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.
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
- 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
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.
- 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
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- Communicating clearly.
- Setting tasks that encourage active engagement with the
- 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.
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Murray, H.G. (1997). ‘Effective Teaching Behaviours
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Stipek, D. (1988). Motivation to Learn: From Theory
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