Fostering Motivation

Motivation is an internal state characterized by the adoption of goal-directed behavior (Valle, Núñez, Cabanach et al., 2009). Motivation plays a role in learning because it arouses students’ attention and impels them to learn particular content and skills (Glynn, Aultman & Owens, 2005). Research shows that students with higher motivation persist longer in the face of challenges, learn material at a deeper level, and score higher on exams compared to their less-motivated peers (Beghetto, 2004; Liu, Bridgeman & Adler, 2012). In higher education settings, motivation may be a particular issue because students attending college are often experiencing unprecedented amounts of freedom in their daily lives (Glynn et al., 2005).

Whereas intrinsic motivation stems from students’ engagement with a task for the sheer enjoyment and challenge of doing the task, extrinsic motivation is derived from sources outside of the task itself, such as instructor praise and good grades (Wolters, 1998). Although most students possess a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic learning goals, they may be more oriented toward one end of the continuum versus the other (Beghetto, 2004). Intrinsic goals tend to be associated with deeper learning whereas extrinsic goals are linked to surface-level learning (Pintrich, 2004). Students who are intrinsically motivated to learn are said to hold mastery goals—they value learning for its own sake, they value feedback from instructors because they see it as an opportunity to improve themselves, and they are not afraid of making mistakes because they see them as opportunities to learn.  By contrast, students who are extrinsically motivated to learn often hold performance goals.  For these students, learning is about looking smart in front of others, living up to the expectations of their parents and instructors, and getting good grades.  Students who hold performance learning goals are often afraid to take risks in the classroom, as they fear looking stupid.  For them, mistakes are a source of shame (Beghetto, 2004).  As previously mentioned, each individual student is a complex mix of learning and performance goals (though some students may be more strongly oriented toward performance than others).  In spite of the fact that traditional education is organized around external reward markers (i.e., grades), instructors should strive to increase students’ intrinsic motivation for learning as much as possible, as this will result in deep, lasting, and meaningful learning (Nilson, 2010).  Beghetto (2004) writes that students who are more oriented toward mastery over performance display more adaptive and resilient academic behaviors.

Theories of self-regulated learning assume that students have the potential to regulate their own levels of motivation (Pintrich, 2004). Pintrich (2004) notes that students’ motivational goals and strategies are likely course-specific, which means that a student who appears highly unmotivated in one context may in fact be very motivated in another.  Students use various motivational self-regulatory strategies.  Students may use positive self-talk (e.g., “I can do this.”) to increase their feelings of self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997).  Students may also try to increase their extrinsic motivation by promising themselves a reward after they complete a task (“Once I’m done with this, I can watch a movie.”). Wolters (1998) discovered that students actively try to affect their extrinsic and motivation by doing things like reminding themselves that it is important to get good grades so they feel motivated to study for a test (extrinsic) or making the study session into a game so that it becomes more fun to review the material (intrinsic). 

Although research shows that students can regulate their own motivation, Pintrich (2004) points out that environmental and personal factors may prevent them from being able to do so successfully.  Fortunately, instructors can act at a number of levels to enhance students’ motivation.  Nilson (2010) identified four such domains—persona, course, teaching, and assessment.  The persona domain covers things like delivering material in a dynamic fashion, getting to know students personally, and sharing the reasons behind one’s passion for a topic.  In the course domain, instructors are encouraged to organize the course carefully and to share the reasons behind their organizational choices with students, as well as to give students a voice in choosing classroom rules or topics and assessment formats.  In the domain of teaching, Nilson prompts instructors to use a variety of teaching methods, particularly activity-based learning methods, in order to connect with students who have different learning styles.  In what is, perhaps, a taller order, Nilson says that instructors should strive to present material and readings at the “right” level of difficulty—students should feel challenged but also like it is within their capacity to do well in the course.  (Students’ motivational levels go down when they think that a course is either too hard or too easy.) Nilson’s recommendations in the assessment domain primarily center on being transparent with students about expectations for their work and participation, providing them with multiple opportunities to practice the skills they will eventually be assessed on, and, if possible, giving them options for the assignments they complete.  At an institutional level, students’ motivation may be increased by fostering learning communities through offering interrelated foundational courses, first year seminars, service learning projects, and student activity centers (Glynn et al., 2005).   

Ultimately, our goal as instructors is to encourage students to take control of their own learning, which includes inspiring them to adopt the curious stance of a lifelong learner.  Fostering students’ intrinsic motivation for learning goes a long way toward achieving these goals.  Instructors should remember that while students are capable of regulating their own motivation, traditional college students are at a time in their lives when many other goals compete for their attention, and thus they may require some guidance toward fostering their motivation. Moving students away from an extrinsic goal orientation likely will be no small feat, as they have been conditioned to believe in such a system from their earliest days in school.  Nevertheless, students stand to gain confidence, feelings of self-efficacy, and true enthusiasm for learning from adopting an intrinsic motivation to learn, which makes this a goal worth working toward.

Written by Julia Hayden Galindo, Ed.D., Harvard Graduate School of Education 



Bandura, A. (1997).  Self-efficacy:  The exercise of control.  New York:  W. H. Freeman. 

Beghetto, R. A. (2004).  Toward a more complete picture of student learning:  Assessing students’ motivational beliefs.  Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 9(15), retrieved July 28, 2014 from:

Glynn, S. M., Aultman, L. P., & Owens, A. M.  (2005).  Motivation to learn in general education programs.  The Journal of General Education, 54(2), 150-170.

Liu, O. L., Bridgeman, B., & Adler, R. M.  (2012).  Measuring learning outcomes in higher education:  Motivation matters.  Educational Researcher, 41(9), 352-362.

Nilson, L. B. (2010).  Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors.  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.

Pintrich, P. R. (2004).  A conceptual framework for assessing motivation and self-regulated learning in college students.  Educational Psychology Review, 16(4), 385-407.

Valle, A., Núñez, J. C., Cabanach, R. G., González-Pienda, J. A., Rodríguez, S., Rosário, P., et al. (2009). Academic goals and learning quality in higher education students.  The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 12(1), 96-105.

Wolters, C. A. (1998).  Self-regulated learning and college students’ regulation of motivation.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 90(2), 224-235. 



Further Resources:

  • Nilson, L. B. (2010).  Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors.  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.
  • Pintrich, P. R., Marx, R. W., Blyle, R. A. (1993).  Beyond cold conceptual change:  The role of motivational beliefs and classroom contextual factors in the process of conceptual change.  Review of Educational Research, 63, 167-199.
  • Pintrich, P. R., & Schunk, D. H. (2002).  Motivation in education:  Theory, research, and applications (2nd ed.).  Columbus, OH:  Merrill-Prentice Hall.
  • Schwartz, K. (March 13, 2014).  What keeps students motivated to learn?  Retrieved July 28, 2014 from: