Student motivation

Learner Engagement briefing


This briefing considers learner motivation and how to develop it. Arguably this is the key challenge that faces academics:

if students aren’t engaged and motivated, how will they learn anything deeply enough to meet the learning outcomes appropriate for a higher education?

It is also a key challenge for students. Students must develop learning habits that will come to define them as graduates.

Without motivated students, there is a danger that the academic will attempt to tell them everything they need to know (didactic teaching) and this is neither realistic nor desirable:

learning to learn and developing self-knowledge (meta cognition) are themselves key graduate outcomes.

What is motivation?

Motivation is simply wanting to do something or needing to do something.

The former is an intrinsic desire and the latter is more extrinsic being driven by external factors. They are not exclusive, but between these poles is a continuum of drives (Ryan & Deci, 2000). As we support our students to address the challenges we give them, they will usually travel some way through that motivational continuum. A learning challenge or opportunity is likely to be abstract at first as they become aware of it and what it means to them. With proper support, their motivation should become more intrinsic as their interest grows through resolving the challenge along with a belief that they are capable of doing this.

This changing view of a student’s motivation in a course or through a topic indicates how the teacher’s role is to facilitate learner motivation.

Although extrinsic rewards and punishments affect what people do, people work hard and in a sustained way if the reasons for doing so matter intrinsically.

Why is motivation critical?

Student motivation is key to them enjoying the experience of learning. Trying to learn without enjoyment or satisfaction is very hard. There is a lot going on in a student’s’ mind, especially at that transition point of starting university but, as academics, we know there is no time to be lost. Motivating students to learn at university is a worthwhile investment, especially in first encounters, year on year.

Time at university creates a space to become clear about our own dispositions, what drives us and what we want to do in life. However, academic discourse often focuses on extrinsic matters, especially the qualifications we need to progress in life. From this, assessment becomes a dominant driver and the danger is this is likely to reinforce a student’s recent experience of attaining the right grades to come to university. These extrinsic factors are important, however, academic success takes commitment, resilience and energy and it is ultimately the student’s own drive that will sustain them.

Developing a student’s desire to learn their subject is fundamental to their success, especially at critical transition points. Developing a desire to learn is also an essential disposition for lifelong learning.

How to build learner motivation

Motivation is, of course, a psychological matter so the strategies you develop to motivate your students for engagement need to keep the student firmly at the centre of your thinking. Equally,

each student needs to develop an awareness of themselves as having agency over their own learning.

They can be told to take more responsibility for their own learning, but it is more effective if they are given opportunities to experience this agency.

Prioritise strategies for developing your students’ knowledge of their own learning capacities (metacognition) at the earliest opportunity. Metacognitive capacity allows a student to observe, plan and evaluate what they do, the success this brings them and the ability to correct errors when necessary. This can be done through PPDP, but it is important that metacognition is developed in experience too.

The first challenge for the academic, then, is to capture the attention of each of your students enough to make them want to learn or need to learn (Race, 2015).

The following sections suggest ways you can build learner motivation.

Agreeing what works – exploring strategies that have worked for your students before

We have all been successful learners before, so spend time with students talking about this. Ask them about their strongest, most positive memories of learning. They may talk about, for example,

  • learning with others;
  • having to pass exams and the methods they deployed and enjoyed to do that;
  • learning from play;
  • feeling proud of achieving something that they then built on and became known for;
  • etc.

Time spent exploring good feelings about learning is time well spent. For the academic, listening to these stories is likely to steer you towards using ‘learning by doing’ and ‘learning through co-operation’ strategies. By building up a bank of personalised good learning strategies you and your students can develop a charter of ‘what works’. Of course, there will be differences amongst the individuals and these need to be accommodated, but by having the conversation and drawing out some ideas you will have taken significant steps towards recognising their preferences and to creating ideas and trust that you can make use of as you progress.

Using diagnostics to initialise motivation and confidence

Learning always builds upon prerequisite knowledge. There is a threshold to cross. The student needs to be clear that what they know is sufficient for proceeding.

  • Communicate clearly what is needed, with examples.
  • Consider using diagnostic reviews. These can take the form of informal discussions around a set of bullet points or they can be more formal, for example, printed worksheets or online diagnostic multiple choice tests. It is important that students understand diagnostic reviews as being a positive activity to help them and their lecturer focus on what is needed. Diagnostic activities should help students to confirm that they have what it takes. Self-belief is essential to motivation.


