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How can instructors motivate students?

Simulation de la COP 21 au Théâtre des Amandiers (crédits : Martin Argyroglo)

A frequent preoccupation of instructors is to figure-out how to make students work harder and improve their knowledge and skills. What are the driving forces that cause students to become active (and enthusiastic) learners? Students who attend university level courses are not merely recipients of knowledge; they are active contributors to the learning process. Helping students become more active learners is part of an efficient instructor’s priorities. Achieving this goal requires planning ahead of class.

Williams and Williams (2011) offer a great summary of existing research on student motivation and how instructors can improve student motivation. As the authors put it, there needs to be a clear understanding “that teaching involves more than just subject matter knowledge and classroom management skills”. Because students are all different, and because each student responds to motivational factors in different ways, the authors argue that instructors can try to combine as many motivational factors as possible among five key ingredients: students, instructors, course content, methods and processes, and the learning environment.


Instructors can consider combining intrinsic and extrinsic motivational factors to stimulate students. Relying only on rewards (extrinsic motivation), such as obtaining good grades, is not the only way instructors can encourage student learning. Instructors can also value student involvement with the material, curiosity, intellectual challenge, and creating social bonds. Higher achieving students are rarely those whose sole motivation is the quest for rewards.

Instructors can also consider the various individual and social factors that have motivated students to choose the course they registered in. Knowing the answer to the question “why are the students here, in my class” is important for instructors to understand how to organize their classes in order to meet students’ interests. Students are more likely to provide higher levels of effort if they find a purpose in the courses they choose to study.

Instructors can also think about the factors that may be getting in the way of student learning (such as bad study habits, other tasks they need to achieve at conflicting times with the course, lifestyle habits, etc.).

Instructors also need to define and keep in mind what skills they want their students to master by the end of the semester. Are the students receiving sufficient training and continued practice during the course of the semester so that they reach the target that has set for them? In the long run, what do instructors want students to remember from the course ?


Students are motivated when their instructors show that they are highly motivated themselves. An instructor can show motivation in several ways. First, instructors must demonstrate that they possess a high level of knowledge of the subject matter. Second, instructor enthusiasm requires keeping a positive attitude towards students. Third, instructors can help improve student learning by showing genuine interest in the subject matter they are teaching, as well as in the material they use to teach the course.

Also, instructors must make sure that exams are not only designed to test for student learning, but that they also have a positive impact on student motivation. Making a test too difficult (or too easy) does not help student motivation. Exam questions must be easy to understand (though that doesn’t mean that the content of the questions must be easy). Finally, exam questions must be directly related to the course’s objectives and content.

Instructors must also understand their students’ individual strengths and weaknesses: they can use their students’ strengths as levers to motivate their students to provide the necessary efforts to improve on their weaknesses.


Williams and Williams (2011) argue that the course content must be accurate, timely and relevant to real life. When instructors are building their course content, they can keep in mind some of the following elements. First students, need to experience success and achievement: students will be motivated to provide effort only if they believe that they have a chance of succeeding in the class. Indeed, self-confidence in the possibility of success is an essential driving force of motivation.

Second, instructors can think about ways to organize the course content in such a way as to stimulate students’ curiosity. Allowing students to explore the material in ways that will satisfy their natural curiosity can help instructors motivate students.

Allowing students to make choices regarding the course can be useful. The course content can include peer learning techniques to satisfy students’ desire to connect with other students. Finally, variety in the activities required of students is essential to improve student motivation.

Methods and processes

The approach instructors use for teaching is important. Helping students make connections with other students, try different ways of framing the same topic, enhancing lectures to take into account attention cycles, using storytelling, … Any method that can help humanize lectures and cater to different learning styles is useful.

The environment

Finally, building safe learning environments and trusting relationships with students is essential. Instructors must show that they care about student learning. Instructors need to foster positive social interactions and reduce peer aggressions and intimidations. Instructors can value student opinion and feedback regarding the class environment to help improve the quality of the learning environment.

All in all, instructors’ efforts to implement a positive learning environment will increase student motivation.

Anne BORING, economist, Sciences Po.

For more information, read the article here: Williams, K. C., & Williams, C. C. (2011). Five key ingredients for improving student motivation. Research in Higher Education Journal, 12, 1.

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