Motivating students

A teacher wrote to me: “Today many students are going to class with the only goals of passing the exam or getting the degree. They are distracted by extracurricular activities instead of learning anything. I do not know how to motivate them to learn. Please advise.”

Answer: There are different types of students and you need to motivate them differently. Some students go to school because they have to. (i.e., pressure from family or society etc.) They do not know what they want and are often get distracted by trivial things. Many are not mature enough to be responsible for themselves and study just enough to pass the exam. Since they not paying attention to the lecture, some teachers consider them as “lazy”. The fact is they do not go beyond the minimum requirements for fear of failure.

As teachers, you can help them to gain confidence in their abilities to learn by starting something relatively easy so they can do well to build their confidence then slowly increase the difficulty by activities that build on each other over time. These students need more encouragement for them to learn but once they believe in you, and in themselves, they can be better students.

Other students go to school with a goal to get the degree. They are willing to put in the time and effort to memorize the materials to get good grades but not beyond what they are taught. These students may do well on a test then forgetting the material once the pressure is over. Some schools consider they are “good students” as they will graduate, get a good job but their learning often ends when they reach their goal. They may succeed in the short-term but in the long -term, as things change, they may not do well.

As teachers, you can help them to develop a better habit of “lifelong learning” by challenging them to learn deeper. You may give additional assignments that require them to go beyond the normal academic study to broaden their knowledge so they can apply the materials instead of just memorize them.

Students always look to teachers for approval and willing to learn more if they feel their effort is recognized. As teachers, you should have more class discussions to make them feel comfortable with learning. If students know that you care and your classroom is a friendly place, they will be more eager to learn. It is important to explain to all students that today the degree does not guarantee anything and let them explore their possibilities and career options for themselves. One common activity that I often do in my class is asking WHY? and WHAT’s NEXT? For example: “Why do you go to school?” or “OK, after getting the degree then what’s next?” or “OK, getting the job then what’s next?” and let the students explore possibilities that could happen in their future. Once the students understand the larger picture of the job market as well as the challenge that they will face after leaving the school, they may be more motivated to learn.

Students must know that they need the knowledge and skills, not just purely memorizing things (i.e. Why do you need to memorize when you can Google almost everything?). By having the knowledge, they know how things work instead of just recall from memory. As teachers, you can motivate students by asking them to raise issues and discuss them in class. It will give them a sense of involvement instead of just passively listen to the lectures. You can help them to develop certain skills by NOT giving tests based on memorization but focus on solving problems or asking them to read materials from newspapers or multimedia that they are interested in then having more discussion in class, etc.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University