Icebreakers and team building activities can be used to build group identity and motivation. A collection of techniques is included in this toolkit.

(The right) time on task – using the right methods for dedicating time on task

Bransford et al. (2000) say that while practice and ‘time on task’ is important, it is not sufficient in itself to ensure learning takes places. Deliberative and focused learning in which the learner in methodical, for example by seeking feedback, is what matters. It is the academic teacher’s role, as much as that of the study skills tutor or academic adviser, to frame and develop effective study habits with their students.

For example, it is not enough to simply give students feedback. Effective feedback, and how it is returned to the student, is designed with a sense of how it will be used in mind. Conveying to the student how feedback should be used allows them to engage with it effectively.

Don’t remember this – developing understanding more than factual knowledge

Learning with understanding is more likely to promote the transfer of knowledge to the student than simply memorising information from a text or a lecture. Understanding is developed by using knowledge in ways that reveal the validity of theories and processes, and their value or meaning. Learning is much more than simply remembering facts and theories.

In some disciplines, especially those where the requirements of accrediting professional bodies are concerned, there seems to be an inordinate amount of ‘stuff to know’. More than this, graduates need to be able to find and critically evaluate information so that they can keep on top of and apply information and knowledge.

Developing curiosity and conundrums

People who are curious can be said to be self-motivated; however, in the classroom, curiosity first needs to be developed before it can then be sustained.

Humans are naturally inclined to want to develop a response to a conundrum, e.g. a problem, story, scenario or situation. Such devices can be used to establish a ‘big picture’ or clear context for learning. Having a clear sense of the conundrum and well-articulated or drawn puzzle is likely to capture our attention and provide a platform from which we can see how to proceed.

Support curiosity and persistence, first by directing students’ attention. Then structure their experiences by supporting their learning attempts and regulating the complexity and difficulty of the levels of information they use.

Having caught the student’s attention, the teacher must prod and probe the conundrum with their students by asking questions or elaborating on the initial idea or problem to reveal further dimensions and complexities. This can be done by engaging the student or student group in a structured dialogue that may involve them in sharing their own experiences, ideas and reactions to the ideas being discussed. For example, ask them to test processes or conceptual knowledge by using and adjusting variables associated with the conundrum and asking ‘what if’ questions. Such variables can include temperature, time of day, number of people, cost of a service, etc. Tying such scenarios into real-world examples will make them clearer, more accessible and concrete. This will help the students to find meaning and sustain their curiosity.

Relating the conundrum to the things that qualified professionals do will make it even more engaging and will allow you to position the students themselves in the big picture. For example, you can ask, “How would you approach this?” That makes it a personal matter upping the stakes for each student.

In other words, the academic can incrementally stretch their students’ thinking in a structured way by creating a scaffold that underpins their curiosity and enquiry. Focus on questioning techniques that sustain curiosity by incrementing adding detail and complexity, especially by situating the learner in the problem scenario.

Belonging – developing the identity of your learning community and its self-knowledge

The motivation of students learning in a social setting can be enhanced by developing a sense of belonging, cultural confidence and trust. Such a community is capable of making ‘in-jokes’ about what is known about the ‘ways of being’ in their discipline or profession. Equally, it is confident enough to poke fun at itself. A confident community should be able to develop its own folklore around memories of learning that open up “a realm of fun and nonsense” (Bransford et al., 2000).

Consider what is in place for you and your students to come to know yourselves as a community. For example,

  • In your formal engagement, are there moments or structured activities that involve all of you interacting? People who work together get to know each other and people’s personalities are revealed.
  • In the time before or after class, are there opportunities to meet up or bump into each other? How can this habit be established within the cohort?
  • Can you develop space for lingering? Can you create space or time at the beginning or end of a class for people to get to know each other? Do you and the students always rush off after class?
  • Do you have office hours when you make yourself available to students? Can you create a space for groups to drop in each week too?
  • Do you know where your students gather on campus? Is there a ‘place’ or ‘home base’ you can create as a course home? This can be a space you ‘take over’ or you could negotiate for a course hub space where you can take some ownership.
  • Can you establish a course community of practice around a student-run disciplinary society, perhaps tied into a Facebook Group and an annual event?

