Have you had this experience? You clearly define the learning objectives, carefully design your course and activities, and you think that students will learn what you want them to learn. Then you find out that students are not motivated to learn and no learning is happening. 

No matter how well your course is designed, if students are not motivated to learn, no learning happens. In his book Applying the Science of Learning, Richard E. Mayer calls Motivation as one of The Mighty Ms. Then how can you increase students’ motivation? He discusses five conceptions of how motivation works: Interest, Beliefs, Attributions, Goals, and Partnership (1).

  1. Interest

If students are interested in what they are about to learn, they are more motivated to learn. Students’ interest is personal. It is hard to tell what will get a student hooked. This is one reason that Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidelines— providing multiple means of engagement, representation, action, and expression— are important. With multiple options, you increase the chances of connecting the course materials with the students’ personal interests or values.

  1. Beliefs

If students think that they are good at something, they are motivated to learn it. As Carol Dweck describes in her book Mindset, students who have a growth mindset are more motivated to learn and learn better than students who have a fixed mindset (2).

It is important for instructors to encourage students to have a growth mindset rather than a fixed-mindset. There are a lot of ways to do that. You can simply talk about a growth mindset. You can design your courses to promote a growth mindset. Here are some examples.

  • Give low-stakes tests early in the semester. Success early in the semester can help students to build self efficacy. Students can quickly move on to experiencing the successes that motivate them to work harder.
  • Analyze your grading scheme and check if it is promoting a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. If the total grade depends on one mid-term, final, and one big paper, what kind of mindset are you telling your students to have? Consider giving them frequent low-stakes practice tests.

In their article Want to Reach All of Your Students? Here’s How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive on the Chronicle of Higher Education, Viji Sathy and Kelly A. Hogan share the importance of “yet” as in: “I haven’t learned how to do X well yet, but I’ll get there! (3)”

  1. Attributions

If students attribute their success to their efforts, and their failure to their lack of effort, even if they fail once, they are more motivated to keep learning and working harder. If they attribute their success or failure to their natural abilities, they are not so motivated to work harder. You want to give students feedback on their efforts rather than their natural abilities. For example, you might want to say “Wow, I can tell that you worked really hard on this paper” instead of “You are such a good writer!” 

  1. Goals (Performance Goals)

If students are determined to master the materials they are about to learn, they work harder to learn it. There are two kinds of performance goals. One is performance approach goal, such as “I want to get an A in this class.” The other is performance avoidance goal, such as “I do not want to fail in this class”. 

In their book How Learning Works, Ambrosen and her colleagues share the research that shows that academic goals based on avoiding poor performance are not generally associated with academic success. This attitude does not give students a solid knowledge base to support future learning (4).

  1. Partnership

Classroom climate matters for students’ motivation and creating a positive learning environment is crucial. 

If students feel that the instructors are their partners in this learning journey and that the instructors care about them, they are more motivated to learn. Showing your “human” side here might help too.  

If students feel that they have classmates that they can count on, they are more motivated to learn. Letting students introduce themselves or giving opportunities to work together early in the semester might be a good idea to create a supportive learning environment.

If students feel they belong to the class, they are more motivated to learn. One good mantra for students to have is “I belong here.”

For learning to happen, students need to be motivated. Motivation is a prerequisite. Instructors need to help students increase their motivation so that the well designed courses can actually help students to learn!


  1. Mayer, R. (2011). Applying the Science of Learning. Boston, Person. 38-41.
  2. Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, New York, Ballantine Books. 
  3. Viji Sathy and Kelly A. Hogan “Want to Reach All of Your Students? Here’s How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive” on the Chronicle of Higher Education, July 22, 2019, https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/20190719_inclusive_teaching
  4. Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 66-90.

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