Understanding Student Motivation (Part 1)

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.

I am passionate about my field of expertise, and I put a lot of effort into creating comprehensive lectures in the hopes that my passion will rub off on the students. When it comes to assignments, I don’t believe in spoon-feeding students too many instructions, as they are responsible adults who should be coming in with a certain level of competency in producing college-level work. I work hard to deliver quality content, and I expect the same level of effort from them to learn the material. What often happens, though, is that students do the bare minimum to pass my class. Most do not show a true interest in understanding the material in any deep or meaningful way.

-Professor, first-year college course


Does any of this sound familiar? Students’ lack of interest and/or effort is a common complaint that instructors bring up. Are students just lazy, or is there anything that we as educators or instructional designers can do to engage them more deeply in the learning process?

In How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, the authors extract key principles from the literature on the science of learning and instruction and show how these principles can be applied in the classroom. Not surprisingly, one of the key principles for smart teaching involves student motivation– that which “generates, directs, and sustains what [students] do to learn.”

In the coming weeks, we will explore the factors that affect student motivation and the teaching strategies suggested by the research to increase it.

Part 1 – Establishing Value


Before one can be motivated, there needs to be something about which to be motivated: a goal. Even when instructors set learning goals for students, what often happens is that instructors’ goals for students are not compatible with the goals students set for themselves. For example, the instructor in the scenario may want students to engage deeply with the material and assignments, but a first-year college student taking his required course may have other goals driving his behavior. These can include bonding with peers via campus activities or completing required courses seemingly unrelated to his major or future career with as little effort and time as possible, all of which can interfere with the learning goals set by the instructor. Even when students have genuine interest in a course, other factors can interfere with their motivation to engage in learning behaviors. The text identifies three interacting variables that affect students’ motivation to learn. Let’s start by looking at subjective value.

Subjective Value

Every goal holds subjective value, and people are most motivated to act in pursuit of goals that are important to them. When faced with conflicting goals, those goals with the highest relative value will obviously influence behavior more than goals holding less relative value. The scenario illustrates how an instructor may sometimes teach under the assumption that the value of a course to his students is self-evident, but this is not always the case, especially when a course is not directly related to students’ chosen field of study.

The authors cite three main types of value from the literature. Attainment value refers to value gained from the satisfaction of accomplishing a goal, such as a student proving to herself that she can solve a difficult math problem. Intrinsic value focuses on the satisfaction gained from simply working to accomplish the goal, regardless of the outcome. Finally, instrumental value, as the name suggests, sees a goal as a means to an end. The goal has value only to the degree that its attainment can help accomplish other goals. These goals are often referred to as extrinsic rewards. Examples include public recognition, money, and high status.

Instructors’ learning goals and students’ goals do not necessarily have to clash, as in the earlier example of the first-year student. Research shows that they can coexist. An activity can help satisfy more than one goal, and the more goals it satisfies, the higher the student’s motivation to engage in the activity. For example, a well-designed group activity targeting collaboration skills might also satisfy a student’s goal to make new friends or to network. In another example, a learning goal might start out by holding only instrumental value to a student, but as he gains proficiency after completing engaging and appropriately challenging tasks, attainment value may develop.

Three Strategies to Establish Value

  • Provide Authentic, Real-World Tasks. Design activities that help students see how abstract concepts or theories apply to the world around them, especially those aspects of the world that are most relevant to them (i.e., the economy, education-related policy). For example, ask students to analyze how a current, real-world event illustrates a concept or theory covered in the course.
  • Show Relevance to Students’ Current Academic Lives. Novice learners often miss how what they learn in one class can apply to the rest of their course of study, unless the instructor explicitly states the relationship. Help students see relevance by explaining and giving concrete examples of how your course will serve as a foundation for what they will encounter later on. The syllabus is usually the first document that students read when taking a course. It provides the first impression of what is to come, so it is a good place to begin establishing value. Another good place to highlight value is in a module or unit introduction.
  • Show Relevance of Skills Targeted by Learning Objectives to Students’ Future. Students might often focus on consuming course content (e.g., to pass an exam and get a good grade) without realizing the underlying skills being acquired through assignments, or how these skills will translate to their professional lives. Examples of such skills include teamwork, persuasive writing, public speaking, and quantitative reasoning.

Coming Up:
Managing Student Expectations

Liliana is an Instructional Designer at FIU Online. She has over 5 years of experience in higher education. Previously, she was the Training Manager for the department's recruitment team. Her interests include working with instructors to create quality online courses.

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