Success breeds success

We all like to be successful and to be recognised for our success. It feels good.

Make your students successful! Successful moments can be constructed liberally in the students’ experience of learning. It is not necessary for them to wait for the results of the summative assessment. As a motivational academic, your aim is to continuously confirm in each student’s mind that they are good enough to be here and, through an appropriate challenge, they need to believe they are capable of succeeding through continuous reminding. Regularly confirming their potential to succeed will develop their self-efficacy and it will keep them coming back for more. They will have challenges and failures, some of which will be dispiriting. To cope with these setbacks students need a resilience bank – a store of feel good moments.

The following examples demonstrate how easy it easy to develop a success-oriented learning environment full of positive feeling:

  • Smile! – This tells your students you like being with them.
  • Know their names – This tells your students you have already noted their value to you and the class.
  • Remind the students of their capability – Integrate serious diagnostic questions through your teaching. These are things your students should know or can work out easily, but which are rewarding and motivating nevertheless when they get them right.
  • Generate successful messages – Amongst the serious academic challenges, ask your students simple, inconsequential questions so you can reassure them continually.
  • Thank your students – acknowledge your students whenever they come up with useful answers and then thank them again by referring to them by name later, “Remember Joe’s answer? This is the implication…”
  • Gamify your session – Some academics take this to extremes, but you can do it simply. Every time you receive a valuable contribution, reward it with a token. Add up the tokens at the end of class, and adjust the class leader-board – you could have this in Blackboard. Systematically involve all students to make sure you don’t create a culture of teacher’s pets. You might even award a prize for when there is a new leader on the board or for any student that moves up more than five places. You can spot student disengagement as names fall down the leader board and this can prompt you to catch up with them.

All of these small, positive pieces of feedback on success create a motivational flow that can make the harder challenges feel more possible.

Who am I becoming?

Students need to be supported to see themselves differently. They need to acquire their new persona of ‘becoming geographer, artist, journalist’ or whatever. By assuming the identity, critical disposition, language and identity of the person they aspire to be, they are implicitly accepting the challenge to earn that mantle.

List behaviours that post-graduates and professionals have in your discipline. Ask, how can I challenge the ways my undergraduate students act so they begin to recognise themselves as professionally oriented?

Developing attitudes of performance and creative learning

Generally, students are oriented towards performance or towards learning. Students who are more performance oriented tend to be more risk-averse and concerned about making errors. Learning-oriented students like to embrace new challenges often creatively and sometimes without pause for critical reflection.

  • Getting to know your more cautious students can help because you can talk to them more about learning through experimentation and how failure can make for a positive learning outcome.
  • Getting to know your more learning-orientated students can help you to talk with them about the benefits of managing their energies by focusing their learning.

For both, motivation is malleable and dynamic. Working with each other may be an education in itself!

Providing clarity by getting the balance between abstract and real problems

Some students struggle to engage when learning feels too abstract. The academic needs to assess and mix the levels of abstraction, by introducing and using principles, and the specific, found in real situations. Situating learning in meaningful contexts can affect their motivation, especially when they feel that they can contribute to something purposeful for others.

People like to make a difference, feeling they are useful and needed. Being able to apply what you are learning for the benefit of others can be highly motivating. 

Knowledge structured around principles for fluency and agility

Students are motivated when they can apply their theoretical knowledge to practice. Teaching around principles means using knowledge in a structured way in which principles are applied and adapted easily to specific contexts and problems. Knowing what is critical in a function or process, and what is not, allows the learner to develop fluency and agility, and the ability to apply what they know in situations that they have not yet encountered. This capability to use knowledge to make a difference is highly motivational and makes learning itself manageable.


Bransford, J., Brown, A. & Cocking, R., eds (2000). How people learn: brain, mind, experience, and school, Expanded Edition. The National Academies Press. Available online at:

Race, P. (2015). The lecturer’s toolkit: a practical guide to assessment, learning and teaching, 4th edition. London: Routledge.

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. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68.

Yorke, M. & Knight, P. (2004). Self-theories: some implications for teaching and learning in higher education, Studies in Higher Education 29(1): 25–37.