ETP - Motivating Your Students

learning objectives


By definition, motivated students want to learn more, so they achieve more. However, better teaching also generates more rewarding learning experiences, which begets more motivation to learn (Nilson, 2010).

Learning Objectives

In order to enhance student motivation, we’ll discuss practices you can use to:

  • Discuss or create a video describing your interest and background
  • Share the relevance of your course content to students’ academic and career goals
  • Get to know your students’ names and use them in your interactions
  • Create opportunities for interaction and relationship building between students
  • Vary and offer rationale for assessment and presentation methods
  • Incentivize assignment completion
  • Teach students to set goals they are likely to achieve
  • Set reasonable, high expectations
  • Share your belief in students’ ability to learn and your willingness to support them

Skeletal Outline

Download a skeletal outline to take notes on the key practices included in this module.

Course Demonstration

This video shows instructors effectively demonstrating the evidence-based practices presented in this module. Through this authentic classroom observation, you can begin to consider how you might implement these practices and techniques with your students.

The instructors featured in the video include Lisa M. Di Bartolomeo, PhD, from West Virginia University; Linda Nilson, PhD, from Clemson University; Terri Jett, PhD, from Butler University; Mika LaVaque-Manty, PhD, from the University of Michigan; Alison O’Malley, PhD, from Butler University; and Brenda Gunderson, PhD, from the University of Michigan.

Watch additional classroom demonstrations on the following page about supporting student success by getting to know your students, communicating your confidence in students’ abilities, and making your course content relevance.

Download the transcript for this video.

Supporting Student Success

Getting to know your students

Download the transcript for this video.

Communicating confidence in your students’ abilities

Download the transcript for this video.

Making your course content relevant

Download the transcript for this video.

Expert Insights

In this video, you’ll hear Linda Nilson, a scholar in teaching and learning, discuss the specific nuances of and the research support for the teaching techniques and practices presented in this module.

Download the transcript for this video.

Common Challenges & Misconceptions

In this section, you’ll read about some common challenges and misconceptions associated with techniques designed to motivate your students. Click on each statement to read research-based clarifications and suggestions aligned to each challenge or misconception.

CHALLENGE: The only goal students have for their courses is to achieve an ‘A’.


Most students want to earn an ‘A.’ They may not recognize how breaking down the achievable short- and long-term goals necessary to achieve a high grade can help them become successful in any discipline. They also may not understand the value of acquiring knowledge in different subject areas, and therefore may be disinterested in learning the topic for any reason other than achieving a high grade. However, as Nist-Olejnik and Holschuh (2007) tell students, “If you are concerned only with the grade you’ll earn, you’ll find that you are working to please the professor instead of learning to please yourself. . . . When [students] work for a grade and they don’t do as well as they would have liked, they end up feeling frustrated and often just give up. Generally, grades alone are not enough to sustain your motivation” (p. 48).


Help students set goals specific to your course by teaching them the DAPPS goal-setting formula (Downing, 2011). Also, explain to students how the knowledge and skills they are acquiring in your course can help them in their other courses or future career (Fox, 2011; Wieman, 2013).

MISCONCEPTION: Academically underprepared students are less motivated than those who are prepared.


Howey (1999) reported that underprepared students were more extrinsically motivated while academically prepared students had greater self-efficacy and a more internalized locus of control. However, instructors can implement strategies to increase students’ intrinsic motivation, which benefits all learners.


You can enhance all students’ intrinsic motivation by:

  • Setting clear learning goals at the start of class and before activities to increase students’ self-efficacy. (Bandura, 1988)
  • Establishing high expectations that challenge students and communicating that the expectations are within reach. (Davis, 2009; Nilson, 2010)
  • Praising students on progress or accomplishments with specific examples, rather than praising their ability; in Nilson’s (2010) words, confine comments “to the particular performance, not the performer” (p. 57).
  • Giving students choice in assignments and classroom norms. (Nilson, 2010)
  • Connecting learning in your courses to other courses and to students’ personal or professional interests. (Nilson, 2010)

MISCONCEPTION: Students are not interested in why a course is designed a certain way.

Clarification :

 Students are interested in understanding how course activities and assignments are relevant to their future lives. Fox (2011) writes, “Research confirms that perceived relevance is a critical factor in maintaining student interest and motivation. . . . Three straightforward practices can help faculty establish the relevance of course content and activities: faculty should 1) regularly share and discuss the learning outcomes of the course; 2) clearly tie those learning outcomes to the required activities and assignments; and 3) orient students at the beginning of each class period by discussing the ‘What, Why, and How’ of that day.”


