Motivating Students

Motivating Students

Jesse Martin 19/08/2018 6

Motivation lies at the heart of learning. If someone is motivated to learn something, there is nothing that can be done to stop him or her. If someone has no interest in learning, there is nothing that either you or I can do to make him or her learn. Motivation lies at the heart of learning.

We are born to learn and we begin learning even before we are born. We learn from the very first moments of our lives, and we continue to learn until we die. The motivation that I am talking about is the motivation to engage in formal learning opportunities.

Children are excited about school and look forward to the milestone of their first day with great anticipation. The desire to learn all there is to know burns bright and hard. Prior to entering formal education, children display a curiosity that can drive us mad. Why? Why? Why? A never-ending stream of Why? The motivation to know everything comes from their very being. Internal motivation to know why drives them. We call it intrinsic motivation. When someone is intrinsically motivated to learn something, we can’t stop them. But we do.

Have you ever asked yourself when children stop asking why? I went to a talk one day and the speaker asked that question. I furrowed my brow because I had never thought about it before. Her answer gives me pain even to this day. Eight years later I can still feel the sick feeling that struck me in the pit of my stomach when she said that they stop asking why within a few months of starting school. Within a few months of starting school they are already losing their motivation to learn.


We all know that school and education in general is a system based on three traditions that run deep. The first is the training of clerics in medieval times – which is where we get the “mistakes are unacceptable” aspect of education (a future article). The second deep-rooted tradition is based on the Prussian military. The Prussian military was well known for its incredible efficiency (along with a few other traits). Efficiency is built on discipline, and discipline is at the heart of every good classroom, although we call it classroom management today. The third tradition is the factory model that has had immense influence on the system we see today.

No mistakes, discipline, and turning out widgets. That is what we do. We have to ask ourselves, “How could anyone be motivated by that?” Within a few months of beginning school, children stop asking why and will only ask questions that teachers are willing to answer.

We know that the most efficient way to extinguish intrinsic motivation is to shift the reason for doing something from being internally driven to being motivated by an external influence. This begins right at the beginning of our educational journey and continues right up to the end of a Masters qualification. By grade three, an eight-year-old child has lost most of the wonderment of simply learning and becomes worried about the grades that they will be getting for every piece of work that they do. Their motivation has changed from an internal drive to learn to an external drive to earn. Students quickly learn that if they press the right leaver enough times, a nice plump grade will pop out just for them. They stop learning just to learn and begin to see learning as a way to get grades.

This transformation is complete before we ever see them in higher education. All of us have had the question asked of us, “Will this be on the exam?” The real question being asked is, “What is the bare minimum that I have to do to get a grade in this class?” The learning is gone and all the students want is a grade. There is nothing new about this. We have known from a half a century of experimentation that extrinsic motivators extinguish intrinsic motivation, and all we are left with are students working for their extrinsic motivator.

So, what is wrong with that? Intrinsic motivation drives a learner. Extrinsic motivation pulls a learner who only wants to do what they absolutely have to in order to receive the reward that they are trying to achieve.

So, how do we motivate students? Actually, it isn’t really that hard.

Work by Jones (2009) brought together the research on academic motivation and found that there are five principles that run throughout the academic motivation literature (remember, this is real research and not just someone's good ideas). The keys to academic motivation are empowerment, usefulness, belief, interest, and caring. In my own research and experience, I would add one more principle - that of audience. I will explore four of these. The article that I wrote on mindset, published on the 24th of August, goes into some depth about finding motivation when someone believes that he or she can accomplish something. Caring about your students’ learning isn’t something that anyone can write about. Caring about your students is simply something that you either do or do not. Caring about their learning motivates them to try harder to learn.

Much of the information from the next few sections I have published before, but I have brought it together here into one article because I believe that motivation lies at the heart of learning.

