Teaching Concepts

How Can Instructors Foster Student Motivation?

17. June 2021

Fostering student motivation is one of the essential features of quality teaching in higher education. After all, it’s your students’ level of motivation that decides how dedicated they are going to be when working on an activity or assignment. Good news – instructors can draw from a well of options to make a positive impact on their students’ motivation to learn.

Student motivation, or learning motivation, describes the level of willingness and dedication students are ready to put in over longer periods of time in order to gain new knowledge and skills (Schiefele, 2009). Students who show a higher level of dedication are considered “more motivated” than students who might not appear as willing to engage with their coursework. However, it’s not just the level of motivation that differs among students. They also simply learn for different reasons. On the one hand, students who show genuine interest in the topic or task at hand because they find it engaging (case studies, experts from the field etc.) show intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1993).

On the other hand, students who perform a task to achieve a goal that they find attractive are guided by extrinsic motivation. In this case, they study in order to achieve a good grade or to fulfill a list of course requirements that will allow them to pass a class. It’s possible that these students already have certain goals in mind – a good grade average or the possibility of learning a particular skill that would allow them to pursue their dream career. But students also display high levels of extrinsic motivation simply based on their disposition and their own desire to be successful.

For instructors, it’s important to understand that extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are not mutually exclusive (Deci & Ryan, 1993). Students don’t get motivated solely for intrinsic or extrinsic reasons, instead, they can simultaneously get excited about a topic and at the same time want to achieve the goal of getting a good grade on their presentation. Whether it’s new input, a new learning environment, or a new course or lecture, students are likely going to experience both types of motivation at first, to different degrees, and subject to change from one minute to the next. For instance, some topics in the curriculum might not inspire students to jump for joy at first glance, but throughout the semester, they might realize that their initial dismissal was unwarranted and that the subject is personally relevant to them. To inspire this change of mind in students and get them motivated, instructors have various tools at their disposal (Muller, 2007).

One such tool is a didactic arrangement that follows Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory (1993). The goal is to fulfill the following basic needs:

  1. Autonomy: let your students co-determine their own learning process by letting them choose from multiple options (e.g. topic, medium, exam type), by allowing them to incorporate their own interests, or by letting them study and learn at their own pace, independently. Another possibility is to make an interim evaluation of the learning environment followed by direct consideration of the results.
  2. Competence: make sure the coursework you assign your students is challenging and stimulating so they can keep track of their own learning progress. More challenging coursework should be followed by constructive feedback.
  3. Relatedness: your students should feel like they are part of a community of learners working in an open and supportive atmosphere. Allow them to ask questions at any time, be appreciate of every contribution, and allow for interaction and collaborative learning.
Teacher happy to help student

On top of fulfilling these three basic needs to foster student motivation, instructors can also draw from two more options that they might not even be aware of:

  1. Instructors can get students excited about a new topic by acting as a motivating factor themselves (Müller, 2007):

  • On the one hand, this can mean that you share with your students why you find a certain topic fascinating. Your enthusiasm and passion about the material are likely going to transfer over to your students. Give your own perspective on the learning content, engage with it on a personal level by incorporating your own research interests into your teaching, thereby integrating your students into the research (at least to some degree). This way, they get to feel like they are part of a community of practice.
  • On the other hand, acting as a motivating factor for your students also necessitates some effort. You need to walk the walk if you want your students to find you credible. So, show them that you are passionate about teaching, let them feel your ambition to be a good instructor and your desire to support their learning process. Being transparent about goals and expectations as well as the use of different innovative methods are all ways to show your students how important their learning progress, and teaching in general, are to you.

It’s crucial that you, the instructor, remain an authentic and honest presence, because there is always going to be content you don’t feel too enthusiastic about, and your students are likely to notice. Still, including less captivating content in your curriculum is completely justified if it is material that is relevant for your students. And “relevant” is the operative word here – making a topic feel relevant is another way to get students excited and motivated about content that might be a little dull or dry:

  1. Relevance for your students: illustrate how the content you are presenting connects to your students’ academic success, to other subjects and courses, to a future career, or your own everyday life. This is a strategy that is especially useful for extrinsically motivated students as it allows them to relate their own goals to the course content (see above). You can either explain how theory connects to practice, or you can use visual aids to help make that connection for your students through practice-oriented tasks and exercises or problem-based learning. Case studies or simulations allow students to directly experience the real-life relevance of whatever material you’re presenting. Another great way to do this is by inviting experts to come to one of your classes or by organizing field trips.

Right now, the latter two might seem a little abstract, but there are tons of different ways to incorporate these ideas into your own teaching. What concrete concepts can you think of for implementing them into your teaching? Let us know in the comments!


Deci, E. L. & Ryan, R. M. (1993). Die Selbstbestimmungstheorie der Motivation und ihre Bedeutung für die Pädagogik. Zeitschrift für Pädagogik, 39, 223-238.

Müller, F. H. (2007). Studierende motivieren. In B. Hawelka, M. Hammerl & H. Gruber (Hrsg.), Förderung von Kompetenzen in der Hochschullehre (31-43). Krönig: Asanger.

Schiefele, U. (2009). Motivation. In E. Wild, J. Möller (Hrsg.), Pädagogische Psychologie. Springer Verlag: Heidelberg. DOI 10.1007/978-3-540-88573-3_7

Suggestion for citation of this blog post: Rottmeier, S. (2021, June 17). How Can Instructors Foster Student Motivation? Lehrblick – ZHW Uni Regensburg. https://doi.org/10.5283/ZHW.20210617.EN

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