Let’s remember it once again: how to motivate our university students?


Among the many areas widely consolidated by psychological research is that of the science of motivation. Decades of research have laid the foundations for understanding why motivated behavior occurs and how it occurs. Furthermore, this research has had a very applied nature since it has been contexts such as education, work, or sports, which have stimulated said research.

This article, whose title paraphrases the work that the American psychologist Frederick Herzberg published more than 50 years ago, aims to provide some basic guides to understand why our students become (de)motivated in our classes.

Let’s consider the reasons

University students are motivated when they have motives or needs that they see they can satisfy through study and the teaching activities that the professor proposes. For a student, social relationships can be her main motivation, and sharing with other students is a source of well-being.

Other students may be motivated by feeling competent and capable when carrying out a specific activity. And a third student may need a cut-off grade to pass a subject and access other studies she is pursuing.

The reasons can be, as you can see, very diverse. And here is the second of the key learnings to retain: different students may have different reasons. If the evaluation system that we use in our subject is unique, it will inevitably motivate some students and not so much others. Certain evaluation menus may be proposed in which the student chooses between some available alternatives, but this is an uncommon practice in our standardized evaluations.

Universal reasons

We can also consider motives that we know any student has. There are at least three universal reasons: autonomy, competence and relationship . Any student needs to be and feel autonomous, rather than feeling dependent. Feeling that he has control over what he does, how he does it, or when he does it.

Any student needs to feel competent, capable of doing well the different activities that are proposed to him, and that these activities are located in his zone of proximal development in such a way that they force him to give his best and learn.

And any student needs to feel connected to peers.

Designing training activities that promote autonomy, competence or relationships is an effective way to stimulate the motivation of our students. That is why learning based on problem solving, or project-based learning, which is also done in cooperative study groups, are such effective techniques in stimulating and feeding these needs for autonomy, competence and relationship.

Let’s design fair evaluation systems

University students are motivated when they understand the evaluation system and perceive that it is fair. Clarifying what will be evaluated and how is an inexcusable task for any teacher when starting a training activity. You have to make sure that students understand the evaluation system.

Furthermore, we must ensure that this system is perceived as fair. As the university teaching activity is carried out before a group of students, they will inevitably be compared with each other. And they will compare their efforts invested, their performances as well as the evaluations obtained.

The evaluation system must be able to discriminate different performances, that is, students who do better receive a better evaluation. Furthermore, the evaluation system must be perceived as fair. For this perception of justice to exist , there must be a proportional relationship between the effort that the student invests and the evaluation that she receives (distributive justice); an argumentation of the evaluation criteria (procedural justice), and even the participation of students in the design of said evaluation criteria (interpersonal justice).

Let’s provide feedback

College students are motivated when they receive feedback on how they are working. Formative evaluation ( feedback ) encourages students to know what learning results they are obtaining and what is expected of them.

It is important to design learning goals throughout the entire training activity. Guarantee that these objectives are understood by the student, are specific, and are challenging as well as achievable. And once these learning objectives have been designed, provide feedback on the degree of achievement of said objectives.

Let’s design meaningful academic tasks

University students are motivated when they have to face academic tasks in which they find usefulness, meaning, and purpose. This purpose can be very pragmatic and be marked by the professionalizing nature of studies in which the student learns knowledge and skills to practice as a future professional. There may also be more ethereal purposes such as purely intellectual or epistemological ones in which the student finds meaning in what he does because he feels that he is delving into a specific field of knowledge.

These four points to take into account the reasons, ensure that the evaluation is fair, provide feedback and design meaningful activities represent four guides with which we can make great progress in stimulating and maintaining the motivated behavior of our students in our classrooms. .

Author Bio: Jose Navarro is Professor of Work and Organizational Psychology at the University of Barcelona