Share your rationale for the course design and make explicit connections to the course learning outcomes.

CHALLENGE: It’s challenging to create an encouraging and motivating environment in a large class.

Clarification :

While class size can limit some of the strategies used for creating a supportive environment, such as committing each student’s name to memory within the first few weeks, there are other strategies that you can employ.


Ask students to introduce themselves to their neighbors, and try talking casually with students as they enter and leave your classroom (Allen & Tanner, 2005). Study students’ names and photos (if available) before the start of the semester and/or focus on learning and using a few students’ names each week (K. Ruiz-Mesa, personal interview, 2015; V. Sathy, personal interview, 2015). You can also encourage different students to attend your office hours each week so you can learn more about their academic and professional goals.

MISCONCEPTION: Having an instructor who is enthusiastic about a subject cannot make an unmotivated or uninterested student eager to learn.


Certainly, “an instructor’s enthusiasm is a crucial factor in student motivation” (Davis, 2009). The Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center explains, “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.”


 Demonstrate enthusiasm with a lively voice, humor, and an energetic attitude throughout the term. Let students know what excites you about your discipline and what issues keep you interested.

MISCONCEPTION: Students who do not finish or do not do well in an online course lack the intrinsic motivation to do the work.


 Participating in an online course can be isolating and can demotivate students. Creating a supportive online environment that fosters relationships between the learners, as well as with the instructor, and provides opportunities for personalizing goals and activities are key motivators and components of satisfaction in online learning (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016; Nilson & Goodson, 2018).


 Provide opportunities for both informal (e.g., virtual office hours, online student café or chatrooms) and well-structured interactions (e.g., paired or small-group discussions, projects, and team assignments). These interactions provide a sense of community, connection, and belonging, which is critical to student satisfaction and success in online learning (Hayles, 2007; Walton & Brady, 2017).


In the Observe & Analyze (OA) section, you’ll view the video(s) depicting developing practice, where an instructor implements some of the module techniques effectively while other techniques may need slight adjustments or improvements. As you analyze the video(s), you will gain a deeper understanding of the module techniques and gain insight into some common pitfalls.


Download the transcript for this video.

Download the transcript for this video.


  • Instructional Practices

  • Online Instructional Practices

  • Additional Resources

This section includes resources and handouts to support your implementation of the techniques and practices presented in the module.

Download all of the implementation resources for this module.

Implementation Resources

Download or print the following resources to practice our techniques for motivating your students:

The module learning objectives and aligned online practices are listed below. Each resource offers step-by-step instructions and examples of effective online teaching in text and/or video.

*Featured Technology Tool: Use Remind to send motivational messages

Inspire students about your topic

Create a video to inspire your students about your topic

Students are motivated by instructor enthusiasm, which you can share starting at the beginning of your course. To capture students’ attention and motivate them to learn, create an introductory video sharing your excitement for the topic, the discipline, and for teaching (Nilson & Goodson, 2018).

Download a resource for creating an inspiring instructor introduction video.

Watch Lisa Palladino Kim’s creative approach to demonstrating her enthusiasm for the course.  

Use an online survey to learn more about your students’ personal and career goals.

To learn about your students’ personal and career goals, create a survey using Word, Google Forms, SurveyMonkey, or Qualtrics. Using an online survey software will allow you to download information into a spreadsheet, which may make it easier to organize the information. You can also simply keep a Word document with each student’s name as the file name for easy reference. You can use this information to make the content more relevant by customizing your feedback, examples, and assignments.

Download a resource for creating an online survey to learn about students’ personal and career goals.

Support student success

Have students do an online introduction activity

Starting from the first week of the course, create opportunities to help learners get to know each other through interactive online activities. These types of non-threatening, ungraded activities will help them become more comfortable with each other, as well as with the online learning environment. Investing the time up front to focus on community building can have a lasting impact on the overall success of the course (Palloff & Pratt, 2007).

In small or medium size classes (10-25 students), you may want to post a brief welcome message to each student as they post. This acknowledgement will make them feel ‘seen’ and help you establish an initial connection with them.

Download an introduction activity to help you get to know your students and students get to know each other.

