Kennesaw State University

Students’ motivation generates, directs, and sustains what they do to learn

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Adapted and expanded from How Learning Works by Mandy McGrew

Motivated students believe they can be successful, see the value in the course material, and feel that the learning environment is a supportive one.

Understanding the factors influencing motivation is key to helping students learn. According to Ambrose, et al. (2010), motivation directs students’ behaviors and is a necessary component of learning. If we can motivate our students to engage with our coursework and make it a priority, we increase the chances that they will be successful in the course (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2011). “The importance of motivation in the context of learning cannot be overstated (Ames, 1990)” (Ambrose, et al., 2010, p. 69).

But what is it that motivates students today? Unfortunately, it is common for instructor’s beliefs about what motivates students to learn to be different from what actually motivates them. Understanding and applying motivation theory to our teaching can help us to align our expectations to students’ goals and enhance their motivation to do the work in our courses (Ambrose, et al., 2010).

“Motivation refers to the personal investment that an individual has in reaching the desired outcome (Maehr & Meyer, 1997)” (Ambrose, et al., 2010, p. 68). Different students are motivated to do different things at varying degrees (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2011). With so many competing priorities, students are motivated to engage with and complete work in courses that they value, in which they feel they can be successful, and where there is a supportive environment for learning (Ambrose, et al., 2010) 


Goals provide a structure for understanding how motivation functions in learning (Ambrose, et al., 2010). Students make choices about how to allocate their time based on their priorities and what activities will help them to achieve their personal goals (Ambrose, et al., 2010). Furthermore, students often have multiple and conflicting goals, which means they have to make decisions about how to use their time. Ensuring that our goals for the course match with our students’ goals create potent circumstances for learning (Ambrose, et al., 2010).

Unfortunately, student goals and instructor goals are often misaligned (Ambrose, et al., 2010). We want students to hold mastery goals or learning goals—that is, we want them to focus on learning the material. Students tend to focus on performance goals—doing what they have to do to get the grade that they want or need in the class. Emphasizing performance goals can be problematic because this orientation creates an environment where the focus is on the grades and not the learning. This can lead to academic dishonesty because students feel pressure to get a certain grade rather than appreciating the progress they are making in their thinking. Therefore, when discussing course material, instructors should concentrate on students’ growth in the topic area, rather than highlighting how to accumulate points to earn a grade (Ambrose, et al., 2010).

“Research shows that students who hold learning goals as compared to those who have performance goals, are more likely to use strategies that help deepen their understanding of the material,” (Ambrose, 2010, p. 72). It seems counter-intuitive, but students who worry less about grades and more about just learning the material actually do a better job of learning the material, and probably end up getting better grades than those who are worried about the grades alone. 


Students are more motivated to invest time in things that they value (Ambrose, et al., 2010). According to Wigfield and Eccles (1992, 2000), there are three main sources of value and each can influence student motivation in its own way. Attainment value is that which comes from mastering the task at hand. The positive feeling of accomplishing what one set out to do is the manifestation of attainment value. Intrinsic value is the gratification one feels from simply having the experience of participating in a certain activity. Instrumental value is related to the outcome of accomplishing a task of series of tasks. Instrumental values manifests in the form of extrinsic rewards, such as grades (Ambrose, et al., 2010).

Often, as instructors, we shy away from the idea of extrinsic rewards, downplaying grades in our desire to emphasize learning for the sake of learning (as mentioned in the previous section). We know that our students are motivated by grades, though. Therefore, when working to enhance motivation, we can stack the three different types of value in an effort to show our students the multiple ways that our courses may help them accomplish their goals (Ambrose, et al., 2010). The different types of value serve to reinforce one another; they do not take away from one another (Hidi & Renninger, 2006). For these reasons, instructors should work to emphasize the multiple sources of value that their course, each unit, and each assignment have for students. 


In order for students to be motivated to accomplish a task, they must see the value in the task, but they must also believe they can be successful at it. This concept is known as self-efficacy—a person’s belief that they are “capable of identifying, organizing, initiating, and executing a course of action that will bring about a desired outcome (Bandura, 1997)” (Ambrose, 2010, p. 77). Students are more likely to be motivated to work toward something that they believe they will be able to finish successfully (Ambrose, 2010).

As we design and deliver our courses, we must consider students self-efficacy and how  we can cultivate it within them. For example, telling students that they are unlikely to be successful in a course because of the level of difficulty may seem like a motivating concept to us as instructors but for many students it causes them to shut down and give up before the course begins (Ambrose, et al., 2010). It is also important to consider how students’ previous experiences with various types of courses influences their self-efficacy. Students who have struggled in high school math classes are more likely to have low self-efficacy when taking math courses in college (Ambrose, et al., 2010). Changing that mindset to focus on growth gives students hope that they can be successful with hard work; a growth mindset gives them something to strive for (Dweck, 2006).

When considering self-efficacy, we must also think about what students attribute their success or failure to—do they think they did not study hard enough for the test or do they blame their professor for not teaching what was going to be on the test? If they blame their instructor, they are likely to feel out of control and hopeless as to what to do to improve next time. However, if the student recognizes their own role in the outcome, they can be made to see that by doing things a bit differently, they can be successful (Ambrose, et al., 2010). 

Supportive Environment

It is also important to take into account the influence of the course environment on student motivation (Ambrose, et al., 2010). The environment can be illustrated as a continuum from supportive to unsupportive (Ford, 1992). In an unsupportive environment, students feel as if their professors do not care much about their learning and that the course is more transactional in nature: students do the work, the instructor gives them a grade. In the extreme, students may even perceive the instructor as hostile or threatening which negatively influences motivation to persevere in the course. On the other side of the continuum, students who feel that their instructor cares about their learning and is there to help them be successful in the course are more highly motivated to complete assignments and study for exams (Ambrose, et al., 2010).

Creating a supportive environment does not mean making the course easier, it means challenging your students at an appropriate level and creating a sense of community within your classroom (Ambrose, et al., 2010). Students do not check their personal lives at the door so we must teach holistically. If we ignore students’ emotions, we are not teaching the whole student (Barkley, 2010). For more information on how to create a supportive environment in your classroom, see this article by Michele DiPietro. 

How can we create the most motivated students?

These three factors work together to greatly influence motivation: value, self-efficacy, and supportive environment. The figure below illustrates how these factors impact a student’s attitude about a certain course. 

Students will fall somewhere on this graph depending upon whether or not they value the material they are learning, how they perceive their own self-efficacy in the course, and finally whether or not they feel supported in the course environment (Ambrose, et al., 2010, p. 80). Reflecting on how our students perceive our courses relative to the value we have established in the course material, whether or not they believe they can perform well, and the environment we have created in the class can help us plan how we might motivate individual students and our classes in their entireties (Ambrose, et al., 2010). The most motivated students are the ones who believe they can be successful, see the value in the course material, and feel that the learning environment is a supportive one (Ambrose, et al., 2010).

Below are some strategies you might apply to enhance the level of motivation in your students:

Strategies to Establish Value

  • Connect the material to student interests and/or real-world situations to help students see how the course might be valuable to them.
  • Demonstrate how this course fits into students’ academic careers and their careers after college.
  • Share your passion for the subject matter with your students. Share with them what attracted you to this field and why.

Strategies to Enhance Student’s Self-efficacy

  • Ensure that your course objectives, assessments and instructional activities are aligned so that students feel they can be successful if they do the work.
  • Challenge your students at an appropriate level, providing opportunities for success early in the semester to boost confidence.
  • Be clear about your expectations; use rubrics and provide constructive feedback.



Ambrose, S., Bridges, M. DiPietro, M., Lovett, M., & Norman, M. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ames, C. (1990). Motivation: What teachers need to know. Teachers College Record, 91, 409-472.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

Barkley, E. (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Ford, M. E. (1992). Motivating humans: Goals, emotions and personal agency beliefs. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Hidi, S. & Renninger, K. A. (2006). The four-phase model of interest development. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 111-127.

Maehr, M. & Meyer, H. (1997). Understanding motivation and schooling: Where we’ve been, were we are, and where we need to go. Educational Psychologist Review, 9, 371-409.

Svinicki, M. & McKeachie, W. (2011). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. 13th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Wigfield, A. and Eccles, J. (1992). The development of achievement task values: A theoretical analysis. Developmental Review, 12, 265-310.

Wigfield, A. and Eccles, J. (2000). Expectancy-value theory of achievement motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 68-81.