This article is based on a talk by Martin Covington, professor of the Graduate School in Psychology, for the GSI Center’s How Students Learn series in Spring 2011.

On this page:
Key Learning Principles
Research Fundamentals
Applications to Teaching
Further Reading

Also available:
Video and full summary of Martin Covington’s talk “Why Students Learn and (Sometimes) Don’t Learn

Key Learning Principles

  • Student motivation is sometimes driven by fear of failure, based on the belief that grades amount to a judgment of their personal ability or intelligence rather than their performance on a specific learning task. This is part of what drives intense student interest in achieving high grades, in addition to beliefs about how their grades may influence future prospects.
  • To instructors, grades don’t hold the same meaning as for students; instructors’ primary goal is for students to learn the course material for its own sake. Because students are so invested in grades, their expectations of a course can be very different from or at odds with their teachers’ expectations.
  • Learning environments and course designs that leverage intrinsic motivation — student curiosity and interest — improve the quality of students’ learning.

Research Fundamentals

Extrinsic motivation and fear of failure: When asked what makes them study and work hard in college, undergraduates typically say that they are trying to get the best grade possible. Grades, in fact, are the primary focus of most students (an extrinsic motivation). Only as secondary reasons do students list the desires to become competent, to prove themselves, and to avoid mistakes (intrinsic motivations). Learning about the content of the course for its own sake is the last of the reasons students give.

Conflicting expectations: As a result, students’ goals tend to be mismatched with their instructors’ objectives. First-year students, and many students beyond the freshmen level, tend to believe that it is their responsibility simply to follow directions and to absorb course content. They think that instructors should simply present and explain material, and that instructors are responsible for making that material interesting, relevant, and fun. Although there may be some truth to these perceptions, most instructors want to do far more — to encourage active engagement with the material, to foster students’ ability to self-monitor their learning, and to create a safe environment in which students can be inquisitive learners.

Leveraging intrinsic motivation: Several strategies can connect with students’ interests so that they come closer to their instructors’ goals for them.

  • Organize a lesson plan around a problem for students to solve using the course material. The problem should relate to things students are already interested in — for example, in a pre-med microbiology course, having students put themselves in the place of a pediatrician figuring out which systems are at issue given a hypothetical patient’s symptoms.
  • If you are creating your own course, organize the entire course around a large question or problem that the course material will eventually enable them to accurately explain and solve.
  • Connect course material with the non-academic world.
  • Take advantage of events the students are interested in to explore how your field views the issues involved.
  • Curiosity is great for priming intrinsic interest. Bring in anomalies or curiosities that students can use the course material to analyze and explain.

Applications to Teaching

Motivating Students from Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching

Further Reading

Please note that some links may require Library proxy access. Please see the Library’s page Connecting from Off Campus.

Kyndt, Eva et al. “The Direct and Indirect Effect of Motivation for Learning on Students’ Approaches to Learning through the Perceptions of Workload and Task Complexity.” Higher Education Research and Development 30.2 (April 2011): 135–150.