Research suggests that students learn more when they are interested and motivated, and that greater intrinsic motivation correlates with greater student retention [1]. This page will provide guidance on how to engage students by developing content and structuring courses in ways that will increase their intrinsic motivation and maintain interest in the subject area or format of the courses you are teaching.

There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. A student who is intrinsically motivated is interested in course content for its own sake, while a student who is extrinsically motivated is focused on earning a particular grade or achieving a specific outcome. Both types of motivation can be positive, but research has shown that students with increased intrinsic motivation are more likely to continue in their degree program [1].

Best Practices

Building Intrinsic Motivation

Research has shown that “instructors who support students’ autonomy, competence, and relatedness through their behaviors are more likely to increase their intrinsic motivation to learn” [2].

Here are a few practices that can help students connect with content, find meaning and personal utility in it, and refocus their attention on mastery of content rather than simply achieving a particular grade.

  • Create a learner-centered curriculum: This is as simple as putting the learner first in your mind as you build course content. What do students need to know in order to succeed in your class? Have you included this information in the syllabus? Have you laid out specific learning objectives that explain to the student the skills they will master are they complete the course content?
  • Explain relevance of assignments: Remember that students will not always see how the work they are being asked to complete connects to the greater scope of their course, major, or future career or field of expertise. It can make a positive difference to include a sentence making this explicit in assignment instructions, or to take a few minutes to discuss this in class when introducing a new assignment.
  • Provide experiential opportunities: Students may complain when you ask them to complete an interview, locate a source document at the library, or visit a museum or public space in their community as part of an assignment, but activities that provide experiential opportunities are often the most memorable and meaningful to students after they complete a course.
  • Give students ownership over content creation: Empowering students to choose how they will present information to you in an assignment can increase their interest and help them to make connections to the material they are studying [3]. 

Support a Culture of Reflection and Growth

When evaluating student work, it is important to provide descriptive feedback in addition to percentage or letter grades. Providing only a score can contribute to students focusing on the grade itself, rather than on their mastery of the material.

To encourage students to focus on the learning process, consider employing the following teaching strategies throughout your course:

  • Provide formative assessments: Incorporate a series of low-stakes assessments to provide feedback to students as they learn. This builds students’ confidence in their abilities and can help to overcome stereotype threat.
  • Set mastery goals: If students are developing a skill during the semester, set mastery goals with a series of milestones and allow students multiple attempts to practice and demonstrate their skill throughout the semester.
  • Encourage self-reflection: Providing opportunities for self-reflection throughout a course can build students’ skill at self-assessment. Practicing persistent inquiry during class meetings (turning questions around to the students) encourages reflection and reinforces the expectation that students are ultimately responsible for their own learning.

Spark Interest

Continually looking for new ways to present content, and to structure class activities and assessments is an important part of keeping a course vibrant. Presenting material in new and interesting ways can increase student engagement, and may increase their overall motivation.

  • Be on the lookout for new approaches: Try presenting content in new ways, and learn about alternate approaches to class activities, assessments or even overall course structure.
  • Encourage authenticity: Share your own personal enthusiasm and anecdotes related to the subject matter, include diverse narratives and examples, and allow students to share their own perspectives, as appropriate.

References and Additional Resources


[1] (2017). The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Teaching Newsletter: The Motivation Cliff”.

[2] Goldman, Z. W., Goodboy, A. K., & Weber, K. (2017). Communication Quarterly. “College Students’ Psychological Needs and Intrinsic Motivation to Learn: An Examination of Self-Determination Theory”.  

[3] Brooks, C. F. & Young, S. L. (2011). International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. “Are Choice-Making Opportunities Needed in the Classroom? Using Self-Determination Theory to Consider Student Motivation and Learner Empowerment”.

Further Exploration

CITT Instructional Development