Simple Classroom Cues to Help With Student Motivation

Within the SMU CTE, we have been discussing a number of issues relating to motivating the students that we all have the privilege to teach. Although many of us assume that the subject matter itself should be interesting to and motivating for our students, the fact is that we can all benefit from considering how to motivate our students when the subject matter itself does not. While we recently presented a CTE workshop titled “Carrots and Sticks: Motivating Students to Learn”, I wanted to share some other considerations on this topic.

Sometimes it is helpful to look at how other universities approach this important consideration, as student motivation is perhaps a universal for those teaching in higher education. For example, the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University has provided some useful information on motivating students, looking at six categories and aspects: Intrinsic Motivation, Extrinsic Motivation, Effects of Motivation on Learning Styles, A Model of Intrinsic Motivation, Strategies for Motivating Students, and Showing Students the Appeal of a Subject. The last of the six, Showing Students the Appeal of a Subject struck me as interesting.

As Vanderbilt’s CT states, “When encouraging students to find (your) subject matter interesting, use cues to show students the appeal of the subject matter”. They then give examples of verbal cues that the instructor can provide to and for students.  They outline cues in eight areas: Novelty, Utility, Applicability, Anticipation, Surprise, Challenge, Feedback, and Closure. For example, in the area of Utility, a cue might be “This next topic is something that we’ll use again and again.  It contains valuable ideas that we’ll use throughout the later sections of the course.” I find this helpful, as it is an example of how simple but carefully worded comments can provide a spark to the student to help them take notice (and hopefully be motivated by) the course material at hand.

In summary, while some students will be motivated simply by the subject matter itself, we as instructors can also make use of targeted teaching strategies to help motivate our students as needed. If you are interested in reading more of what Vanderbilt has to share, visit their Center for Teaching website at

About Robert Krout

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