How to motivate students to learn

Many first-year students come to university with ideas and dreams about their future. It is important for university professors to capture their enthusiasm and develop a connection between what they will learn and their future career.

For many years of teaching, I always ask my students to develop a career plan on the first day of class then explain how my course can connect to their future career. If students know what they learn in class is important to their future career, they will put more efforts into learning. When students ask: “Why do I need to learn this?” If you can give them a direct answer that relates to their future career then you do not have to motivate them, they are already self-motivated. For example, when students ask me: “I already know Java, why do I need to learn Python? I answer: “You need to learn Python because it is required for most Artificial Intelligence jobs. Don’t you want to work in the AI area?”

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The best way to motivate students to learn is to integrate what they learn in class with information about their future careers during class discussions and other activities, including invite guest speakers from the industry or former students to return and share their work experiences. It will help foster a connection between course material and the careers that the students want to work on. For example, last year, in my Machine Learning class, I invited Dr. Fei Fei Li, the chief AI of Google to give a talk to my students. This year the Dean of Carnegie Mellon University, Dr. Andrew Moore became the Chief AI of Google so naturally, he often comes to my class to talk to my students. Every year, I have four to six former students came back to share their working experiences and it strongly motivates my students.

Even today with much online news and social media, many students are still confused about their future. Without broad exposure to potential careers, students often know little about what they can do following their college studies; this puts them at risk of making a bad decision about their future careers. Many parents are often too busy to follow the industrial trends or changes in the job markets and often give their children uninformed advice about their career. By integrating career-related content into class discussions can provide an opportunity for students to have better ideas about the potential career. In my teaching, class discussion is the center of classroom learning, and by integrating career information into this activities, it allows students the opportunity to explore, connect, and apply career-focused topics.

For many years, in the first week of the class, I always give students an assignment: “Select three companies that you want to work for after graduation. Read their job descriptions carefully and identify the knowledge and skills that they require then review what you have and do not have, and develop a skills gap document and fill it with the courses that you must take to close the gap. If you can do that you will have a better chance of getting the job with your dream company.”

Most of my students told me that having a career plan with clear objectives and goals and know what they need to get the job at their dream company are the most effective techniques that they ever encounter.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University