Motivating Students with Teaching Techniques that Establish Relevance, Promote Autonomy

Underachievement in college students is linked to lack of motivation (Balduf, 2009 and references therein). Two major factors that contribute to poor motivation are inability of students to see the relevance of classroom activities to their chosen careers (Glynn et al., 2009) and lack of a sense of autonomy (Reeve and Jang, 2006; Reeve, 2009).

In this article, I provide examples of how I addressed these two issues with activities that promote experiential learning and encourage students to be more active participants in their learning. These techniques were used mainly in science courses but could be adapted to other disciplines.

Establishing Relevance
Experiential learning is a process through which students develop skills through direct experience. While most people think of experiential learning as something that happens outside the classroom, it is possible to give students real-life experiences in the classroom, too.

I am explicit with my students about the desired outcomes and utility of my assigned activities, but the key to my success has been to design activities that simulate real-life scenarios. Oftentimes, this simply involves re-naming an activity using professional rather than academic jargon. For example, rather than asking my students to write a lab report (academic jargon), I refer to it as a primary article (professional jargon). In several of my courses I have taken this one step further. I have adopted the style of a relevant journal for their lab reports (e.g. I use Development, for my developmental biology course, and Animal Behaviour for my animal behavior course) and give my students the Instructions for Authors from the publishers to use as formatting guidelines. Learning to write correctly for a real journal was more motivating for my students than simply learning to write in a way that “pleases Dr. Robertson,” and the quality of their lab reports improved.

Other similar techniques my colleagues and I have used to simulate “real life scenarios” in the classroom include asking students to write an NIH grant proposal following actual NIH grant proposal guidelines (NIH, 2010). This assignment replaces one which asked them to write a senior research project proposal, which implied (in their minds) that they were being tasked with something that only college seniors do. Since changing our approach, we have noticed an improvement in the quality of their proposals.

In addition, I no longer ask my students to write essays (after all, who in the professional world writes essays?). I ask them to write articles in the style of the New York Times. I also have stopped asking students to write summaries; I now ask them to write reviews in the style of a secondary article from a journal such as Scientific American. Instead of writing reflections, I ask them to write self-evaluations or personal statements in the style of a professional self-evaluation or a statement that they might use for an application to graduate school.

Encouraging Autonomy
It is common practice for professors to provide explicit instructions and grading rubrics to students. However, overly-comprehensive instructions can stifle creativity, hinder independence, and actually lower motivation (Reeve, 2009; Robertson, 2013). Autonomy-supportive teaching styles improve student motivation as well as encourage independent thought and critical thinking (Reeve, 2009).

To enhance student autonomy, I don’t give my students explicit guidelines or grading rubrics, but rather get them to write their own. As an extension to the activity described above, in which students model the style of a particular journal for their lab reports, I often ask my students to write detailed Instructions for Authors as an assignment. In doing so, they must identify for themselves (mostly correctly) what qualities a good paper should possess. Following that activity, I asked them to use those instructions to write a grading rubric, and then use the grading rubric to grade their own papers. This not only gives them a sense of autonomy, but it helps them develop their self-editing skills.

Others things I’ve done to encourage students as partners in the learning process, include:

  • asking students to pick a topic from their textbook, which they are then responsible for teaching to the rest of the class;
  • soliciting input on the syllabus by allowing the class to select the topics for a few “students’ choice” lectures; and
  • assigning students to write a personal statement about their experiences in the course in which they identify their own weaknesses and request exercises to help them overcome those weaknesses.

The latter was particularly beneficial in helping me improve the course because many of the weaknesses they identified were common to the group and reflected a problem of general student perception or in my teaching style — both of which I was able to address.

These adjustments to the way I approach teaching were easy to make and have resulted in better student engagement and better quality assignments, which was my main goal. However, I also believe that my students left my classes with the perception that they had also learned something “useful” that they can apply in their professional careers.

Balduf, M. (2009) Underachievement among College Students. J. Adv. Academics, 20 (2), 274-294.

Glynn, S. M., Taasoobshirazi, G. and Brickham, P. (2009) Science Motivation Questionnaire: Construct Validation with Nonscience Majors. J. Res. Sci. Teaching, 46 (2), 127-146.

NIH, (2010) Quick Guide for Grant Applications. Available online from

Reeve, J. (2009) Why Teachers adopt a Controlling Motivating Style Toward Students and How They can Become More Autonomy Supportive. Educational Psychologist, 44 (3), 159-175.

Reeve, J. and Jang, H. (2009). What Teachers Say and Do to Support Students’ Autonomy during a Learning Activity. J. Ed. Psych. 98 (1), 209-218.

Robertson, K. (2013) Assessment as an Opportunity for Developing Independent Thinking Skills in Students. Faculty Focus, April 1, 2013. Available online at

Dr. Katherine Robertson is an associate professor in the Department of Biology at Westminster College.