Create an online profile to help your students get to know you

Online students will feel more connected to you and the course if you give them the opportunity to get to know you as a person (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016). Consider creating an online profile in your course site that might include information such as:

  1. a picture of your family and/or pets, hobbies, interests outside of academia
  2. professional information such as past and current work experiences and/or research interests
  3. your LinkedIn or Twitter accounts
  4. a short welcome video.

Watch April Mondy’s personal introduction video to help her students feel connected to her.

Provide opportunities for student interaction

Providing online students with multiple opportunities to interact with you and the other students is both motivating and a noted component of satisfaction in online learning (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016; Nilson & Goodson, 2018). Interactions provide a sense of community, connection, and belonging, which are critical to student satisfaction and success in online learning (Hayles, 2007; Nilson & Goodson, 2018; Walton & Brady, 2017).

Download a resource for providing opportunities for various types of student interactions in an online course.

Encourage students to attend virtual office hours

Being easily accessible and regularly reminding students you are eager to talk with them will encourage them to reach out to you for the support they may need. It is important to offer regular virtual office hours as well as a variety of formats that students may use to communicate with you (e.g., phone, chat, email, Skype, Facetime, or other virtual face-to-face meeting applications, and/or texting). At the beginning of the course, ask students to fill out a survey asking for their availability and preferred communication format for meeting with you. Use this information to inform how you schedule and the communication tools you use for your virtual office hours. Customizing your virtual office hours sends a message that you care about being accessible to them and recognize that they have busy lives as well (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016).

Since some students are reluctant or nervous about reaching out to their instructor, consider requiring that all students have at least one virtual meeting with you early in the course to establish a line of communication with you, and so you can learn more about their learning goals (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016). This initial meeting can go a long way towards establishing good connections with your students early in the course. Once you have discussed their goals and challenges, let them know that you are confident in their ability to succeed in the course and that you are there to help them do just that!

Download a resource for holding virtual office hours, including a set of questions to ask during an initial meeting with students

Watch this video of Dr. Gist-Mackey’s first office hours meeting with a student using Zoom.

You can use Zoom to hold virtual office hours with your students. To learn more about how to use Zoom, watch this video tutorial . and/or download these instructions.

Hold virtual group office hours

Since many online courses are asynchronous and can sometimes be isolating, virtual office hours are a good way to give students an opportunity to connect with you and the other students to create a supportive learning environment (Nilson & Goodson, 2018). Videoconferencing platforms, such as Zoom and Google Hangouts, allow students to communicate by phone, webcam, or in a chat room. Instructors can share their screen as they explain ideas, work through example problems, and answer questions. To accommodate the schedules of as many students as possible, offer virtual office hours a couple of times per week. These platforms also provide an option to record the session for students who are not able to attend any of the available sessions.

Download a resource for holding virtual group office hours

Watch this video of Dr. Gist-Mackey’s group office hours using Zoom.

To learn more about how to use Zoom, watch this video tutorial and/or download these instructions.

Send motivational messages

Consistently providing words of encouragement increases motivation, persistence, and completion rates (Nilson & Goodson, 2018). Motivational messages can serve various purposes: contributing to a welcoming environment, recognizing students’ accomplishments, encouraging persistence, and providing helpful information. It is important to note that if you send too many or too few messages, they may not have the desired effect (Nilson & Goodson, 2018). Rather than sending multiple emails, announcements, or messages each week, instructors should use a variety of channels to provide consistent words of encouragement and send more substantive motivational messages every other week (Nilson & Goodson, 2018). Also, remember that praise is only beneficial to students when it specifically addresses what was done well.

Download a resource for sending different types of motivational messages.

Featured Technology Tool: Watch a video demonstration showing how to use Remind to schedule and send motivational messages.

Download written instructions for using Remind.


Judith V. Boettcher, PhD
Online Learning Consultant and Author
Designing for Learning

Scot D. Cates
Business Administration Instructor
Park University

Colleen Cordes
Clinical Professor, Assistant Dean of Non-Tenure Eligible Faculty Success
Arizona State University

Sue Dahl-Popolizio, DBH, OTR/L, CHT
Clinical Assistant Professor
Arizona State University

Angela Gist-Mackey, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Organizational Communication
University of Kansas

Lisa Palladino Kim
Director of Capstone / Lecturer, Biopharma Educational Initiative
Rutgers, Newark

Julia LaRosa, Ed. D.
Asst. Clinical Professor, Management
Arizona State University

April E. Mondy
Instructor of Management
Delta State University

James Wermers
Digital Humanities Course Manager
College of Integrative Sciences and Arts
Arizona State Universit

Kirsten Heintz
Communications Instructor
University of Arkansas, Pulaski Technical College

Andrea Hogan
Associate Professor
Grand Canyon University

Debra Olberding
Learning Development
Baker University

Below are additional resources to further explore the module topics.

