Student Motivation

Growth Mindset

This concept is based on individuals' conception of intelligence: do people perceive intelligence as fixed (i.e., a characteristic one is born with and is stable) or malleable (a characteristic that is changeable with effort)? Foundational research in this area has been led by Carol Dweck and she has characterized these two self-concepts as a fixed or growth mindset (Dweck, 2006).

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY, US: Random House.

  • Believe in your students' abilities. Your perceptions are critical to their success.
  • Learn enough about growth mindset that it isn't just a slogan.
  • Teach about growth mindset if your students aren't familiar with the concept.
  • Share examples from your own life when your effort has improved your knowledge, skills, and/or performance.
  • Have students share with each other when and how they've been successful with effort.
  • Hold high expectations for all students.
  • Provide explicit learning strategies for your content/field so that students know how to work more effectively.
  • Focus on behaviors and not the person, have students set goals and return to these goals throughout the semester.
  • Promote growth mindset and students' resilience by shifting attention to problem solving and working through failures.
  • Provide opportunities for students to share in small groups (challenges, successes, etc.) and allow them to try out new ideas without fear of failure.
  • Consider a 3-minute video on how effort changes brain neurons.
  • Consider a 2-minute video by John Legend, where he shares insights into the importance of his effort.
  • Model your life-long learning attitudes and integrate new strategies into your instruction.
  • Develop one's own growth mindset (as an instructor).
  • For more information on mindsets research and resources, see the Mindset Scholars Network.

Academic Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy influences academic motivation, learning, and achievement (Pajares, 1996). Self-efficacy is characterized by how one feels about themselves and their abilities to perform in domain-specific contexts. Foundational work in this social cognitive perspective, initiated by Bandura (1986) and sustained by myriad scholars, provides us with the understanding of how individuals come to believe they are capable. Contemporary research often examines how the environment impacts self-efficacy. There are four constructs that undergird self efficacy, and each can be impacted by you and the learning environment: (1) mastery experiences, (2) vicarious learning, (3) verbal persuasion and (4) emotional and physiological states.

  • You influence mastery by how you respond to questions, how students are guided to mastery, and how they are assessed.
  • Use low stakes assessments early on in the semester to help students become familiar with what is expected, enhance learning, and provide feedback on areas of confusion and misunderstanding.
  • Early Performance Feedback (EPF) has been shown to improve student performance and motivation. The Canvas LMS can be used for EPF.
  • Students benefit from opportunities to learn from their peers (and near peers like Learning Assistants).
  • Help students feel that they are valued members of a learning community by teaching and modelling appropriate small group behaviors so everyone feels included.
  • Focus on effort and improvement to support self-efficacy.
  • Welcome all students and developing a learning community among you and your students.
  • Create an atmosphere that is open and positive and help students find personal meaning and value in the material you present.
  • Include readings, references, and resources into your course that reflect the diversity of your students.
  • Commit to culturally relevant teaching, a multicultural perspective, inclusive practices, and expending effort to identify and dispel stereotype threats and confront micro-aggressions.

Self-Determination Theory

Ryan and Deci's (2000) research on self determination theorizes that human motivation is based in the human condition to grow and develop competency. SDT posits that there are three fundamental psychological needs related to motivation: (1) the need for competence, (2) the need for autonomy, and (3) the need for relatedness. Further, when educators fulfill these three, students become more motivated, regulate their learning, and perform better (Niemiec & Ryan, 2009).

  • Choose appropriately scaled challenges for your students to develop competence (along with your guidance).
  • Support students' need for autonomy by providing them with some amount of choice to demonstrate mastery.
  • Represent a variety of scholars' history and demographics from your field.
  • Using contemporary technology that is relevant to how students learn now.
  • Consider conferring with your students (current and former) and colleagues in your field for ideas as you examine the course for relevancy.

