Office of the Faculty Teaching Fellow

Student Motivation

In general terms, student motivation refers “… to a student’s willingness, need, desire, and compulsion to participate in, and be successful in, the learning process.”  Skinner and Belmont develop the definition further, noting that students who are motivated to engage in school “select tasks at the border of their competencies, initiate action when given the opportunity, and exert intense effort and concentration in the implementation of learning tasks; they show generally positive emotions during ongoing action, including enthusiasm, optimism, curiosity, and interest.”  Less motivated or disengaged students, on the other hand, “are passive, do not try hard, and give up easily in the face of challenges.”  (Taken from REL Northwest)

Students fail to do well in college for a variety of reasons, and only one of them is lack of academic preparedness. Factors such as personal autonomy, self-confidence, ability to deal with racism, study behaviors, or social competence have as much or more to do with grades, retention, and graduation than how well a student writes or how competent a student is in mathematics.  ~ Hunter R. Boylan, Director of the National Center for Developmental Education

How do we help create conditions that favor engagement, persistence, enthusiasm, hope, and creativity?  Peruse the following resources:

  • Motivating Today's College Students (by Ian Crone and Kathy MacKay of Elmhurst College, Winter 2007 issue of Peer Review, published by the American Association of Colleges and Universities)
  • Students sometimes navigate college hobbled by negative attitudes about learning and about their own self-efficacy. These attitudes can powerfully influence student effort, success and retention. Instructors can help by providing guidance to promote self-awareness and change. Explore On Course, a collection of innovative learner-centered strategies for empowering students to become active, responsible learners. You'll find something here you can download (free!) and implement today!

Eight principles are identified by the On Course program.  (Posted with permission by Skip Downing)




1. ...ACCEPT SELF-RESPONSIBILITY, seeing themselves as the primary cause of their outcomes and experiences. 1. ...see themselves as Victims, believing that what happens to them is determined primarily by external forces such as fate, luck, and powerful others.
2. ......DISCOVER SELF-MOTIVATION, finding purpose in their lives by discovering personally meaningful goals and dreams. 2. ...have difficulty sustaining motivation, often feeling depressed, frustrated, and/or resentful about a lack of direction in their lives.
3. ...MASTER SELF-MANAGEMENT, consistently planning and taking purposeful actions in pursuit of their goals and dreams. 3. ...seldom identify specific actions needed to accomplish a desired outcome. And when they do, they tend to procrastinate.
4. ...EMPLOY INTERDEPENDENCE, building mutually supportive relationships that help them achieve their goals and dreams (while helping others to do the same). 4. ...are solitary, seldom requesting, even rejecting offers of assistance from those who could help.
5. ...GAIN SELF-AWARENESS, consciously employing behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes that keep them on course. 5. ...make important choices unconsciously, being directed by self-sabotaging habits and outdated life scripts.
6. ...ADOPT LIFE-LONG LEARNING, finding valuable lessons and wisdom in nearly every experience they have. 6. ...resist learning new ideas and skills, viewing learning as fearful or boring rather than as mental play.
7. ...DEVELOP EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE, effectively managing their emotions in support  of their goals and dreams. 7. at the mercy of strong emotions such as anger, depression, anxiety, or a need for instant gratification.
8. ...BELIEVE IN THEMSELVES, seeing themselves capable, lovable, and unconditionally worthy as human beings. 8. ...doubt their competence and personal value, feeling inadequate to create their desired outcomes and experiences.
  • How do your students rate in these eight principles of human achievement? They can take an on-line self-assessment to find out. (And so, of course, can you.)
  • Any activity that prompts self-assessment and goal-setting, and leads students to a clearer vision of what they want from life as well as from education, will likely sharpen motivation and achievement.  Read Andrew Millis’ paper titled, "What's So Good About a College Education”.
  • Much more information on the development of self-directed learners (by building curriculum that prompts habits of self-direction) is available at the Northwest Regional Education Laboratory website.