Nine Strategies to Spark Adult Students’ Intrinsic Motivation

Are you an instructor who struggles to change the mindset of your students? Do you find that the students’ first questions are about grades rather than the content of the course? Do you want your students to obtain good grades but realize that the grade is a result of a student who is engaged in the topic with passion, interest, and exuberance? It is this passion to learn that can be described as intrinsic motivation.

How do we shift from this extrinsic reward mindset to the commitment to pursue education for the deeper and longer-lasting intrinsic value? Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs tells us that an individual will not be motivated to strive for higher level goals such as education, until lower level needs have been met (Maslow, 1970). It is the approachable instructor who believes in his or her students and is motivated to meet the needs of the individual student while simultaneously ensuring that learning takes place in his or her classroom.

At the very basic level, the instructor should work to confirm that students’ physiological and safety needs are met before we can begin to tap into the other goals that can be fulfilled through education. While it can be difficult to address a student’s challenges as a college instructor, certainly we can educate ourselves about resources available to refer students. Many colleges and universities offer a variety of student support resources.

Beyond acknowledging that basic needs must be met, we must tap into the adult learners’ motivation by addressing their individual potential and helping them to realize the personal satisfaction that can come from achievement. Yes, there are extrinsic factors at play—adult learners pursue education to advance in a career, to earn more money, and to gain some prestige that may come with a higher degree. But, without ignoring these practical issues, if students can also see how their education, even how each individual class they take, can make a difference in how they see themselves and how they can apply their learning, we start to tap into intrinsic motivation.

Instructional Strategies and Intrinsic Motivators
There are many ways to cover course content and effective instructors may find adult learners more enthusiastic when a variety of instructional methodologies are used (McDaniel & Brown, 2001). In encouraging active participation of students, a safe and supportive environment must be provided at all times. The following nine strategies can move the student from a reluctant learner to an engaged learner that is intrinsically motivated:

  1. Encourage students to draw on past experiences and facilitate a dialogue of discussion with regular active participation.
  2. Encourage students to share their own learning expectations and goals related to the course content
  3. Provide announcements and emails with information about the resources available for struggling students (i.e., mentorships, coaching, or counseling services).
  4. Provide real life applications through simulations, case studies, and role playing activities.
  5. Provide visual aids or even field trips that enhance the students learning and application of learning outcomes.
  6. Invite guest speakers that are experts in the field. Experts can pique students’ interests and highlight relevance of the learning concepts being taught.
  7. Talk with students about how the class assignments are relevant to future careers.
  8. Teach students to reflect and take control over their own learning by using weekly reflections (anonymously, if you like) to solicit feedback about their own performance and where they need to improve.
  9. Empower students by teaching them where to find materials and how to use resources in an online college platform that will help them in areas where improvement is needed.

Students, particularly adult students, become motivated when they see value in what they are working toward—when the work they are putting forth is clearly in line with their ultimate values or ideals. Students can find satisfaction in learning when their curiosity about a topic or skill level is improved. “Adults find motivation to learn within the demands and desires of their lives, in providing for themselves and their families, and in satisfying personal dreams and ambitions” (Fisher, 2006, para. 4). It is through the student’s sense of accomplishment and vision for the future that intrinsic motivation is born. An approachable instructor can be the inspiration for this change in the student’s mindset.

Fisher, C., (2006). Asynchronous learning and adult motivation: catching fog in a gauze bag. Retrieved from Learning Solutions Magazine website:

Maslow, A.H. (1970). Motivation and Personality, 2nd Ed., New York, Harper & Row.

McDaniel, D., & Brown, D. (2001). United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Manual for media trainers: A learner-centred approach. Retrieved from Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development website:

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