another strategy that can bolster their confidence involves you sharing exemplars from previous students. Not only do exemplars show students what a successful assignment looks like, they also show students that others like them have been successful in the course. This may help students to believe “If others can do it, so can I.”
  • Design coursework at an appropriate level of challenge. When designing assignments and tests, consider the course pre-requisites as well as the timing of all of the work in the course. Coursework should be neither too easy nor too difficult. A diagnostic test given at the start of a term or new unit will help to reveal students’ existing knowledge and skills. Checking in with colleagues can also provide a good benchmark.
  • Provide multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate what they know. As much as possible, provide various opportunities for students to practice skills and demonstrate their learning, rather than one or two high stakes exams. Help students gain a better idea of how they are doing throughout the course so they can take steps to improve their performance. For example, have students complete eight tests, six of which will count toward the final grade. Give shorter, low percentage assignments early on as early success opportunities (or as low stakes warnings to students who don’t do well). For written assignments, offer students the opportunity to earn back a portion of their grade by submitting a revised paper which addresses the issues outlined in your feedback.  Lower the stakes in assignments and tests by grading them out of a higher number of marks than their weight in the final grade so that students have many opportunities to demonstrate knowledge with less risk.  For example, a multiple choice test that is worth 10% and includes 25 questions is a lower stakes test than one that is worth 10% but includes only 10 questions.   
  • Provide a marking guide/rubric. When you provide a clear rubric or marking guide, students can feel empowered to take responsibility for meeting expectations. They can also use rubrics to learn to pre-assess their work before submitting it and see where they need to improve. Rubrics can also help you to give timely, targeted feedback.
  • Share your own learning experiences. By sharing your own experiences with failures and false starts, students can see that people are not born knowing the material and skills needed for your course (Yeager & Dweck, 2012). They can also see that intelligence is a flexible, not a fixed, concept, and that they can change their knowledge and abilities through practice and effort.


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact. 


  • Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C. & Norman, M.K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.
  • Bandura, A. (1993). Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning. Educational Psychologist, 28(2), 117-148.
  • Elliott, E.S., & Dweck, C.S. (1988). Goals: An approach to motivation and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(1), 5-12.
  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78. 
  • Schunk, D.H., Pintrich, P.R., & Meece, J.L. (2008). Motivation in education: Theory, research, and applications. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
  • Svinicki, M.D. (2004). Learning and motivation in the postsecondary classroom.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
  • Yeager, D.S., & Dweck, C.S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: When students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. Educational Psychologist, 47(4), 302-314.


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