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Find out what motivates students and teachers in the process of learning and teaching as the authors discuss Student Motivation/Teacher Motivation in this issue of CDTL Brief.

March 2004, Vol. 7, No. 3 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Motivation for Mandatory Courses
Elsie Chan
Faculty of Human and Social Development
University of Victoria, Canada


University students are often required to take mandatory courses with contents that few students look forward to. As a result, students experience ‘negative motivation’—a situation where teaching strategies need to be developed to motivate the students to learn and perform beyond the minimum requirement to pass. In such a situation, teachers need to create a teaching and learning environment that will help students relate the success back to their original motivation for being in school and re-energise them to learn the material. This article attempts to identify some of the negative motivations that students bring to classes, discusses the importance of turning the negative motivation into a positive drive and suggests how to develop teaching strategies that create a positive learning environment.

Negative Motivation

Students in mandatory courses are often motivated to succeed in the class only because they need to pass the module as a part of the programme’s requirements; it is the fear of negative results that motivates them rather than the expectation of learning something useful. The anxiety and panic created by the complex subject matter and the pressure to pass the course seriously interfere with the students’ memory, attention and concentration. This can be emotionally draining for the students. As a result, there is a lack of motivation to engage with the course material even though the students have the ability to learn it. When students fail to engage actively with the material, they fail to internalise the concepts and later, do poorly in the assignments, thereby reinforcing the feeling of incompetence at the core of the cycle. The teacher’s mission then, is to turn the negative motivations around to inspire students to do well.

From Negative Motivation to Positive Motivation

Stipek (1993) stated that individuals learn best when they see themselves engaging in learning for their own intrinsic reasons (i.e. learning because they want to rather than they have to). When learning is enjoyable, it results in more learning. The following are four perspectives on intrinsic motivation:

  • Competence. Individuals engage in learning activities, in part, for the purpose of developing competence and experiencing the positive feeling of successfully mastering the material.

  • Curiosity. Individuals are naturally curious about activities that are somewhat discrepant from their expectations. People seek situations that challenge their current level of skills, and then strive to master the challenge and experience feelings of competence or understanding.

  • Autonomy. Human beings need to feel that they are in control. They want to believe that they are engaging in activities at their own discretion rather than for some external reward.

  • Internalised motivation. Individuals engage in academic activities that are not intrinsically interesting because they have internalised achievement values. They want to be well-informed and see its value in the society.

Duch, et al., (2001) also indicated that students can be motivated in learning material by providing a real life situation, setting a goal and action plan for learning, and relating learning to student needs. Teachers can also increase students’ extrinsic motivation by providing clear expectations, giving corrective feedback and providing a valuable reward especially to students who did well. The challenge to teachers, therefore, is to create teaching methods that incorporate the intrinsic and extrinsic motivational behaviours in order to encourage the students to learn in their classes.

Creating a Positive Learning Environment

My teaching approach is based on active learning principles and is designed to create a dynamic and effective learning environment where students’ motivation is increased. This approach can be applied to teaching complex subject matters and teaching mandatory courses.

  1. Help students set a goal and action plan for learning.

    I structure each class around one set of notes and display them on an overhead projector so that I can easily direct students’ attention to key points and transitions, which they can highlight on their copies. Within the notes I provide a graphical overview of how each section fits with what has gone before and what is to come as the class proceeds.

    Simultaneously in each class, but separately from the overhead notes, I use PowerPoint presentations to illustrate specific concepts and provide solutions of examples. I also use visual props to aid students in gaining a better conceptual understanding of the subject. As a result of the combination of notes, PowerPoint illustrations and visual props, students spend most of the class time listening to my explanations and reflecting on what is being taught. This stimulates their critical thinking skills and hence, their curiosity about the subject matter. As a result, students become motivated to learn the subject.

  2. Help students overcome a passive approach to the subject.

    I encourage students to engage actively with the material. My practice includes strategies that give students a sense of autonomy, so that students can be engage in activities by their own discretion. To help the students internalise their motivations, I apply the following strategies in my class:

    1. The simulation capability of easily-created Java applets enables hands-on practice outside class time. The applets allow students to assess their understanding and offer visual reinforcement of the concepts. Students’ competence in mastering the material is increased, thereby motivating them to learn the subject.

    2. The frequent formation of discussion groups in class for problem-solving and responding to open-ended questions encourages students to move beyond listening towards actively asking questions and participating in critical thinking.

    3. A problem-based learning (PBL) project based on real-life research examples encourages engagement with the concepts and relates the concepts back to the students’ original motivations for being in school.
  3. Help students increase their sense of competence.

    Frequent success is the best way to begin building a sense of competence. If students succeed in following what is going on in class and in participating in the class, then they will begin to believe they are competent. I give them opportunities to correct their mistakes so that they gain confidence in their ability to do so. I also choose evaluation methods that provide frequent feedback because success is more likely in small units. This also helps students to increase their extrinsic motivation.

Sources of Teacher Motivation

I work on the principle that teachers can motivate students by:

  • Communicating clearly.

  • Setting tasks that encourage active engagement with the material.

  • Creating situations that allow students to make and correct mistakes without undue penalty.

  • Displaying enthusiasm for the subject matter.

Harry Murray (1997) of the University of Western Ontario has observed that teacher enthusiasm is associated with both course success and motivation for further study. It is a great reward to see students become motivated to learn the material and master a subject successfully. This creates a positive environment for teachers, thereby motivating teachers to show their passion and enthusiasm for teaching the subject. Students are then inspired by it to draw upon all their energy and talents, thus creating a cycle of positive motivation.


Negative motivation can be turned into positive motivation if teachers can recognise what motivates students and create a learning environment that supports these motivational factors. By understanding the roots of motivation, teachers can create positive motivation and facilitate effective learning for all their students.


Chan, E. & Kaufman, D. (2002). ‘A PBL Approach to Teaching Statistics: Overcoming Students’ Anxiety.’ In Proceedings of the 2nd Symposium on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning, National University of Singapore, Singapore.

Duch, B.J., Groh, S.E. & Allen, D.E. (Eds). (2001). The Power of Problem-Based Learning: A Practical “How To” for Teaching Undergraduate Courses in Any Discipline. Virginia: Stylus Publishing.

Murray, H.G. (1997). ‘Effective Teaching Behaviours in the College Classroom.’ In Perry, R.P. & Smart, J.C. (Eds.), Effective Teaching in Higher Education: Research and Practice. New York: Agathon Press.

Stipek, D. (1988). Motivation to Learn: From Theory to Practice. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall.

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Motivation for Mandatory Courses
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