How Student Motivation Impacts Learning

A photograph of a set of stairs, painted red.

Motivation to learn comes from students, not instructors. Students are motivated by their expectations of success, types of goals, and the course climate. In this article, we identify types of orientations and expectations that influence student motivation, as well as how to build a course climate to encourage student motivation for learning.

Expectations That Influence Student Motivation

Covington (1993) identifies four types of orientations towards learning in formal education:

  • Students who are oriented to success. These students are learners who are learning for the joy of learning and engage in their learning.
  • Students who strive to achieve. These students are somewhat anxious about their ability to achieve and push themselves to take on challenges. They work hard to succeed.
  • Students who avoid failure. These are students whose self-worth is at risk if they fail. They tend to avoid tasks that challenge them too much.
  • Students who accept failure. These are students who fail frequently and have had poor experiences with learning in the past. They tend to not engage with learning.

The orientations for success in turn impacts the types of learning goals that learners may have:

  • Performance goals – Students may wish to safeguard their self-concept, impress other, or demonstrate competency. On the other hand, students may wish to avoid appearing incompetent or awkward.
  • Learning goals – Students may wish to learn and increase competence or self-determination. Learning goals tend to drive students to think more deeply and even take intellectual risks with our learning.
  • Work avoidant goals – These goals lead students to “get by” with as little work as possible. When students have work avoidant goals, they tend to try to finish their work quickly and don’t display much interest in learning. Often learning tasks that don’t seem purposeful to learners lead to these kinds of goals. Other more pressing life demands can also lead to these kinds of goals.
  • Affective/social goals – These goals involve making friends, mentoring, feeling connected to a group, etc.
  • Service goals – Some students learn to contribute to their family or community (Fire, 2009).

With these expectations in mind, one of the first steps in encouraging student motivation to learn is to gather information about students’ motivation. The following strategies not only allow you to gather information, but they also demonstrate that you value students’ voices:

  • Including a formative classroom assessment to gather students’ ideas about how your course could be more motivating to them.
  • Selecting a student representative or group of students to gather information from the class and report back to you about the environment in the course (Ambrose, et al., 2010).
  • Gathering student opinions and then address them in changes you make to your course. This will help students feel that they have been heard and impact their motivation in the course.

Building a Positive Course Climate

Gathering student information also contributes to a positive course climate, or the learning conditions of a learning environment. Learning environments include components that are not only intellectual, but also social, emotional, and physical. Ideally, these components work together to provide a supportive learning environment.

It is important to make it clear to your students that your course provides an environment where they can explore their ideas, and that the purpose is not to agree with your ideas, but rather to engage and base their opinions and ideas on evidence and scholarship. Creating a supportive learning environment is crucial to this. Ambrose et al. (2010) identify several important factors in a positive learning environment:

  • Tone: Students perceive that they are respected and valued and that they can trust the instructor to create and maintain a “safe” learning environment.
  • Interpersonal dynamics: Students value the interactions they have with other students and the instructor.
  • Myths and stereotypes: Students do not feel judged by the instructor or other students.
  • Demographics: Course content, communication, group work, and interaction consider the diverse backgrounds students bring to the learning situation.
  • Communication: Students perceive that they can comfortably express their thoughts and understandings to one another and to the instructor.
  • Approachability of the instructor: Students perceive the instructor as interested in them and approachable either in class or in settings outside of class.
  • Content: Students perceive course content as relevant and understandable based on their backgrounds.


Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., Dipietro, M, Lovett, M.C. & Norman, M.K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Note.

Fire, N.H. (2009). A contextual perspective of traditional Native American distance online learning in a tribal college. (Dissertation, North Carolina State University, 2009). 

Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.

Covington, M.V. (1993). A motivational analysis of academic life in college. In J.C. Smart (Ed.), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research (Vol 9). New York: Agathon Press.