Motivating Students

“An engaged student is a motivated student” (Norman & Spohrer, 1996).

Video: Eight Ways to Increase Motivation in Your Classroom

Getting Students to Read

Some of your students will complete a reading assignment because of intellectual curiosity, some will read simply because it was assigned, but many of your students might need a little extra motivation to regularly and thoroughly complete all of their reading assignments. Here are some tips for providing that motivation.

Introduce the readings

You didn’t randomly select articles and books to assign to your class. Try sharing your own motivations for assigning those readings. For example, are they full of concepts they’ll need to memorize? Did the ideas make you stop and reconsider your own point of view?  Did they prepare you for a new experience?

Guide their reading

Provide prompts or questions to accompany the reading. These can help students prepare a mindset going into the readings, focus on important information to take from the readings, and prepare for discussion in class.

Some tips for guided reading questions:

  • Avoid factual questions and instead use questions that will help students synthesize information from different sources and/or integrate information into their own knowledge base.
  • Provide questions or prompts that will help students take a step back and see the big picture, helping them understand why the topics in the readings are important and how they fit with the puzzle pieces around them.

Make the readings count

The easiest way to make a reading count is to put questions about the content on exams. You could even make the guided assignment be to write 3-4 exam questions about what they just read. Then follow through and include some of those questions on the actual exam.

Less easy, but more effective is to ask your students to put the information to use. Most of us learn best by doing. Problem-based or inquiry-based learning is one way to do this. There is a separate guide dedicated to using this teaching technique, but here we’ll focus on its relationship to reading assignments.

In a problem-based learning environment students need to gather information in order to decide how to cope with a situation, dilemma, or problem. If you assign readings that provide answers, clear confusion, and lead to solutions, they’ll recognize the utility of the information.

Further Readings

The Surprising Science of Motivation (TEDTalk)

Student Motivation (Carlton College)

Corker, K. S., & Donnellan, M. B. (2012). Setting lower limits high: The role of boundary goals in achievement motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(1), 138-149.

Elliot, A. J., & Church, M. A. (1997). A hierarchical model of approach and avoidance achievement motivation. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 72(1), 218-232.


Cashin, W. E. (1979, August). Motivating students. Idea Paper (No. 01). Manhattan, KS: Center for Faculty Evaluation and Development, Kansas State University. Retrieved from

Davis, B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hofer, B. (2011). Motivation in the college classroom. In M. Svinicki & W. J. McKeachie (Eds.), McKeachie's teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (13th ed., pp. 140-150). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Norman, D. A., & Spohrer, J. C. (1996) Learner-centered education. Communications of the ACM, 39, 24.

Shute, V. J. (2008). Focus on formative feedback. Review of Educational Research, 78(1), 153-189.Davis, B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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