Motivating the Unmotivated

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H.E.L.P.! is produced by the
Educational Development Centre
(EDC) of The Hong Kong
bulletin focuses on understanding
and addressing a teaching and
learning problem that a teacher
has brought to EDC and which
teachers commonly share.
Why Students
might Fail to
Sometimes, despite your best
effort to captivate students,
some may still appear to be
disinterested. If this is the case,
you might try finding out:
1. What's the background of
these students? Do they have
sufficient foundations to
build on?
2. How do they see themselves
as learners? Is it possible that
they fail to engage because
they are scared of failing?
3. Why did they enrol? Was this
programme their first choice?
Problems related to the first two
sets of questions may be easier to
address than the third.
If students really have no
interest in the subject, the
challenge lies in containing
them so that they don't disturb
those students who really want
to learn.
"Help! Some of my students are totally unmotivated. I feel upset and
frustrated when I look at their bored faces. They don’t seem to care
enough to ask questions or offer opinions in class. They seem happy
getting by as long as they get a pass. How can I stimulate them to be
enthusiastic about the subject and their learning?"
A. Teacher
In this bulletin we:
• Explore why students fail to engage in their work.
• Identify the behaviour and characteristics of teachers
who students say motivate them.
• Share some teaching and learning activities that capture
students’ interest.
• Consider what you can do to build students’ confidence to try and succeed.
Teaching that Motivates
When excellent teachers are asked what they do to
motivate students, and when students are asked
what sort of teaching motivates them, a
common list of characteristics emerges.
Amongst other things, teachers who motivate:
Display enthusiasm. Teachers motivate through their
enthusiasm for their discipline and subject, and through their
enjoyment of teaching.
Make the relevance explicit. It is important for students to know that
what they are learning will help them with their current studies and their
future careers.
Draw on examples that students can relate to. Most students say what
motivates them most is not factual information from the textbooks but rather
examples from personal experience, real-life cases and workplace practices.
Use a variety of active learning approaches. It is hard to hold students’
attention with a single approach.
Hold high but realistic expectations. Teachers need to pitch work for students
at a challenging but achievable level.
Develop rapport, trust and respect. Students respond to teachers who treat
them respectfully and who they perceive have something important to say.
Provide feedback. As well as clearing up misconceptions and steering students
in the right direction, prompt and constructive feedback validates students’ efforts
and provides them with the confidence to keep trying.
Read how excellent teachers at Chinese University of Hong Kong motivate their students in
Excellent University Teaching [LB2331.E935 2006]
©2008 The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
Polytechnic University. Each
Activities and Strategies to Motivate Learners
Capturing Students’ Interest
Try these two activities. You will be surprised how much
interest they generate!
Newspaper Clippings
Local and international current events can fuel students’
• Konstantine Kouros displayed a slide of “a garment shown last week in Milan”
to his first class of 100+ Institute of Textiles and Clothing students.
• A computer scientist gave his students a cutting to read about internet fraud
before tackling ethical questions about the topic.
• An engineer started a lecture with a photo from that morning’s newspaper of
buildings that had just been devastated by an earthquake.
Inspiring or important real-world events are motivating. What can you find to
capture your students’ interest?
Graduate “Expert” Panel
Who better to motivate your current students in
your subject and give credibility to what you are
teaching than your former students?
Before their visit
• Announce to your students that the graduates will be attending the next class.
Provide the class with a brief profile of the graduates including their current
• In groups, get the students to design questions to put to the panel. You may want
them to be broad, or you may want to confine the questions to a current topic and
On the day
• Have representatives from each group take turns to ask a question.
©2008 The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
Building Students’ Confidence
Set realistic and achievable goals for your students so that they feel more confident
to succeed. It helps when you:
• Provide opportunities for students to
succeed at the beginning of the semester.
You can increase the difficulty level as the
semester proceeds.
• Break complex tasks into manageable
chunks and provide clear instructions.
• Praise and give positive feedback to students
on their accomplishments.
• Ask students to evaluate their own progress. Help them focus on their
continued improvement rather than their grade on any one test or assignment.
Overheard... “The subject just isn’t
interesting. Why do I have to learn
this boring stuff?”
Rather than starting off your class
with a dry overview, think of ways
that will create a “need to know” for
your students. You might do this
• A demonstration
• A problem
• A case
• A photographic image
• A video. Go to
to find
something that
relates to your
Life and Death!
The following true anecdote is a good
reminder of the danger in making an
assumption that students understand
the importance of a topic.
When a visitor to an engineering class
asked a clearly bored student what the
point of the day’s lecture was, he
replied that he didn’t have a clue.
When the lecturer was asked the same
question, he
replied, “If you
don’t understand
this, wings can
fall off
online at:
Contact Us
Educational Development Centre
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University,
Hung Hom, Kowloon
Phone: 2766 6292
Fax: 2334 1569
Email: [email protected]
This issue of H.E.L.P.! was written by
Adele Graham and Sam Graham.
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