Inspirational poster style meme of Forrest Gump running.
Forrest Gump (1994).

How do you respond when a student asks whether the day’s activity or discussion “will be on the exam”?

It might be encouraging to recognize that the question at least demonstrates the student’s extrinsic motivation to learn course material.  As UI Director of Assessment Wayne Jacobson points out, “we assess what we value,” so it’s understandable that students want to better appreciate what that valued content is. 

Moreover, pedagogical researchers have found that extrinsic motivation (when an activity is viewed as a means to an end) can elicit intrinsic motivation (when an activity is viewed as an end in itself).  Perhaps the student who earns a good grade in math might consider, for the first time, that he or she actually enjoys doing calculus.  Or perhaps the student who completes assigned reading also connects with the content in a personally meaningful way. 

Furthermore, scholars have found that we can increase students’ intrinsic motivation by constructing lesson plans that fill students’ need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.  Faculty can encourage a student’s sense of autonomy by offering choices about assignments or by explaining how tasks are relevant to students’ interests, future goals, and concerns (including the exam).  We can foster feelings of competence by gearing the challenge of each activity to match students’ skill level and then providing positive and useful feedback.  Finally, we can emphasize relatedness by offering opportunities for collaborative learning and encouraging intellectual risk-taking.

Some instructors at The University of Iowa turn the “will it be on the exam?” question on its head by asking students to write potential exam questions.  This assignment requires students to review and develop their knowledge of disciplinary content and thinking. 

For more specific ideas for encouraging student motivation, check out the research-based resources from the Center for Teaching.