Fostering student motivation – full article

Fostering student motivation

Imagine the following: A lecture hall packed with motivated students waiting to be taught by their motivated instructor. Sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it? In this Refresh Teaching blog we seek to unravel the miracle of motivation in higher education and locate realistic starting points for fostering motivation among students. To do so, we draw on research by Deci & Ryan (2000) , Ryan & Deci (2000) and Niemiec & Ryan (2009).

Looking back on our own experience as learners, we may agree that motivation was important for our learning success. Things may be a little less straightforward when it comes to identifying how we actually became motivated. Did we simply just have motivation? Or were we motivated by our teachers?

So let’s start with some basic ideas about motivation:

  • Motivation means “to be moved to do something” (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
  • Two types of motivation exist.
    • Intrinsic motivation occurs when we perform an activity out of mere interest. We’re driven by our enjoyment of the activity itself and not so much by the consequences of our engagement Intrinsic motivation concerns tasks that people do find interesting, that promote growth, that are characterized by novelty or by optimal challenge. Satisfying the need for autonomy and competence is necessary for intrinsically motivated behaviors to persist. (Deci & Ryan, 2000).
    • Extrinsic motivation is at play when we perform an activity with the goal of earning a reward or avoiding punishment. Extrinsically motivated behavior is instrumental and controlled by its consequences (Deci & Ryan, 2000).
  • Motivation leads to better learning. Intrinsic motivation enhances deep conceptual understanding (Deci & Ryan, 2000) as well as complex problem solving and creativity. Extrinsic motivation can be beneficial for learning if it provides individuals with sufficient autonomy so they can integrate external regulations with their own needs or values, which means that it allows for a certain degree of self-determination.

The really good news is that instructors can systematically promote motivation. This requires that they cater to three basic human needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness (Ryan & Deci, 2000; Niemiec & Ryan, 2009).

  • Students need to experience autonomy so they perceive themselves as “having a voice”. Instructors can enhance students’ perceived autonomy by providing reasons for the tasks they are asking students to complete so they can attach their own needs or values to them.
  • In order to sustain or spark motivation, humans also need to experience themselves as competent. This requires that learning activities are designed at the appropriate level of challenge and accompanied by relevant feedback. Whereas perceived competence is necessary for any type of motivation, perceived autonomy is required for the motivation to be intrinsic (Deci & Ryan, 2000).
  • Motivation grows best on the fertile grounds of relatedness. Relational supports may not be necessary as proximal factors in maintaining intrinsic motivation, but relatedness appears to provide a needed backdrop for intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2000). This occurs when we experience that our behaviour is valued by others. Instructors can promote students’ experience of relatedness by making visible that they genuinely value and respect their contributions.

Knowing all of this now, let’s return to our own student days. We will probably find that we had a bit of everything – our own intrinsic motivation and teachers who made us feel that our contributions were valuable, tasks that where interesting and appropriately challenging, as well as sufficient autonomy to act with a degree of self-determination.

Curious about fostering motivation? Come along to the Refresh Teaching event on 13 June and find out how members of ETH faculty systematically promote their students’ motivation in their classrooms.


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “ What” and “ Why” of Goal Pursuits : Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227–268.

Niemiec, C. P., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom. Theory and Research in Education, 7(2), 133–144. doi:10.1177/1477878509104318

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations : Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54–67. doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1020