Written by Mary Aldugom, MA, PhD candidate, Cognition, Psychological and Brain Sciences

How can we motivate students to engage with course material when they are busy balancing multiple classes, extracurricular activities, jobs, and personal lives? How do we keep students active for extended periods of time?

There are many strategies available regarding or oriented toward the enhancement of student engagement and motivation in the classroom. How do we pick a strategy, and is it necessary to restructure our course to make this possible? There are simple ways to easily and effectively implement small changes in a course.

Here are three simple and easy-to-implement strategies for student engagement and motivation:

  1. Be enthusiastic. If we are not passionate about our own teaching, how can we expect to inspire students? Teaching is not simply delivering the appropriate information but also incorporating a certain energy into our practice that motivates students to care. This change does not need to be large. Take a few moments before each session to find something in the material that you are most interested in, something that the students would be motivated by, and use it to fuel your class. Talk your students through new findings in your field or about new published works from your favorite author. It only takes a few minutes each day, and it demonstrates your passion and motivation to your students.
  2. Be compassionate and warm. It is important to remember that students have complex lives that we know almost nothing about. Our students may be coping with mental illness, financial stress, death in the family, or a new diagnosis. How might these emotional life events impact the quality of their work or their attentiveness in class? Before providing negative feedback on student work, it may be beneficial to take a moment to reflect on ways to respond with a more compassionate tone. If you notice a student falling behind or failing to attend class, reaching out and showing concern can be an effective way to demonstrate that you care about the individual’s well-being.
  3. Demonstrate your own failures. Students enter the classroom with the belief that professors and instructors know everything. While this may seem silly to us, this belief can prevent students from putting effort into challenging assignments. Instead, we want to motivate students to try, even if it means failing at first. By showing students our own failures—our “bad first draft” or material that we struggled to comprehend the first time around—we demonstrate that failing is often part of the learning process and that even experts in the field fail.

Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.