Few topics concern faculty as much as student motivation. Faculty often worries about students who appear disengaged, who attend classes sporadically or whose laptop use in class seems more directed to Facebook than to the taught material.

All faculty members want students who share their passion for the subject matter, students who are eager to learn and who ask smart questions. However, let’s face the truth: The majority of higher education students are strategic learners whose equations may be summed up as ‘how can I succeed with this course while investing minimal effort’.

What, exactly, is motivation, and how is it triggered amongst learners?

Basically, we distinguish two types of motivation: intrinsic motivation, which is internal and depends upon the learner, and extrinsic motivation, which is external and depends upon other factors. Extrinsically motivated learners are likely to engage in the course for reasons of external rewards, such as grades or recognition. On the other hand, intrinsically motivated learners engage in an activity for the value of the activity itself. These students learn for the pleasure of learning and have a strong sense of self-determination in regards to their educational path. Sadly, as an educational developer, I have often observed that intrinsically motivated students reassure (bad) teachers for the wrong reasons. Indeed, they are independent learners and would probably succeed autonomously.

The challenge higher education faces today is how to successfully motivate strategic students to become intrinsically motivated – not an easy task!

In higher education, there’s a commonly accepted formula to define intrinsic motivation:

Intrinsic motivation (Im) equals self-efficiency (Se) multiplied by expectancy value (Ev). In other words, if students think a task is too easy, the task becomes boring, and if the task is too difficult, the task becomes frustrating. The other parameter concerns the expected value of the given task. Students typically direct their behaviour towards activities that they value and in which they find meaning for their professional future. If not, they may as well be demotivated.

Taking the time to provide students with constructive and individualized feedback when returning tests is an opportunity for further teaching and can empower students with their learning and foster engagement. Whenever possible, I try to make links or, even better, encourage my students to make links between their learning experiences and their professional futures. More than ever, meaning is at the heart of intrinsic motivation and, consequently, at the heart of the learning experience.