Student Motivation

Overview and Introduction: The WHAT and WHO

Student motivation is critical to successful outcomes across all courses. Student motivation is reflected in student  engagement, signs for which include: class attendance, participation in class discussion, on-time completion of assignments, and office hour attendance. Most faculty are aware of and utilize Extrinsic motivation strategies whereby rewards are offered for “appropriate” behaviors (e.g., points are given for class attendance and discussion participation). This type of system works to generate the desired behavior but rarely translates to other behaviors needed for long-term success of the students. For example, students might attend class but doodle, text, or be on social media [1], [2].

Driving Intrinsic Motivation, whereby students are internally motivated to engage in the course, leads to sustainable changes in and out of the classroom. As Intrinsic motivation is internally driven from the student themself, faculty can only create conditions under which the students are likely to experience more internal drive. This Quick-Reference Guide includes evidence-based methods of the psychological principles of persuasion.

These techniques are very flexible in their usage and can be scaled to match the needs of a classroom. For example, strategies can be used more frequently in courses where student engagement needs are high. Techniques described are free to use and take up minimal class time.

Any faculty member will benefit from these strategies. Faculty most-typically express needs for student motivation in larger courses where students are nearly anonymous; thus, specific suggestions to manage larger classrooms are noted below. 

Implementation and Timing: The WHEN, WHERE, and HOW

Strategies are generally employed in the classroom before and during class time. Depending on the needs of the course, strategies can be applied once, intermittently, or every class day. It is recommended that if you have a course which needs a lot of active participation for student success (discussion, Socratic method, laboratory, flipped classroom) that motivation strategies be employed more often and consistently. For example, faculty that use active learning strategies to engage students every class period, may need to consider how they are motivating students to participate every class period. Strategies that take longer are better utilized at the beginning of the semester.

These strategies are best employed in the classroom. 

There are multiple strategies to drive intrinsic motivation in students. Below are the top 3 strategies based on preliminary studies. [3]

LIKING. People are more likely to be receptive to an idea if presented by someone “like” them. Forming closer relationships with students increases the likelihood that students will perform activities suggested by the faculty. They are also significantly more likely to actively participate in the classroom and reach out for assistance when struggling. A few examples are:

    • Find opportunities for genuine expression of understanding of their situation. For example, closer to testing dates connect with them on their potential anxiety and discuss best strategies to study.
    • Find similarities between yourself and each of your students. On the first day of the semester, have students find one thing that you and them have in common. Consider telling the students several things about yourself and then during discussions walk around,  ask them to tell you what you have in common. This is a great ice breaker. Bonus: encourage them to do the same with each other.

RECIPROCITY. People feel obligated to give back when you first give to them. Gifts (e.g., flexible due dates) drive intrinsic motivation  by deepening your relationship with your students while Rewards (e.g., grades, bonus points) drive extrinsic motivation. Gifts open relationships while rewards conclude them. If you want students to persist PAST your interaction a gift will do so; conversely, after a reward is given, students have what they want and will stop the behavior you desire. 

The following are helpful to deepen your relationship with your students and will likely increase their responsiveness to your requests (e.g., turn in assignments on time). When using these be sure that they do not appear in the syllabus but rather are treated as gifts to the students through the semester. The following are examples to choose from. Note that curving an exam, especially if always done, is considered a reward (extrinsic motivation) and not a gift. A few examples are:

    • Let students pick the topic of a lecture. You can make suggestions so that the topic still fits within your course.
    • Flexible deadlines.
    • Changing the date of an exam/assignments based on students’ schedule.
    • Consider taking a vote on when to have exams. Students have 3-4 other courses and are very grateful when you consider this in your course.
    • Learn (or attempt to learn) their names.
    • Offer extra office hours before exams/due assignments.

💡Gifts are best if they are meaningful, unexpected, and customized.

SOCIAL PROOF. People look to what others are doing to decide what they should do, especially when they are uncertain. Every new course represents uncertainty for students (what you are like, your exams, your assignments). When things are uncertain, students will look to what comparable others (other students like them) are doing. Determine which behaviors you want your students to engage in and then use social proof to encourage students to engage in these behaviors. A few examples include:

    • Present information about how specific behaviors (e.g., coming to class) lead to better outcomes (e.g., grades).
    • Consider using polls, statistics, surveys, and testimonials. You can use your course evaluation information or you can poll past students or use data from those students.

Rationale and Research: The WHY

The four year graduation rate of Engineering students ranges from 29-33% and the six year graduation rate ranges from 55-60% [4]. In other words, only a third of Engineering students will graduate in 4 years and only a little over half will graduate in 6. Using techniques to engage and drive intrinsic motivation is associated with improved grades and positive classroom behaviors (class attendance and on-time assignment completion). In addition, psychological stress and academic climate influence attrition. A review of 50 studies on student attrition in Engineering identified the following as significant drivers: 1) lack of faculty guidance, encouragement, support, and attention, 2) competitive or hostile environment, 3) lack of sense of belonging, and 4) sense of isolation [5]. The strategies suggested here are designed to build stronger, deeper relationships with the students which will influence the academic environment in such a way to decrease stress thereby allowing improved grades and decreased attrition. 

Additional Resources and References

Interested in learning more?  The best resource for this material is Influence: Science and Practice by Robert Cialdini. This book holds hundreds of peer-reviewed references about all of the material covered here. It also goes deeper on all of these topics.

[1] E. L. Deci, R. Koestner, and R. M. Ryan, “A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation.,” Psychological Bulletin, vol. 125, no. 6, pp. 627–668, 1999. 

[2] C. P. Cerasoli, J. M. Nicklin, and M. T. Ford, “Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic incentives jointly predict performance: A 40-year meta-analysis.,” Psychological Bulletin, vol. 140, no. 4, pp. 980–1008, 2014. 

[3] R.B. Cialdini, Influence: Science and Practice. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 2001. 

[4] B. L. Yoder, “Engineering by the Numbers: ASEE Retention and Time-to-Graduation Benchmarks for Undergraduate Engineering Schools, Departments and Programs,” 2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 21-Nov-2022]. 

[5] Brandi N. Geisinger and D. Raj Raman, “Why they leave: Understanding student attrition from engineering majors,” International Journal of Engineering Education, vol 29, no.4, pp. 914-925, 2013.