Understanding Student Motivation (Part 3)

Understanding Student Motivation for More Effective Teaching: A Mini-Series

Adapted from:
Mayer, Richard E., and Susan A. Ambrose. How learning works: seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. Print.


We began this student motivation mini-series (Part I) discussing the importance of establishing the value of instruction to students by showing relevance to their current lives and future. In Part II, we looked at factors affecting students’ efficacy expectancies and ways in which we can help to set them up for success through well-designed instruction. Finally, in Part III, we will explore the interaction between perceptions of the learning environment with value and expectancies.

Part 3 – Perceptions of the Environment

Students’ perception of the learning environment exists on a continuum from supportive to unsupportive. Factors such as class dynamics, tone, and communication patterns can either help or hinder students from pursuing the learning goals. Is the instructor perceived as approachable and willing to help if needed? Do students perceive that they are being treated fairly? Do they feel that they can approach their peers for support? Perceptions of an unsupportive environment can lower students’ expectations of success and decrease their motivation. The following chart shows how the three variables—value, efficacy expectancies, and perceptions of the environment—interact to produce different effects on students’ motivation.

Chart of interacting motivation variables.
Interactive effects of environment, efficacy, and value on motivation.

Regardless of whether or not the environment is perceived as supportive, when students don’t find much value in the learning goals, and they don’t believe they are capable of successfully achieving them, they are likely to behave in a rejecting manner which can include apathy, alienation, and anger. However, when students perceive little or no value in the learning goals, but they have a sense of high efficacy, they are likely to behave in an evading manner. This is often manifested as lack of attention and, in order to avoid the stigma of a failing grade, minimal effort to attain a passing grade.

Students who see value and perceive a supportive environment but have a sense of low efficacy are likely to be fragile. Even though they want to succeed, their lack of confidence in their abilities might drive them to protect their self-esteem by pretending to understand material or making up excuses for low performance.

When students see value but perceive the environment as unsupportive, one of two attitudes might develop, depending on efficacy level. Those with high efficacy might become defiant toward the instructor or peers, while those with low efficacy might become hopeless, which drives them to behave in a helpless manner.

As can be seen on the chart’s lower right quadrant, motivation is highest when all three factors affecting motivation are positive.

Strategies That Address Value, Expectancies, and Enviroment

  • Begin Establishing a Welcoming and Supportive Environment on the Syllabus. For example, a syllabus written in third-person, as opposed to speaking directly to the students, creates distance between instructor and students. Learning objectives written in unnecessarily complex and/or technical language that may not be easily grasped by non-experts (students) at the beginning of a course  may lower expectations for success.
  • Provide Flexibility and Control. Whenever possible, give students options in course content, writing assignments or discussion topics. This allows for greater alignment between the learning goals and students’ interests, thus increasing the assignments’ subjective value. Flexibility also contributes to students’ sense of control over their learning process and, consequently, to higher expectations of success.
  • Give Students an Opportunity to Reflect. Asking students to articulate what they have gained from an activity can help them to recognize value. Similarly, asking them to reflect on their process for completing an assignment can help them to identify strengths and target weaknesses.



How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman. Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint, 2010.

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