Empowerment or Autonomy

The foundation of empowerment lies in autonomy. Being able to have control over and direct your own learning. Autonomy leads to self-determination in learning, an area that has been widely studied, with very positive results. The research in the area is peppered with various terms and concepts that all lead us to the same conclusion. Whether it is called autonomy, self-determination, internal locus of control, or high self-efficacy, empowered students act and learn differently from students who do not have the same perception of control over their learning. Being given a high level of freedom for their learning activities leads students to adopt a different outlook on learning and life in general. Empowerment that leads a student to learn what they want to learn moves the motivation from an extrinsic reward to an intrinsic desire to know.

Students learning in an autonomy supportive learning environment enjoy “enhanced conceptual learning, greater perceived academic and social competence, a higher sense of self-worth and self-esteem, greater creativity, a preference for challenging tasks, a more positive emotional tone, increased school attendance, and higher grades” (Jones 2009). What a list! Is there anything there that we wouldn’t want our learners to enjoy? Is there anything there that we wouldn’t expect our teachers to deliver? How unfortunate that autonomy supportive environments are the exception rather than the rule.

The entire philosophy of empowerment strikes many instructors, students, and parents as horrifying. It doesn’t have to be. Empowering students to learn what they want to learn unleashes an excitement that is difficult to contain. It will light a flame that is almost inextinguishable.

Our students come to us and choose our classes for a reason. Why not ask them what it is that they find interesting about the subject we teach? Why not ask them to explore those interests. Most of our subject matter is so intertwined that the learners exploration will end up covering much of what we would want them to learn anyway. Set parameters, give them free rein, and watch them soar. Autonomy in learning is exciting for both the learner and the teacher.


“Students are more motivated when they have more distant goals and have long-range behavioural projects to obtain those goals than when they have only short-term goals” (Jones, 2009). Students tend to ask themselves - Is the material I am supposed to learn today have some utility in meeting my goals? As you can see, there are really two aspects that need to be addressed when talking about usefulness – a learner’s goals, and how the current learning material impacts those goals.

A learner’s goals represent the internalization of learning. If the learning has been truly internalized, the learner will feel empowered because they are learning what they really want to learn. What needs to be addressed here is how, what can appear to be tangential material, can be brought into focus as being useful in achieving a learner’s goals.

The first thing that needs to be done in any learning situation that wants to address the usefulness aspect of motivation, is to find out what goals the learners actually have. It is extremely difficult to motivate students to learn in the short term if their goals are – to get through school, to get a good grade, or to get a qualification. However, we have to hope that most students have more substantial longer-term goals than simply getting through the system. Most material can, with creativity, be made to appear somewhat useful to learners with almost any long-term goal.

The first task a teacher should undertake is to explain the usefulness of the material being learned from his or her own perspective. Obvious, but often not done. Instructors will tell the students about the importance of the material but often couched in terms of short-term educational goals (you need to do well on the upcoming exam). This is not the same as explicitly explaining the usefulness of the material in meeting long-term goals. One suggestion is to have the students do an exercise where they list their long-term goals, and imagine how the material they are learning might be useful in meeting those goals.

A bigger problem with perceived usefulness is that there might not be any. If a student has a long-term goal of being an electronic engineer, or a social worker looking after sexually abused children, the usefulness of learning Shakespeare might be lost on them (and most of us). In the twenty-first century, why is teaching students how to measure the height of a tree using triangulation still considered a core topic? This is a whole other problem that is beyond the scope of this article when you consider that the “core” subjects in secondary school that were set in the late 1890’s are still the core subjects today, not only in secondary school but in higher education as well – with no, or only superficial, change.

Anyway – when learners believe that what they are learning is useful to their long-term goals, research has found that they are more motivated to engage in the work. They end up with more positive learning outcomes and put in more effort to learn the material. They will simply work harder if they think the material will be useful to them in accomplishing their long-term goals.


Interest in a subject is more complicated than the perception of usefulness. This is because interest has two very distinct phases – short-term or situational interest and sustained, long-term, personal interest in a subject. Although instructors often employ flashy or gimmicky demonstrations to engage a student’s interest, this works on the momentary or situational interest, and it takes some effort to transfer the situational interest to long-term, personal interest. It is the long-term personal interest that needs to be ignited, and then the motivation to learn is an intrinsic motivation rather than an extrinsic motivation.