Expectancy Value Framework

The expectancy value framework (Eccles, et. al, 1983) brings together students' perceptions of (or expectancy for) being able to complete a task and the value ascribed to spending effort to master or complete a task. These two together form the motivation for individuals to engage with learning tasks. All decisions on whether to be motivated to engage with a task inherently include an evaluation of the cost for the engagement. What would one miss out on if time and attention were directed to something else?

  • Share your professional research interests and experiences: Why is the content important to you? What are your stories about working in this field of study?
  • Help students to see the relevance of the materials as it pertains to their future plans.
  • Clearly link concepts/lessons to industry or a broader purpose, future classes/activities, or other transferable skills that are used in the field.
  • Challenge students with deep learning (case studies, community-based learning, collaborative projects, etc.).
  • If you and your students have developed a strong relationship and you have helped students understand why your course is important to them, you will likely find that they engage deeply with you and their learning.
  • See this attached pdf of sources of expectancy related beliefs, sources of value and sources of cost.

Hulleman, C. S., Barron, K. E., Kosovich, J. J., & Lazowski, R. A. (2016). Student Motivation: Current Theories, Constructs, and Interventions Within an Expectancy-Value Framework. In Lipnevich, A. A., Preckel, F., & Roberts, R. D. (Eds.), Psychosocial Skills and School Systems in the 21st Century: Theory, Research, and Practice (pp. 241-278). Switzerland: Springer. DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-28606-8

Online Motivation

While your primary teaching focus here at Colorado State University (CSU) may be in residential-instruction (RI) classrooms, there is a growing number of us who teach online, as well, or who will be expected to teach online at some point during our careers. While most of the information on teaching effectiveness pertains to both RI and online classrooms, following are a few key points for online courses.

Can the instructor of an online course play a role in motivating students? You bet! Here are some ways in which you might do just that.

  • Establish an audio and video presence in your course to help your students feel comfortable with you.
  • Send announcements throughout the course.
  • Incorporate some type of discussion prompt in each week or module to generate conversation and deepen learning on what students are currently studying.
  • Use your students' names when you interact with them.
  • Follow up with students who are not participating.
  • Provide timely and detailed responses to discussion posts and assignments.
  • Remember that communication in an online course is key-utilize announcements, discussions, grading tools, emails and phone calls to motivate your students.
  • Lead by example. Show students you're excited to be going through this experience with them and want them to succeed-your motivation will be contagious!
  • During the first four weeks, provide discussions, low-stakes quizzes or small assignments designed to prepare students for later, larger exams or assignments in your online course.
  • Scaffold large assignments, such as presentations, projects or papers that are due near the end of the online course and are worth a substantial amount of points. Break such assignments down into chunks, so that students have an opportunity to submit these pieces for feedback and guidance along the way. Provide timely and detailed feedback at each stop along the way, and let students know they are expected to modify their work based on the comments you make.
  • Because the ability to manage their time is key to the motivation of online students, encourage them to:
    • Set aside specific times each week to study, read and work within the online course.
    • Ask for your assistance as soon as they need it.
  • Provide students with learning objectives for both the course and each module that tell them what they are expected to be able to do upon completing the online content. Also consider providing students with a course map that shows them how your objectives align to the assignments you're asking them to complete.
  • Tell students what motivates you about this content and the course.
  • Set up your course in Canvas with a clear, consistent flow so that students spend their time learning the material, not trying to find it. For instance:
    1. Pique students' attention with an introduction or overview.
    2. List the learning objectives
    3. Provide the readings, lectures, videos or other content that students need to accomplish those learning objectives.
    4. Assess how well students have achieved the learning objectives with assignments, discussions, quizzes or other assessments.
  • Watch the Organization of an Online Course in Canvas video [2:09] to see one way to organize materials within modules in Canvas. You can also use the Module Development Worksheet to plan your online modules.
  • Focus your materials. Excess content can make it difficult for students to identify the main points. Prioritize the important concepts (based on your learning objectives), and provide focused material to illustrate each one. For example, if you have a PowerPoint slideshow for a 50-minute lecture, try distilling that into smaller mini-lectures, each focused on one concept, and record audio narration to create 10 to 15-minute presentation(s).

Research and Resources

Contemporary research in the field of student motivation and learning outcomes has been, and continues to be, robust. We summarize several fundamental frameworks and theories that undergird motivation and outcomes. They include: attribution theory (Weiner, 1972); incremental vs. entity views of intelligence (Dweck, 1999); self-efficacy (Bandura, 1989, 1993, 1997); self determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000); and expectancy value framework (Eccles, et. al., 1983).

In general, these theories and frameworks attend to achievement motivation, i.e., those psychosocial constructs connected with the degree to which students engage in tasks and activities related to learning and demonstration of learning.

Attribution Theory

To what does a learner attribute success or failure? Attribution theory (Weiner, 1972) partitions these attributions into 4 components: ability and effort, each of which are personal (internal) domains, and task difficulty and luck, each of which are external to the individual. Further, "perceived causes like ability and task difficulty are consistent across contexts (stable), whereas effort and luck are more variable across contexts and potentially unpredictable (unstable). Moreover, effort and task difficulty can be influenced directly by the student and teacher (controllable), whereas current ability and luck cannot (uncontrollable) (Hulleman, et.al., 2016, pp. 247-248)."

  • Pay attention to your language. Limit use of "good luck" and increase acknowledgement of effort.
  • Structure your class so that effort is honored.
  • Help students with subject specific study skills, help them know how to work smarter, not just harder.
  • Encourage study groups; some students feel they must study alone and that is not true.
  • You may consider using exam wrappers to assist students in self reflection about their exam preparation and results.

What implications does attribution theory have for your learning environment? If students believe that their success is influenced by uncontrollable factors such as luck, they will be less motivated to put forth appropriate effort for a task or an assessment. Further, students who ascribe their success to an inherent fixed ability, may downshift their effort or engage in self talk reinforcing the perception that they aren't capable. It is possible that a poor grade on an assignment will reinforce this belief. Dweck's work (1998) on growth mindset is related to the self-ascribed beliefs individuals' have about their capabilities.

Your role as an instructor affords you the opportunity to use language and strategies that support effort. Emphasizing effort in your comments to students such as "congratulations on the improvement in your most recent essay draft" shows that student effort is a driving factor for success. Although we all do it, saying "good luck" before a test is counterproductive because it overtly or subliminally suggests that luck will influence a performance.

Growth mindset

The term growth mindset is now more recognizable by the general public than it was 10 years ago, in part, because it has been adopted by many K-12 schools and is written about in the popular press. Early work in this area on social-cognitive approaches to motivation sought to understand why individuals of comparable ability choose to seek challenge or shun it (Dweck & Leggett, 1988). More recently, the focus has been on examining individuals' conception of intelligence: do people perceive intelligence as fixed (i.e., a characteristic one is born with and is stable) or malleable (a characteristic that is changeable with effort) and implications for motivation. Dweck has referred to these two self-concepts as a fixed or growth mindset (2006).

This field is still early in its development with attention to identifying impact of the growth mindset concept on student achievement. A recent set of 2 meta-analyses (Sisk et.al., 2018) suggests a weak effectiveness for mindset interventions and student achievement and potential moderating factors. Dweck (2018), counters, however, that the meta-analyses used effect sizes inappropriate for academic interventions.

As you support your students' success, there are important considerations for growth mindset. It takes more than a slogan about intelligence being malleable. Five important strategies you can use for enhancing a growth mindset are to: (1) teach about growth mindset if your students aren't familiar with the concept, (2) share examples from your own life when your effort has improved your knowledge, skills, and/or performance, (3) have students share with each other when and how they've been successful with effort, (4) hold high expectations for all students, and (5) provide explicit learning strategies for your content/field so that students know how to work more effectively. Students need to know how to work smarter, not harder.