Resources for Further Reading

  • Davis, B. G. (2009)Tools for teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Fleming, N. (2003)Establishing rapport: Personal interaction and learning. Idea Paper #39. Manhattan, KS: The IDEA Center.
  • Nilson, L. B. (2010)Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Consult a comprehensive list of references for this module.

Community Connections


Alison (Ali) O’Malley, PhD
Assistant Professor
Department of Psychology
Butler University

Brenda Gunderson, PhD
Senior Lecturer
Department of Statistics
University of Michigan

Julie Candio Sekel, MA
Adjunct Instructor, English

Ece Karayalcin, MFA
Professor of Film
Miami Dade College

Kristin Webster, PhD
Assistant Professor of Mathematics
California State University, Los Angeles

Linda Nilson, PhD
Higher Ed. Education Expert and Author
Clemson University

Lisa M. DiBartolomeo, PhD
Singer Professor in the Humanities
Teaching Associate Professor
Dept. of World Languages, Literatures, & Linguistics
West Virginia University

Mika LaVaque-Manty, PhD
Arthur F. Thurnau Associate Professor
Department of Political Science
University of Michigan

Robert I. Puhak, PhD
Associate Teaching Professor, Mathematics
Rutgers University – Newark

Terri Jett, PhD
Associate Professor
Department of Political Science
Butler University

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010).
How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Arsham. H. (n.d.).
Student to student: Your fellow students’ opinion and advice. Retrieved from

Bandura, A. (1988).
Self-regulation of motivation and action through goal systems. In V. Hamilton, G. H. Bower, & N. H. Frijda (Eds.), Cognitive perspectives on emotion and motivation (pp. 37-61). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic.

Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R.-M. (2016).
The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Carnegie Mellon University, Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation. (n.d.).
Explore potential strategies. Retrieved from

Chase, B., Germundsen, R., Cady Brownstein, J., & Schaak Distad, L. (2001).
Making the connection between increased student learning and reflective practice. Educational Horizons, 79, 143–147.

Davis, B. G. (2009).
Tools for teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Downing, S. (2011).
On course: Strategies for creating success in college and in life (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Ellis, D. B. (2000).
Becoming a master student: Tools, techniques, hints, ideas, illustrations, examples, methods, procedures, processes, skills, resources, and suggestions for success. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Ellis, D. B. (2006).
Becoming a master student (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Fleming, N. (2003).
Establishing rapport: Personal interaction and learning (Idea Paper #39). Retrieved from

Fox, J. (2011, May 24).
“Why are we doing this?” Establishing relevance to enhance student learning. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from

Hayles, N.K. (2007).
Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes. Profession, pp. 187-199.

Howey, S. C. (1999).
The relationship between motivation and academic success of community college freshmen orientation students (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ERIC database. (ED465391)

Merisotis, J. (2015, October 15). 
Want to be happier and healthier? Then go to college [Blog post]. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Nilson, L. B. (2010).
Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Nilson, L. B. (2013).
Creating self-regulated learners: Strategies to strengthen students’ self-awareness and learning skills. Sterling, VA: Stylus. 

Nilson, L. B., & Goodson, L. A. (2018).
Online teaching at its best: Merging instructional design with teaching and learning research. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Nist-Olejnik, S., & Holschuh, J. P. (2007).
College rules! How to study, survive, and succeed in college (2nd ed.). Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press

Trostel, P. (n.d.). 
It’s not just the money: The benefits of college education to individuals and to society. Retrieved from

Walton, G. M., & Brady, S. T. (2017).
The many questions of belonging. In A.J. Elliott, C.S. Dweck, & D.S. Yeager (Eds.), Handbook of competence and motivation: Theory and application (2nd ed., pp. 272-293). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Wieman, C. (2010).
Basic instructor habits to keep students engaged. Retrieved from the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia website:

Wieman, C. (2013).
Motivating learning. Retrieved from the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia website:

Wieman, C. (2014)
First day of class – recommendations for instructors. Retrieved from the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia website: