3 Keys To Student Motivation

The vast majority of teachers and trainers today agree that the active involvement of students in their own learning – such as through internal motivation – produces better learning outcomes. Research on how the brain learns supports this view, as does the thinking of revered figures in the history of education like John Dewey.

While few disagree with the theory, putting it into practice is another matter. Some teachers and trainers bend over backwards to incorporate the latest educational techniques in their learning environments only to find some students just do not buy-in with the enthusiasm and passion they expected to see.

The key phrase there is “buy-in.” While it is possible to try to force active involvement with group discussions and other methods, forced involvement often breeds passive acquiescence. Learners merely go through the motions and go along with the program.

The missing ingredient is internal motivation. While some students find new learning methodologies intrinsically interesting and rewarding, others have other needs to be met before motivation can grow within the student. Here are 3 keys to student motivation some teachers overlook:

  1. Competence
  2. Control
  3. Community

Competence can be defined as the ability to do something successfully or efficiently. The ability to perform depends on having the prerequisite knowledge and skills to perform the task. Simply put, many students lack a feeling of competence. Questioning their own knowledge and skill is only part of the problem. A person with high competence not only needs knowledge and skill, but also the tools required for the job.


Control can be defined as the ability to manage or direct. In traditional educational approaches, control lies exclusively in the hands of the teacher. To get real active involvement from students motivated to learn, the students must have a sense they control their own destiny. In essence, they have to feel they have a choice in the matter. Even those students who feel competent will pull back in the face of external control.


Humans are social animals and while some students can thrive without community support, most cannot. In a learning community, students feel a sense of relatedness to each other. In essence, there exists a “we are all in this together” mentality. However, it is possible for students to form a community of relatedness for the purpose of getting through the course with a minimum amount of effort. To unleash the power of community, learners need to see some relevance of the learning to their own lives.

Good teachers set the stage for all three of these motivational components. As a first step, acknowledge the possibility of competence issues for all students. Reassure them you know what you are doing and will be there to help them overcome any obstacles. Show them you have the tools they will need to learn.

Acknowledge that the decision to get totally engaged in the learning is up to them, not up to you.

Do whatever you can to demonstrate the relevance of what they are about to learn. Share stories of successful students you have taught in the past. Do this all with passion and enthusiasm, two additional prerequisites for internal motivation. When teachers appear unenthusiastic about what they are doing, why should the students be enthusiastic about learning?

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