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Motivating Your Students: Part Two

Princeton students work hard and are accustomed to excelling academically. But as they encounter new disciplines, new ways of thinking in familiar disciplines, and other students who have more experience in the discipline, they may need to be motivated to meet the greater challenges Princeton offers. In last month’s Scholar as Teacher tip-sheet, we suggested ways to create an environment in which students are motivated to work hard because they value what they are learning. This month we address another important way to motivate students: developing students’ belief that they can succeed at learning new or unfamiliar material. If they believe they can meet the challenge, they are more likely to apply themselves fully to the learning process.

  • Let your students know that you believe in their capacity to develop and do well in your course. Past teaching experience might help you state this with confidence. For example, have you seen students move from writing average papers to writing good or excellent papers as they have learned more about your discipline and the revision process? It can help to let students know that you believe they can improve because you have seen hard-working students develop dramatically in previous semesters.

  • Throughout the course, promote the idea that students will succeed because of their efforts to learn, not because of fixed, innate capacities. They may need to hear you say that you do not believe that people are simply “good at math” or “bad at writing.” Provide constructive feedback on their work, reinforcing your belief in their ability to improve.

  • Sequence assignments so that students can experience success early in the process and then maintain motivation for future work. For example, students might approach a highly complicated problem with more confidence, and thus motivation, if they have successfully solved similar, but less challenging problems, in preparation.
  • As you evaluate student work, underscore where they have mastered goals and reflect back success. You can do this in written comments on their work or in office hours. When work falls short of your criteria, be clear about how students can improve in future work.
  • Make grading criteria clear so that students have some way to assess their own learning and academic performance. If they know exactly what constitutes success, they are likely to feel more confident of their ability to meet those expectations.
  • Establish high, but reasonable, expectations for your students. If they are given tasks that stretch them, but don't paralyze them, they will approach new challenges with more motivation. Reflect on what exactly you want your students to learn or be able to do as a result of taking your course and then consider what your students would have to do to show that they've accomplished these goals. The evidence that you ask for should be attainable by students at this level.

Adapted from Marilla D. Svinicki's Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom. Anker Publishing, Boston, MA: 2004.