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Shehna Javeed, University of Toronto Scarborough

Shehna Javeed.jpgStudent motivation is a complicated concept, as students come to University with multiple motivations. Sometimes it is the genuine desire to acquire an education, but in many instances it is the desire for that return on investment – a fulfilling career and financial gain. Somewhere along the educational journey, students may experience periods of low motivation.

There are numerous possible causes of low motivation. Low motivation can be related to poor study habits compounded by procrastination. Other factors contributing to or exacerbating low motivation could be a lack of connection to or engagement with the discipline being studied or the methods used by instructors or advisors to engage the student. Psychological experiences such as low academic commitment, mental health issues, or perhaps a generational effect where students are of the first generation in their families to attend University may also contribute to low motivation.

How can advisors and instructors build greater engagement and improve motivation in their students?  Jere Brophy’s (2010) Motivating Students to Learn addresses topics related to motivation in a learning context. In his book, Brophy cites some key points as reported by T. McIntyre on encouraging and inspiring motivation. These suggestions are referenced below and adapted to a University setting. Each advising strategy is coupled with a strategy for the classroom. Both are important and can bridge the gap to motivating students effectively.

Create assignments or activities that individualize meaning (Brophy, 2010)

  • Teaching perspective. Papers that have meaning and application to the student’s life are likely to be completed with zeal. Meaning can also be created if it relates to events in the world around the student, in their life, community, or the world. Allowing some choice within the constraints of the assignment can enable the student to tell his/her own “story” which provides a personal connection.
  • Advising perspective. In an advising dialogue, goal setting can be an important strategy for motivating students. Advisors can support students by utilizing the SMART goal method. Goals need to be SMART: S=Specific, M=Measurable, A=Achievable, R=Realistic, T=Timely. Goals that combine these five elements have the formula to be achievable. Here is an example of a SMART goal: “On Tuesdays from 10 to 11 a.m. I will visit the laboratory supervisor to discuss questions related to my weekly lab reports.” When the goal is realistic and meaningful it is more likely to be achieved.

Introducing gaming as a strategy for learning (Brophy, 2010)

  • Teaching perspective. Gaming encourages problem-solving and inquiry to arrive at the concepts or apply the concepts to a problem. In some classrooms, instructors may display a problem and then ask the class to ruminate on a solution. Voting or class discussion can allow the interaction and element of discovery in the contemplation of the material. Students can do this in partners or through response to the instructor using electronic clickers. Jane Caldwell (2007) cites that clicker responses not only engage the student, but also provides feedback to the instructor on the understanding of the topic. If more responses are incorrect this allows the instructor to reframe the ideas so that they are better understood. Clicker technology as a method of engagement is increasingly being used in the sciences (Science Daily, 2008). It empowers the student to be an active learner and to engage with the topic, communicate with his/her classmates, and offer feedback to the instructor.
  • Advising perspective. Using games can bring students to action. At the academic orientation, the advising team at our University used a “Family Feud” game to creatively discuss top time management challenges. Two teams were selected from the audience to play. Teams worked together to identify the top answers, which were revealed as the game continued. Students cheered for each other while discovery and dialogue occurred within a play setting. Students learned about the challenges of time management and discussed their own experiences while relating to others. Play engages the student which increases motivation to action.

Provide clear instructions, direction, and significance of tasks (Brophy, 2010)

  • Teaching perspective. It is suggested that the instructor give examples and demonstrate the thought processes that may be required in the assignment. This provides the student with a rubric to follow. However, the disadvantage of this in a classroom setting is that students can then become fixated on the demonstrated example and this may become a barrier to thinking creatively about other methods to arrive at the completion of the task. Allowing students to confer with fellow classmates or teaching assistants on their understanding of the instructions may also be beneficial. Clarity of expectations can allow the student to be successful and maintain interest and motivation.
  • Advising perspective. In advising settings, it is important to be very clear on the consequence of actions taken or lack thereof by the student. Advisors can explore various options with the student and create a plan of action that can lead to sound decision-making. This can include visiting the professor to receive feedback on previous grades in the course along with some introspection to reflect on the students’ confidence with the course material. If the student is failing a course yet he/she is reluctant to drop it, the advisor can use a grade point average (GPA) tool to demonstrate to the student the impact of the failed grade on the sessional GPA and the cumulative GPA. Training the student to use the GPA tool or a degree audit tool will support the student’s independent thinking and decision-making.

Learning to self-regulate and receiving constructive feedback can help the student maintain and sustain motivation. Creating activities and assignments that engage the student in bringing personal meaning to theoretical frameworks will engage and empower the student. Where there is clarity of expectations and instructions along with play and discovery in learning, motivation has a greater likelihood of being inspired and sustained.

Shehna Javeed
Academic Advisor
Academic Advising & Career Centre
University of Toronto Scarborough
[email protected]


Brophy, J. (2010). Motivating students to learn. New York: Routledge. 102, 166.

Caldwell, Jane E. (2007, Spring). Clickers in the large classroom: Current research and best-practice tips. CBE-Life Sciences Education 6.

Clark, M.H. & Schroth, Christopher A. (2010, February). Examining relationships between academic motivation and personality among college students. Learning and Individual Differences, 20(1).

Erwin, J. C. (2010). Inspiring the best in students. Alexandria,VA: ASCD.

Javeed, S. (2012, March). Motivation and how to maintain it. Retrieved from University of Toronto Parents and Families eNews http://family.utoronto.ca/Stories/Maintaining-motivation.htm.

Jessup-Anger, Jody E.  (2011). What’s the point? An exploration of students’ motivation to learn in a first-year seminar. The Journal of General Education, 60(2).

Nutrition for Educators (2011-2012). Monthly meetings conducted at the Centre for Teaching and Learning Events, University of Toronto Scarborough. 2011-2012.

Science Daily (2008, July 17). Students who use ‘clickers’ score better on physics tests.  Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080717092033.htm.

Cite this article using APA style as: Javeed, S. (2012, June). Student motivation: How to inspire and sustain it. Academic Advising Today, 35(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2012 June 35:2


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