Also fundamental to student success are your beliefs about your students. Believe in students—believe that they can succeed; communicate this with them and you will be amazed. A recent study of STEM faculty found that "students reported less 'motivation to do their best work' in classes taught by faculty who endorsed more fixed mindset beliefs . . . [and that] . . . fixed mindset professors were less likely to use pedagogical practices that 'emphasize learning and development'. . . [Further, the] results show that racial achievement gaps in courses taught by more fixed mindset faculty were twice as large as the achievement gaps in courses taught by more growth mindset faculty (Canning, et. al, 2019)." A nationwide study found that exhibiting a growth mindset significantly reduced the academic impact of poverty for low-income Chilean high school students, and the authors conclude that cultivating the growth mindset may help to redress systemic inequities (Claro, Paunesku, & Dweck, 2016).

Academic Self-efficacy

Self-efficacy influences academic motivation, learning, and achievement (Pajares, 1996). Self-efficacy is characterized by how one feels about themselves and their abilities to perform in domain-specific contexts. Foundational work in this social cognitive perspective, initiated by Bandura (1986) and sustained by myriad scholars, provides us with the understanding of how individuals come to believe they are capable. Contemporary research often examines how the environment impacts self-efficacy.

Although all students benefit from increased academic self-efficacy, some demographic groups' needs are particularly noteworthy. Eddy and Brownell's (2016) meta-analysis of self-efficacy for women in STEM provides evidence that women enter higher education with lower self-efficacy in STEM than men. Further, "these measures [self-efficacy, science identity, and belonging] have been shown to be correlated with achievement (Eddy & Brownell, 2016)."

There are four constructs that undergird self efficacy, and each can be impacted by you and the learning environment. Those four are: (1) mastery experiences, (2) vicarious learning, (3) verbal persuasion and (4) emotional and physiological states. Simply put, we feel more positive about our ability to perform in a specific domain if we have already been successful.

Self determination theory (SDT)

Ryan and Deci's (2000) research on self determination theorizes that human motivation is based in the human condition to grow and develop competency. SDT posits that there are three fundamental psychological needs related to motivation: (1) the need for competence, (2) the need for autonomy, and (3) the need for relatedness. Further, when educators fulfill these three, students become more motivated, regulate their learning, and perform better (Niemiec & Ryan, 2009).

Competence

The need for students' competence can be supported by learning challenges at the appropriate level for growth. Vygotsky (1978) described Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) as "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers (p. 86)." Choosing appropriately scaled challenges for your students to develop competence (along with your guidance) is a motivator for students.

Autonomy

You can support students' need for autonomy by providing them with some amount of choice to demonstrate mastery. Where possible, ask your students for input on the course content. Recognize that your adult learners and many younger undergraduates already exhibit autonomy in other aspects of their lives. Consider how those additional expectations for student responsibilities outside your learning environment can be accommodated, and even leveraged to encourage motivation, as you design your course.

Relatedness

You are supporting relatedness when your students can make meaningful connections to the content and the tasks asked of them. If your lived experience is dissimilar from your students', you will want to think about how you can bring relevancy more to the forefront. Are you representing a variety of scholars' history and demographics in your field? Are you using contemporary technology that is relevant to how students learn now? Consider conferring with your students (current and former) and colleagues in your field for ideas as you examine the course for relevancy.

Expectancy value

The expectancy value framework (Eccles, et. al, 1983) builds on deep literature bases in both expectancies and value research. In brief, the expectancy value framework brings together students' perceptions of (or expectancy for) being able to complete a task and the value ascribed to spending effort to master or complete a task. These two together form the motivation for individuals to engage with learning tasks. All decisions on whether to be motivated to engage with a task inherently include an evaluation of the cost for the engagement. What would one miss out on if time and attention were directed to something else? Although a thorough treatment of this framework is beyond the purpose of our website, readers are encouraged to look at the tables in the pdf to find sources of expectancy related beliefs, sources of value, and sources of cost.

