Teaching Strategies

Student Motivation

Research shows that students are more likely to cheat when they do not recognize the value of the course content to their own intellectual, personal, and professional development. Faculty who frequently teach core courses know that it can be difficult to foster student buy-in when the content does not immediately connect with students’ stated interests. While this is a real and complex teaching challenge, there are strategies that can help students connect with the material and kickstart motivation. 

When discussing student motivation, researchers often present two basic types of motivation: 

  1. Intrinsic motivation is active in a student who is personally interested in exploring the material at hand because of their own curiosity and desire. Students who are intrinsically motivated assign value to doing the task itself, not to a particular outcome.
  2. Extrinsic motivation is active in students who are willing to invest in a task to the extent that it will help them achieve “extrinsic rewards,” like public praise or money. In the classroom, any number of extrinsic rewards may be operating: good grades, feeling accomplished in relation to peers, admission to graduate or professional school, etc..

When students are intrinsically motivated, they recognize the value of the material for their own growth; when students are extrinsically motivated, they recognize the value of the material as a stepping stone to some other good. Students in a class where extrinsic motivation flourishes are more likely to cheat because the course is viewed as a hoop to jump through rather than an end unto itself. 

While students may arrive at a class with extrinsic motivations, there are steps instructors can take to foster intrinsic motivation in students. These interventions can be made on the level of classroom interactions, course design, and assignment design. 

Classroom Interactions 

  • Indicate how the skills developed in the course will be useful for future academic and professional success.
  • Be transparent about your own passion for the subject. 

Course Design 

  • Provide students with some freedom to shape the curriculum – deciding on a unit or negotiating a more significant portion of the course content.  
  • Design the course around a topic or question that presumptively interests many students. 
  • Frame the course design around major questions or “puzzles” and empower students to raise their own genuine questions. As James Lang notes, this works best when instructors don’t have a clear answer of their own in mind, but can join students in considering various possibilities. [14]

Assignment Design 

  • Design assignments that ask students to draw – as is appropriate in the discipline – from their own experience. 
  • Design assignments that empower students to tie their work in the course back to their own passions.
  • Design assignments that respond to current events. 
  • Create time in class for working on assignments: portfolios that include class assignments, group projects that meet during class time, active learning exercises that inform the final learning artifact, etc.. 
  • Create assignments with “authentic audiences,” or someone beside the instructor who will come into contact with and benefit from the work of the class. There is a wide range of possible audiences: students in local schools, future students in the class, the university community, students at another college or university, local government, etc..
  • Design assignments that ask students to draw on and reference the specifics of in-class activities (simulations, discussions, case studies, experiments, etc.).   

Once students are intrinsically motivated to engage in the material, it is also important to help students recognize that they are capable of completing the assignments. Even if someone is deeply curious about a topic, their motivation to engage in the material quickly evaporates if they do not believe they are capable of the task at hand. Instructors can make adjustments to the classroom climate to address this concern, as was discussed in the above section on mindset. Instructors can also make design decisions to help students recognize their own growing capacities, including: 

  • Using classroom assessment techniques to provide students with regular feedback on their learning 
  • Providing many low-stakes testing opportunities 
  • Communicating transparently with students about how various class activities correspond with particular learning goals and prepare students for particular assignments 
  • Scaffolding assignments so that students have a chance to receive feedback before the final assessment and to reduce the workload stress at the end of the semester 

Further Reading: 

  • Susan Ambrose, et. al., “What Factors Motivate Students to Learn,” How Learning Works (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 66-90. 
  • Ken Bain, “What Do They Know About How We Learn?,” What The Best College Teachers Do (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004), 22-47. 
  • James Lang, “Fostering Intrinsic Motivation,” Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2013), 59-84. 

[14] James Lang, Cheating Lessons, 64.