Schraw and Lehman define long-term academic interest as “liking and wilful engagement in a cognitive activity”. Note that there are two components to this definition, an emotional “liking” and the active part “wilful engagement” in cognitive, or thinking activity. This relates directly to empowerment, as we know that when a learner is empowered to learn something they want to learn (are interested in) they do much better.

When a learner is personally interested in a subject, research has found that there are positive correlations with attention, memory, comprehension, deeper cognitive engagement, thinking, goal setting, learning strategies, and achievement! Something that I, as a teacher, am certainly interested in.

So, how do we effect a transfer of interest from a situational, in the moment curiosity, to a long-term, personal interest in a topic? The first thing that a learner needs is to find out what they are interested in. This means that they need to have a range of content about the topic so that they can begin to satisfy their curiosity by finding out why. Too often, an engaging demonstration is followed up with the answer. If students have any kind of interest, stoke that interest by guiding their curiosity in a way that builds on the initial interest, and keeps the learner wanting to find out just a little bit more.

This – getting the right answer – mentality means that curiosity is satisfied with an answer that will only be useful on a future test. Not at all what a real learner wants, but enough to satisfy the myriads of regulators and accountants who watch over the formal learning in our society.

The necessity of guiding, or scaffolding a learner in their journey is often the key ingredient missing in problem-based learning. In an ideal world, an initial interest in a subject would be followed up with a thirst for more that would be satisfied by a kind of learning that is based on searching and looking for more. However, learning is hard. Unless a learner is driven (much more power than mere curiosity) to find out more, when the work starts, their curiosity ends. However, if the teacher prepares and then gently nudges the learner in directions that will lead them to find out more – at the level that they are capable of (Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development), they will engage in exploration that will lead to true learning.

So how does interest make learning better? One leading theory is that when an individual is really interested in learning something, several things happen within the brain. The first thing is that interest increases the amount of attention that is devoted to a task. More attention on a task increases the processing power that is devoted to understanding, and so it makes the cognitive task seem easier. In addition, interest allows a learner to more easily access and search for prior knowledge that might be brought to bear on the problem or task. This is also an effect of allocating more attentional resources to the problem. Finally, it is thought that interest allows more raw cognitive processing power to be allocated to the task because of the decreased need to force yourself to concentrate (attention) on the task because it is interesting. The cognitive regulation of time and effort on uninteresting tasks take up considerable valuable resources that could be used for learning.

Interest means that a learner perceives a task to be easier and more enjoyable. Is it any wonder that increasing real interest in learning something leads to greater academic motivation, along with the associated benefits?

Audience as a Motivator

Since much of our work as teachers centers around writing, I’ll first consider writing for an audience. An audience has always been a part of any writing. In the past, an audience was an abstract entity or a “work of fiction” (Ong, 1975, p. 9) that was imagined by the writer. This imagined entity determined the form of writing, the voice the writer takes and the genre of the writing. In an educational setting, traditional student writing has always been to a single reader for a single purpose. The audience is a judge who weighs the merits of argument, form, flow, and technicality of the written work and then passes judgment in the form of a grade. This is really a one-way form of communication with minimal interaction and feedback from the reader.

Technology, in the form of social media, has allowed us to change this dynamic. Instead of writing for an audience of one, social media allows schoolwork to be written to an audience of many. In an unbelievable response, many colleges and universities have limited the use of social media on their campuses in an effort to make students focus (during lectures) or not be polluted with non-academic forms of writing – as if academic writing is the ultimate form of communication.

Giving students a wider audience not only motivates them to write, but they write more and interact with their critics with a deeper learning of material in order to defend (or change) their understanding. Given the one-way, single audience member mode of traditional writing, this is impossible to do.