As you think about this framework and implications for your students, consider how you could increase student expectancies for mastery, increase students' perceptions of the value of your course work, and be aware of the costs students may balance in this analysis.

You might share your professional research interests and experiences: Why is the content important to you? What are your stories about working in this field of study? It's important for students to see the relevance of the materials as it pertains to their future plans. Clearly link concepts/lessons to industry or a broader purpose, future classes/activities, or other transferable skills that are used in the field. Another relevancy-based strategy is to challenge students with deep learning (case studies, community-based learning, collaborative projects, etc.).

If you and your students have developed a strong relationship and you have helped students understand why your course is important to them, you will likely find that they engage deeply with you and their learning.


Belcher, A., Hall, B. M., Kelley, K., & Pressey, K. L. (2015) An analysis of faculty promotion of critical thinking and peer interaction within threaded discussions. Online Learning, (19)4. https://doi.org/10.24059/olj.v19i4.544

Canning, E. A., Muenks, K., Green, D. J., & Murphy, M. C. (2019). STEM faculty who believe ability is fixed have larger racial achievement gaps and inspire less student motivation in their classes. ScienceAdvances, 5(2). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aau4734

Chaiklin, S. (2003). The zone of proximal development in Vygotsky's analysis of learning and instruction. In Kozulin, A., Gindis, B., Ageyev, V. S. & Miller, S. M. (Eds.), Vygotsky's educational theory in cultural context (39-64). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Claro, S., Paunesku, D. & Dweck, C.S. (2016). Growth mindset tempers the effects of poverty on academic achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, (116)31, 8664-8668. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1608207113

Dweck, C. (June 26, 2018). Growth mindset interventions yield impressive results. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/growth-mindset-interventions-yield-impressive-results-97423

Eccles, J. S., Adler, T. F., Futterman, R., Goff, S. B., Kaczala, C. M., Meece, J. L. (1983). Expectancies, values, and academic behaviors. In J. T. Spence (Ed.), Achievement and achievement motivation (pp. 74–146). San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.

Eddy, S. L. & Brownell, S. E. (2016). Beneath the numbers: A review of gender disparities in undergraduate education across science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 12(2). DOI https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevPhysEducRes.12.020106

Good, C., Rattan, A., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Why do women opt out? Sense of belonging and women's representation in mathematics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(4), 700-717. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0026659

Guo, P. J. (2013, November 13) Optimal video length for student engagement. Retrieved from https://blog.edx.org/optimal-video-length-student-engagement

Niemiec, C. P., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice. Theory and Research in Education, 7(2), 133–144.

Pajares, F. (1996). Self-efficacy beliefs in achievement settings. Review of Educational Research, 66, pp. 543-578.

Hulleman, C. S., Barron, K. E., Kosovich, J. J. & Lazowski, R. A. (2016). Student motivation: Current theories, constructs, and interventions within an expectancy-value framework. In Lipnevich, A. A., Preckel, F. & Roberts, R. D. (Eds.), Psychosocial skills and school systems in the 21st century. (pp. 241-278). Switzerland: Springer.

Sisk, V. F., Burgoyne, A. P., Jingze, S., Butler, J. L. & Macnamara, B. N. (2018). To what extent and under which circumstances are growth mind-sets important to academic achievement? Two Meta-analyses. Psychological Science, 29 (4), 549-571. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797617739704

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Interaction between learning and development (M. LopezMorillas, Trans.). In M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman (Eds.), Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes (pp. 79–91). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Weiner, B. (1972). Theories of motivation: From mechanism to cognition. Oxford, England: Markham.

Zhou, H. (2015). A systematic review of empirical studies on participants' interactions in internet-mediated discussion boards as a course component in formal higher education settings. Online Learning (19)3. https://doi.org/10.24059/olj.v19i3.495