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Motivating Students

At the start of each semester most UMBC students, enthusiastic and motivated, are eager to get started in new pursuits. At the same time, instructors energetically outline plans for their courses and explain to students what must be done to succeed. But as the semester progresses and coursework settles into a demanding routine, students’ interest sometimes begins to wane. For many students, meeting academic goals can start to seem less certain as complexity and ambiguity set in. Are there ways to ensure that motivation will remain high throughout the semester and that students will continue to be engaged in a course?

Research shows that professors can do a variety of things to help sustain student motivation. For example,

  • Set clear goals for the course and explain these goals to students
  • Make frequent assignments and give timely feedback to students
  • Use examples that show the relevance of the material.

These actions are, of course, entwined. Goals need to be revisited during the semester, and need to be related explicitly to the assignments. Relevant examples should help students understand their progress toward larger objectives.

But one crucial way to help students maintain motivation is to help them see that they are succeeding not just in learning the material, but in learning how to learn better. Student success doesn’t depend simply on hard work and long hours. Students also need to understand how to work effectively, and develop skills to meet academic challenges, many of which are new. While basic study skills are transferable, there are also discipline-specific strategies that help students master course content and some discussion of these strategies can be built into all courses. In short, another way to keep students motivated is to suggest learning strategies that help students master the specific material in the course. If students see themselves becoming better at mastering material (and more efficient at it), they are likely to invest more time and energy in a class.

Some students-especially freshmen-may need to commit significant time to leaning academic study skills. For these students, resources exist on campus to help them focus on and hone their skills. A new initiative, part of the recommendations of the Honors University Task Force, is introducing a common set of goals into courses that already exist (English 100Y, Education 199) as the first stage in the process of developing a set of Student Success courses. (A more comprehensive course, LRC 101: College Learning and Study Skills, has continued to be popular with students, from freshmen to seniors.) These goals include improving library, time-management, study, communications, and other skills necessary for academic success. Students with significant problems adapting to university demands should be encouraged to seek these courses out-and perhaps also request tutoring assistance from the Learning Resources Center.

But even experienced students will benefit from explicit guidance in improving their academic skills. For example, students proficient in reading fiction and poetry may need help in understanding better ways to read and study a research article in chemistry or psychology, while a skilled physics student might struggle to figure out how to take notes on Locke or Kant. Paying some attention to learning strategies by building a discussion of them into a course-and then developing assignments that require students to test their abilities-can motivate students to become more effective learners. Academic skills need constant revisiting as students (indeed all of us) move into greater and greater complexity in our work; rarely do we encounter anyone who claims to have mastered time-management sufficiently to never have to think about it again.

There are dozens of books that students can use to help them improve their basic skills, for example, the book adopted by the new Success Course instructors, Skip Downing’s On Course: Strategies for Creating Success in College and in Life; or the latest edition of a classic text, How to Study in College, by Walter Pauk. Students can also be encouraged to find help on the web at sites like the following:

Virginia Tech: Study Skill Self-help Information

California Polytechnic State University: Academic Skills Center

Cornell University: Study Skills Resources and Videos

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For more specific general suggestions on Motivating Students, see:
Davis, Barbara Gross. “Motivating Students,” Tools for Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Motivating Students,” (PDF) Idea Paper No. 1 by William E. Cashin (1979).