By: Michelle MacQueen, Department of Music

There are strong links between motivation, autonomy, and competence (Ryan & Deci 2000a, 2000b). However, a motivated, autonomous, and competent learning experience cannot occur if students do not feel engaged in the learning materials. Motivation for students can be divided into two categories: (1) intrinsic motivation, or doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable, and (2) extrinsic motivation, or doing something because it leads to a separate outcome (Ryan & Deci, 2000a). Studies have shown that intrinsic motivation assists with self-determination, but only some forms of extrinsic motivation lead to direct improvements in autonomous learning (Zepke & Leach, 2010). In this sense, students will be more motivated and have more self-determination in their educational experience if they are doing the work because they find it to be interesting or enjoyable.

More and more students are attending post-secondary institutions for very pragmatic reasons: for example, in order to obtain a job, they need a degree. This circumstance often leads to many students who do not see an applicability for the course content beyond the midterm, assignments, or final exams. They are extrinsically motivated rather than intrinsically motivated. In this context, what can we as educators do to help students become more intrinsically motivated? How can we make the classroom more engaging, interesting, and enjoyable, and allow students to reach a more fulfilling educational experience? Educators can begin to construct an engaging environment that fosters intrinsic motivation by being attentive to our students’ educational needs and also by challenging our students to see connections across disciplinary borders.

In order for students to feel intrinsically motivated, their educational goals need recognition and support. Educators should make an effort to realize the ambitions of the students in their classes. Student engagement can no longer be assumed; it must be negotiated with students (McInnis, 2003). In smaller classes, we can facilitate an in-depth discussion with the students as to their educational goals. But for large classes where full discussion is not possible, educators can at least get a sense as to which programs, disciplines, and faculties students belong. This step allows educators to assess students’ previous knowledge of course materials and to gain insight into what students want out of their education. Rather than merely placing the burden on students to adapt to an unalterable context, educators should respect the importance of understanding students’ perceptions of their educational environments and experiences, and include such perspectives in developing learning climates and curricula (Johnson et al., 2007).

Once the teacher is familiar with what students are expecting from their education, we can make the classroom a more engaging place by tailoring the materials to better suit our audience and support students’ educational goals. We should present the course content in such a way that easily connects the materials to what they want to do with their education. For example, if I am leading a tutorial about gender issues in the music industry to a room full of engineering students, I could adapt my teaching style to make a seemingly disparate subject more familiar: I could discuss the correlations between this concept and gender representation in STEM, gender-based biases in science-related disciplines, and so on. In this sense, students will still be learning the course materials, but they will have an immediate sense of the applicability of the knowledge they are learning. Their educational ambitions will be recognized and supported by bringing their knowledge and experience into the learning environment. By making an effort to understand students and their educational goals, and by continuing to support those goals in the classroom, educators can aid in improving students’ intrinsic motivation. Students can feel as though their needs are recognized and supported, and that the content that they are learning will help them in the future.

To improve students’ intrinsic motivation, educators need to challenge our students to make connections between previous and new knowledge in a supportive and relatable environment. The evidence is compelling that enriching experiences and academic challenges are successful in engaging students (Zepke & Leach, 2010). Students who reflect, question, conjecture, evaluate, and make connections between ideas while drawing on their own ideas, experiences, and knowledges of others are most deeply engaged (Hockings et al., 2008). In this sense, educators need to challenge students see the value, applicability, and relatedness of the subject matter to their future goals and ambitions. Relatedness, at least in a distal sense, is important in motivating students, particularly in facilitating intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000b). Therefore, in order for students to feel interested and inspired to make an autonomous effort in the course, they need to feel challenged and to see why the course materials are useful to them.

For instance, thinking back to the example of a tutorial on the music industry with a group of primarily engineering students, I can challenge them to question the content. I can ask them to consider how they can implement this knowledge in their futures. In doing so, I am forcing them to think critically about the course materials and to bring in their own values, ideas, and experiences into the learning environment. Ultimately, I am challenging students to stretch further than they think they can (Kuh et al., 2005). Upon hearing their responses, I can expand upon the sense of relatability between the new knowledge and their educational experiences (i.e., making connections between developing an argumentative essay and the scientific method). I am creating an opportunity for students to identify with ideas (Zepke & Leach, 2010). In this sense, the content feels more related, and students can feel more invested in engaging with and learning about the material. By adapting this kind of approach, educators are recognizing that while our audience will not necessarily share the same passion for the subject, we should challenge and support our students to analyze and synthesize the content with their own knowledge and experiences (Coates et al., 2008).

Generally, educators should make a conscious effort to ensure that students are fully engaged. We should strive to know what our students want and need out of their educational experience, and then work to create a supportive learning environment that attends to those wants and needs. Students should feel that what they are learning is valuable and applicable in their life. Educators should challenge students to investigate interdisciplinary relatedness between concepts, ideas, and their own experiences to ensure student engagement. Overall, educators should create an environment wherein students feel intrinsically motivated and invested in the content.


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Hockings, C., et al. (2008). Switched off? A study of disengagement among computing students at two universities. Research Papers in Education, 23(2), 191-201.

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McInnis, C. (2003). New realities of the student experience: How should universities respond? Paper presented at the European Association for Institutional Research 25th Annual Conference. Limerick, Ireland.

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