Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

Students lack interest or motivation.

Students see little value in the course or its content.

Regardless of the objective value of an activity or topic, if students do not recognize its value, they may not be motivated to expend effort. However, if students clearly see how coursework connects to their goals, interests, and concerns, they will be more likely to value it, and thus more motivated to invest time and effort.


Clearly articulate learning goals.

Students will be more motivated to work if they know what goals they are working towards. Thus, it is a good idea not only to articulate goals for the course, but also for specific lectures, discussions, and assignments. For example, before beginning a lecture, an instructor might write on the board the skills, knowledge, and perspectives students will gain that day (with appropriate effort), using concrete, student-centered language—for example, “When you leave today, you should be able to debate the pros and cons of a single-payer health plan; apply a particular economic framework to make predictions about interest rates; identify, illustrate and compare three theoretical approaches in child development.” Articulating learning goals is important for a variety of reasons, but it plays a key role in motivation by showing students the specific value they will derive from a particular course, unit, or activity.

Show relevance to students’ academic lives.

Students will be more motivated to work hard if they see the value of what they are learning to their overall course of study. Consequently, it is important to explain to students how your course will help prepare them for subsequent courses (e.g., a mathematics professor might help to motivate psychology students by explaining how the math skills they learn will help them in quantitative courses for their major). This gives students a better appreciation of the combined value of the courses they take and lets them see how each contributes to their overall education. It is also helpful to point out when students are learning skills that will help them later in the same course—especially when the material is difficult and potentially frustrating (e.g., an instructor might help encourage students who are struggling with a concept by saying, “This is a difficult idea, but a crucial one, and you’re going to be very glad you learned it when we begin analyzing negotiation cases in Unit 3”). Seeing the value of the material within a broader academic framework can help students sustain motivation and persist through challenges and setbacks.

Demonstrate relevance to students’ professional lives.

Students are more likely to exert effort in a course if they anticipate an eventual payoff in terms of their future professional lives. Consequently, instructors can enhance motivation by linking their course content to students’ intended professions, pointing out how the skills and knowledge students are gaining in class will help them after they graduate. An information systems instructor, for example, can motivate students to learn information systems principles by pointing to real-life database failures that resulted when these principles were not applied. A theater instructor might motivate acting students to study dramaturgy by explaining how a rich understanding of a play’s context will contribute to their understanding of character. It is especially important to highlight the professional relevance of higher-level skills such as quantitative reasoning, public speaking, persuasive writing, and teamwork, because students do not always recognize their importance in the work world.

Highlight real-world applications of knowledge and skills.

One effective way to harness student motivation is to have students apply what they are learning to real-world contexts. For example, a marketing professor might use a real-world industry case study to give students practice applying marketing principles to complex, contextualized problems. Similarly, in an information systems course, the instructor might assign a service-learning project in which students must build a database for a non-profit community organization. This kind of task allows students to work within authentic constraints, interact with real clients, and explore possible professions. Such assignments may also create possibilities for future internships or jobs. All of these factors are likely to increase student motivation. Even in courses that are more theoretical than applied, instructors can convey the relevance of course content simply by pointing out its significance in the real world. For example, a mathematics professor teaching optimization might point out that financial institutions use optimization techniques to maximize trade efficiency.

Connect to students’ personal interests.

Motivation is often enhanced when instructors connect course material to students’ personal interests. For example, a chemistry professor might link a lesson on chemical transformations of carbohydrates to students’ interest in cooking. A history instructor might motivate interest in colonial history by showing how it helps to explain contemporary geopolitical conflicts or environmental problems. Similarly, well-constructed courses that tap into issues that are important to students (e.g., The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Philosophy and the Matrix [a popular film], The Statistics of Sexual Orientation) can capitalize on students’ motivation without sacrificing intellectual or disciplinary rigor.

Allow students some degree of choice.

One possible way to enhance student motivation is to allow students to choose topics for papers and projects that connect the course content to their outside interests and passions. For example, a physics instructor might allow a student who plays different sports to do a project comparing the spin, rotation, and acceleration of differently shaped balls. A history instructor teaching about immigration might allow students to write about their own family’s immigration experience in relation to the course content. However, while flexibility and choice can be motivating, it is also important to recognize that weighing and choosing among alternatives requires cognitive effort and can create an extra burden for students. Thus, instructors might want to provide a restricted set of options and sufficient time to choose among them. This can enhance motivation without overwhelming students with too many choices.

Show your own passion and enthusiasm.

Your own enthusiasm about the course content can be powerful and contagious. Even if students are not initially attracted to or interested in the material, by clearly demonstrating your own enthusiasm, you can often raise students’ curiosity and motivate them to find out what excites you about the subject. This can lead them to engage more deeply than they had initially planned and to discover value they had overlooked.

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