What motivates your students?

Understanding motivation may help you to design learning that your students engage with, and sessions that they turn up for. This Skill Boosters video, while designed for managers trying to motivate employees, describes eight different motivators that could also apply to your students.

Below are some ideas about how each of these eight needs might be addressed in your programmes and modules, in particular how you might motivate students to engage in class, and how they may respond to group work. Belbin team roles are indicated in bold (this is a commonly used model to create more balanced teams and help team members understand their strengths). Following the description of the eight motivators are some tips for how to make the most of this information to support your students.

The eight that motivate

A need to achieve

These students want to excel academically, and are likely to be driven by grades (even more than most!). They will be more motivated to do a task if they understand exactly how it will lead to better success, and they may enjoy competitive activities. Be clear on assessment criteria and deadlines, so that they know how to get the best mark.

  • In class: They may enjoy quiz competitions (you can run these in Mentimeter). Use your session study plans to make the link between what you will be doing in class and the required module outcomes.
  • In groups: Such students may find group work unsatisfying.  Motivate them by making sure their individual contribution can be assessed in some way, or by marking group work on how well they succeed at working together, rather than the output – and make it clear why this is important for their future success. They will want to drive the team forward, so may take Shaper or Implementer roles.

A need to please

These students want to know you think they are doing well. Because of this, they may also seek high grades – but they are likely to want plenty of feedback as well.  They may also want to please their peers, so in discussion activities they may find it harder to challenge others or promote their own point of view.

  • In class: Allow them to answer questions, and give praise for correct answers. Getting positive feedback from classmates may be equally rewarding, so peer feedback exercises could help as long as there is an atmosphere of collaboration and respect.
  • In groups: May be a good Team Worker and help foster harmonious relationships between group members, but may keep ideas to themselves if they think they will be unpopular.

A need to belong

Community is important to these students. They may particularly appreciate face-to-face sessions, as long as there are opportunities to interact with others. Create ways for them to get to know their peers and connect both in and outside of class, such as discussion boards, Teams sites or scheduled co-working sessions.

  • In class: Allow time for discussion, and make use of pair and small group work. Consider starting with an icebreaker that they can explore with the person next to them.
  • In groups: These students are likely to enjoy group work, as long as things go smoothly, but could be affected by friction in the group. They may take on the people-oriented roles of Team Worker, Coordinator or Resource Investigator.

A need for autonomy

Students who enjoy autonomy will work best when they understand the final outcome required and can reach it in their own way. Consider giving them choice in their assignment topics or methods while still providing clear criteria for success. They may enjoy problem-based learning and trying things out on their own.

  • In class: These students may enjoy individual activities or practical sessions, but be frustrated by didactic lectures or activities where they have to keep pace with the rest of the class.
  • In groups: They may make good Specialists, where they can work alone on a particular part of the problem, or, with impartiality and a clear understanding of the required outcome, Monitor Evaluator. However, they may fail to communicate adequately with others in the group, or try to take control.

A need for variety

These students may not respond well to long lectures and need different tasks to hold their attention. They may enjoy learning in lots of different areas and be able to see connections between them. Give them varied activities and assessments, both in class and outside of it. They may also respond well to different environments, so activities where they can get out of the classroom may be popular. Watch out for them losing motivation during long assignments – break things down into smaller tasks.

  • In class: Break up lectures with a variety of activities: questions, polls, discussions, and tasks that are creative or hands-on.
  • In groups: They are likely to be a good Plant (good at generating ideas and solving problems), but may lose interest with details and finishing up.

A need for structure

These students want clarity and predictability. They are likely to want everything laid out clearly in Blackboard so they can plan their time up front and know exactly what is expected of them. They may become stressed if things change at the last minute. They may need you to set a series of short-term deadlines to keep them on track, rather than just aiming for one final submission without support or touching base in between. Use rubrics in assessments so that they can clearly see everything they have to cover.

  • In class: Use session study plans to prepare students and give them confidence to participate. Make sure pre-work, class work and follow-up work are clearly linked and scaffolded, and show how topics relate to each other and the module outcomes.
  • In groups: They may feel more comfortable in long-term groups rather than working with different people every session. Such students may also be detail-oriented and perform well as Completer Finisher or Monitor Evaluator.

A need to care

Students who are motivated by care for others may enjoy being able to share their knowledge and skills to help others thrive. They are likely to give conscientious and constructive peer feedback, contribute to discussion boards and collaborative projects, and be supportive team members. Like those with a need to belong, they may appreciate the chance to get to know their peers in class through small group exercises and icebreakers.

  • In class: Give them the opportunity to contribute to others’ learning, for example, doing research or presenting on part of a topic (as in the Jigsaw method).
  • In groups: By helping to build a caring atmosphere, these students may enable others to feel safe to contribute their ideas, which can lead to productive team working. As conscientious individuals, they may be a good Completer Finisher, or a Team Worker who cares about people getting along.

A need for control

As with those who need structure, these students will appreciate well set out Blackboard sites with all the information at their fingertips so that they can plan and organise their work. But they may be more proactive and more able to adapt to change – as long as they can help shape it. Give them responsibilities and opportunities to lead if possible.

  • In class: Session study plans, handouts and lecture slides in advance, and lecture recordings available after, will allow them to self-manage and take control of their learning. These students may appreciate being able to give you feedback about the class to help shape it for the future.
  • In groups: These students may take the action-oriented roles of Co-ordinator, Shaper or Implementer. They may get frustrated with too much discussion and try to take charge.

How to use this information

It may seem a difficult task to be able to address all of these needs, and some may seem incompatible, such as a need for structure versus a need for variety. However, aspects of more than one of these may apply to any given student, and across a cohort there will be a range of preferences. So it is worth being aware of all of them even if you can’t please everyone. But there are some key things that it may be worth bearing in mind:

Choice and variety

Because different students have different needs and preferences, it can be helpful to give them a choice in how to approach something. If that is logistically difficult, if you can at least provide a variety of activities and assessments throughout the module then everyone has a chance to excel. Clear guidance can support those who are less comfortable with changes.

Structure and preparation

Nobody is disadvantaged by a course being well structured and prepared for. While some will benefit more than others from a clearly laid out Blackboard site, comprehensive session study plans, learning materials in advance and practice assignment submissions, everyone will get some benefit. This is good practice in accessibility and inclusion, as well as giving students the opportunity to manage their own learning.

Community and connection

There is plenty of evidence that learning can benefit from being done collaboratively, and that students are more likely to succeed when they feel part of a safe and respectful community. You can help students build these connections with each other and provide opportunities for them to continue to connect outside of class. This will be a great help to those students who thrive on community. Those who do not feel it benefits them can for the most part choose not to engage.


In addition, if you are an academic personal tutor, or having coaching conversations with individual students, you may find it helpful to find out what motivates them. Then you can help them understand how they work best, why they might struggle in some modules, and what steps they can take to solve this.


Photo by Simon Harmer on Unsplash