In addition, the generation of students within the halls of academia often use social media as a primary form of communication. One of the findings in the literature has been the burnishing of on-line personas in an effort to impress both peers and anyone else looking. This same phenomenon has been observed in student writing when their peers form a large part of their audience. Their writing improves at an exponential rate when they know that their peers are both reading and critiquing their work. This happens as a by-product of trying to look perfect online. They airbrush and polish their writing to look good to each other. Although this happens when a closed environment is used (within Moodle of Blackboard for instance), it becomes more pronounced when their writing is open to the entire on-line world. When they share their work with peers on other social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter etc.), their writing takes on an even more polished look. In addition to their peers, I have found that many of my students explicitly share their work with their family. I have seen many parents comment on my student’s work, and you can tell it is a parent when the comment goes something like, “I’m so proud of you. I’m going to show this to grandma!”

Why Would We Ignore This Powerful Motivator?

In addition, many of the students use their writing as an on-line portfolio of their work that can be referred to within a resume. Posting their work to a professional social media site such as LinkedIn provides them with an opportunity to show their work to professionals and may result in them gaining employment through the work that they present online.

I had a student come to my office one day to let me know that she was frightened that someone was stalking her online. I sat down with her to go over her evidence and pointed out that the comments that the stalker was making were excellent comments about her work. Comments that made her think and engage in good academic discussion. She said that she didn't know who this person was and wanted to know what she should do about it. Together we looked up what we could and found that the stalker was an academic at a good British university. I encouraged her to contact him and let him know that she appreciated his input. He had thought she was a professional writing about her area of expertise. From that contact, she was offered a postgraduate scholarship with a built-in supervisor and lived happily ever after.

A final advantage is that the students’ work is open so that they can read each other’s work. In the class that I teach, I tell them that the only feedback that I will give them (besides their weekly grade) is a paragraph to the entire group each week commenting on how they have done overall and I will name the two or three blog posts (gets to be more than that as the semester progresses) that I thought were exceptional (A+ posts). I find that at the beginning of the semester there is a wide spread of grades from a few A+ grades to a few D- grades. By the third week, the D- grades are gone and are replaced by C+ grades (either they get better at writing and researching or decide it is too much work and drop the class). By the end of the semester, 85% plus are getting B and A grades. I have students come to me during the semester and ask what they can do to get the allusive A grade and I ask them if they have read Jane Doe’s post this week (one of the posts that I will have mentioned). They will say yes, and I will ask them if their post is as good as Jane’s. When they say no, I will say to them “Jane’s post made me say WOW!, write yours and make me say WOW! When I read it, I’ll give you an A+." When they ask how, I tell them that if I knew I would package it, sell it and make a million. Almost invariably, a few weeks later, they manage to get an A grade.

With all of the attendant advantages, why would there be a drive to “protect” the students by staying within a traditional structure of writing for an audience of one? Exactly what are they being protected from? Reality?

I have used open-to-the-world writing with my students for many years with incredible success. One of my colleagues, after having a look at what some of my students were writing, asked me, “How do you get the exact same students that are in my class to write beautifully for you when they produce mediocre writing for me at best?” As my students have told me on a number of occasions, “Jesse, after a few weeks of producing our work this way, you kind of drop out of the picture and we write for each other.” Fine by me. I’m there to foster learning, not cram them full of content.


Motivating our students academically doesn’t have to be difficult. Introducing as many of the motivating factors as you can into your teaching will change your students' lives. I have worked hard to incorporate all of these motivational characteristics into my teaching and I actually get some of my students to begin to ask “why?” again. We need to make learning enjoyable for them by motivating them to learn for learning sake and we just might find that it reignites the passion for teaching that many of us started with and then let it slowly go out as we did what everyone expects us to do when we teach. Try it! You have nothing to loose and everything to gain.

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  • Brendan Snizek

    The best teachers are often in-tune with their students, understand developmental needs and expectations. They can maneuver through the curricular expectations so that students still learn.

  • Panos K Partheniou

    Excellent piece !!!!!!!

  • Gordon Bateman

    Very informative and helpful.

  • William Ross

    Great read

  • Kyle Parkhill

    No matter how you feel, get up, dress up and never give up.

  • Matt Reynolds

    No one can motivate you until you start realising that you need strength to motivate yourself.

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Jesse Martin

Higher Education Expert

Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.


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