Dr Syed Mansoor Jaffar

Posted date: Mon Aug 26 16:45:00 SGT 2013 Mon Aug 26 16:45:00 SGT 2013

Motivation: Rules of Engagement


This paper focuses on the meaning of motivation and how motivation as a pedagogical device engages the student.

It also addresses the possible ways to engage students. Motivation and engagement in the classroom represents a dual process, one complementing the other. In an attempt to establish some measure of reliability, this article triangulates work from Bergsten (2007) and Mart (2011). My own personal views are also incorporated in the triangulation.


It is perhaps appropriate to define in an educational context, the meaning of motivation. “In plain language, motivation is what gets you going, keeps you going, and determines where you’re trying to go” (Slavin, 2003, p. 329).

Motivation is an issue of paramount importance in education, best summed up by the following quote. “There are three things to remember about education. The first one is motivation. The second one is motivation. The third one is motivation” (Terrell H. Bell).

My own perception of motivation is synonymous in part to engaging the classroom. When an instructor is able to engage the class, I think students are more motivated to listen and if that attention is preserved, learning will take place. On the other hand, if the class is engaged in what the instructor is trying to convey, there has to exist an underlying motivation to do so. Justifiably, and henceforth motivation and engagement constitute a dual process; two sides of the same learning coin. The next section outlines some ways to motivate and sustain motivation.

How to motivate?(Five possibilities)

There are strategies that can be employed in the classroom to facilitate motivation. The following is a list of strategies (see Mart, 2011). I have highlighted five of them briefly as follows.

  • Set the tone early in the semester – clearly state learning objectives, course goals, and student expectations for the course
  • Vary your teaching methods – instead of the traditional lecture, incorporate academic activities that allow for student participation
  • Give students options in the classroom – empower them by providing a sense of autonomy
  • Create assignments that are appropriately challenging – consider students’ interest, background etc
  • Make your lessons relevant – students are more enthusiastic if they can relate to the material

How to sustain motivation?(Five possibilities)

  • Activity – move around, role-play
  • Agency – let students be “doers”, let them be agents of learning
  • Affect – know how they feel, know their names
  • Adaptation – teachers should be able to respond to changes and unexpected things. Be flexible when things break down
  • Attitude – when you enter a classroom, it has to be not you but the professional teacher in you

The five techniques above are probably motivational tools that can facilitate engagement and in fact prolonged engagement in the classroom. I think it is vital to note that when an instructor steps into the classroom, students are immediately evaluating your sense of presence. After that, your teaching ability and teaching likability comes under scrutiny. A judgment is made spontaneously by the students on whether they will be willing to learn from you or whether they view your lessons as an exercise in futility. Hence, the very first lesson makes or breaks the connection an instructor forges between him or her and the students. The instructor has to be cognizant that for students to learn, the environment to learn has to be created by the teacher using one or more of the five techniques.

Other perspectives

Having taught for more than a decade, I think experiencing many kinds of personalities and attitudes has equipped me with a personal understanding that no two students are alike. Although that may sound trivially true, the subtlety of that truth propels and ignites motivation and how we motivate. When we teach in some lecture theatres, we have to reach an audience of about two hundred students. It is clear that not all two hundred will follow your lesson and materials. The students come from a diverse background with varying learning styles. It is only after assessing them through tests and assignments that an exhaustive picture of the abilities pervading one’s classroom can be truly ascertained.

Hence, assessment is an integral part of knowing your student. The information assessments provide can then be used to structure your lessons in a manner that can motivate different learners. Thus, using formative assessments to check student understanding is a good gauge of how motivation can be structured as the semester progresses.

In addition, assessment informs the instructor of the common misconceptions students face. The misconceptions can then be addressed to correct and reinforce concepts that were misconstrued. In this way, student difficulty will not fester and interest in the subject will be kept alive; thus, motivating students to attend lessons without the anxiety of not understanding the concepts taught. It is of fundamental importance to establish an open dialogue with students regarding the difficulty they face on certain topics. If the students know the instructor is motivated to help them overcome such problems, then the students will be more inclined to attend lessons; fully aware that when they do not comprehend, someone will be there to facilitate.

Another important aspect that affects motivation, is teaching quality.  Bergsten (2007) highlighted that a few attributes should be present in instruction. Teacher immediacy (gesture and humour) as well as communication and cooperation among students should be present (see Bergsten, 2007, p. 70). I, for one, think that communication between student and teacher is a necessity to fuel motivation in learning. A student who feels motivated to make enquires will only do so if communication is allowed. It is thus fundamental to allocate some time for questions and answers. It is not a good outcome to have students with unresolved difficulties. Engaging students also means engaging their difficulties and trying your best to resolve those difficulties.

Other factors that increase the level of motivation

The techniques and strategies detailed earlier to engage the class and motivate students only constitute some of the possibilities that can be tried. In this section, Mart (2011) has outlined some other factors that can perhaps reinforce motivation. I have selected some of them and highlighted them.

  • Provide Incentives – i.e. praise students who contribute
  • Internal motivation lasts longer than external motivation
  • Motivation is enhanced by the way material is organised – make it meaningful
  • Recognise that learning normally produces some anxiety – avoid causing too severe a level of anxiety


This paper has summarised some techniques of motivation used in the education field. I have also weighed in on the issue of motivation by incorporating my own views and beliefs. In short, I think the single most important technique of motivating a class is the instructor’s ability to adapt and to reinforce.

The instructor has to adapt to different students, different content from subject guides that may change from time to time, different class sizes, etc. The ability to be flexible and be able to adjust to changes is a challenge every educator faces.

The ability to reinforce (i.e. provide a consequence for students to repeat a kind of behaviour that promotes engagement in the lesson) is in itself a motivational mechanism. In the classroom, motivation is a function of adaptability and reinforcement. However, other variables also exist and these have been mentioned as strategies of motivation in the earlier part of this paper.

The paper has mentioned avoiding issues that constitute anxiety, and I think this point is noteworthy as anxiety is the antithesis of motivation. To avoid anxiety generating circumstances, one needs to know what things promote anxiety. These are boredom, time-deadlines and public embarrassment. Avoiding the latter is probably a good starting point in making the classroom a warm and learning centric environment.

Ultimately, the best motivation for students is intrinsic – they are motivated to learn on their own accord. However, reaching this stage is a consequence of providing a conducive climate, ranging from the disposition of the educator to the way the lesson is put across and how it comes across. Essentially, setting the grounds for motivation to take place is a task in itself. In a nutshell, one needs to be motivated to motivate!


Bergsten, C. (2007). Investigating quality of undergraduate mathematics lecturers. Mathematics Education Research Journal,19(3), 48-72.

Mart, C. T. (2011). How to sustain students’ motivation in a learning environment. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED519165).

Slavin, R. E. (2003). Educational Psychology. Theory and practice (7th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Article contributor: Dr Syed Mansoor Jaffar
Dr. Syed Mansoor Jaffar is currently teaching Management Mathematics in the SIM-UOL programme. He was one of the recipients for the Teaching Excellence Award 2011.

Category: Motivation, Literature review, Definitions