Yangyang Liu, School of Education

Students play an active role in their own learning. However, as an instructor, you may have noticed that some students are more motivated than others in your classroom. According to educational research, optimal learning happens when individuals are intrinsically motivated (Black & Deci, 2000). You can motivate your students by promoting their sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Granting Autonomy

Teaching is a structured human activity. However, research finds that appropriate level of autonomy in structured teaching would encourage students’ active engagement and promote learning (León, Núñez, Liew, 2015). This is especially true for adolescent learners, who are developing a sense of self. Teachers can grant autonomy to students in multiple ways. As a teacher, from the moment you design syllabus, you can involve students’ voices. For example, you can provide goals for the students as a model for them to draft individualized goals for themselves. Students will be more intrinsically motivated when they work toward goals that are meaningful to themselves. When you pick class materials, allow students to contribute ideas and selecting materials that would be of interest to them. In the evaluation process, provide multiple formats of assessment that students can choose from.

Promoting a Sense of Competence

Like autonomy, sense of competence is also a fundamental developmental need for individuals (Ryan & Deci, 2017). Individuals have the need to show that they are competent in affecting their own development and the world around them. When students think they are capable of achieving learning goals, they are less likely to give up facing challenges, and are more likely to succeed (Orsini et al., 2016). However, not all students come into a classroom already feeling competent to succeed. How can you as an instructor promote their sense of competence while they are learning the material? You can give specific advice on how to succeed in the class. You can present content in multiple formats, so different types of learners can feel comfortable with learning. You can also encourage students to participate and contribute to their own learning. For example, you can divide students into groups and ask different groups to work together to complete a task. The last tip is really simple but often gets ignored by instructors. Praises and encourage your students. Many people want their accomplishments to be acknowledged!

Establishing a Sense of Relatedness

As you may already know, students are more likely to persist and contribute in a class if they feel a sense of connection with the instructor and their peers. It may sound intimidating to build a “relationship” with each individual student in your classroom. However, there are some tricks you can use to build a connection with students in a short time. For example, take advantage of the opportunity of giving feedback on assignments. Try to give each student individualized feedback at least once during the entire class session. Use an online discussion board to continue communication outside of class. You can also promote sense of relatedness among students using class activities and group work. Ice breakers are always helpful for the first class. While some students may prefer working with a fixed group of peers, it can be helpful to change the groupings so students get to know more people in the class. This also helps if the initial grouping does not work out.

Do not get discouraged if your students are not motivated in your class. Try these tips to promote their sense of autonomy, competence and relatedness. These will help boost their intrinsic motivation in the class and contribute to a better learning experience.


Black, A. E., & Deci, E. L. (2000). The effects of instructors’ autonomy support and students’ autonomous motivation on learning organic chemistry: A self‐determination theory perspective. Science Education, 84(6), 740-756.

León, J., Núñez, J. L., & Liew, J. (2015). Self-determination and STEM education: Effects of autonomy, motivation, and self-regulated learning on high school math achievement. Learning and Individual Differences43, 156-163.

Orsini, C., Evans, P., Binnie, V., Ledezma, P., & Fuentes, F. (2016). Encouraging intrinsic motivation in the clinical setting: teachers’ perspectives from the self‐determination theory. European Journal of Dental Education20(2), 102-111.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Publications.

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on December 3rd, 2019.