November 2, 2018 7:51 pm

Norman Eng

A lot of us probably learned about motivation when we took Psych 101 in college. But it seemed so abstract and so long ago. Especially when phrased in abstract terms like the theory of self-determination. Or intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. As professors now, we might have even forgotten all this. But we need to understand motivation now more than ever, especially when it comes to the students we teach.

Let’s apply these theories of motivation now. Minus the boring stuff.

We need to meet three basic psychological needs, according to researchers Deci & Ryan (1985): competenceautonomy, and relatedness.

  1. Competence: Students will more likely adopt or internalize a goal if they understand it and have the relevant skills to succeed in it. When it’s important to them, they want to master those skills.
  2. Autonomy: People want to feel they have control over their own behavior and lives.
  3. Relatedness: People want to feel a sense of belongingness and connectedness to people or groups.

Daniel Pink, bestselling author of Drive, makes these ideas easy to apply. He repackages them using the acronym A.M.P.:

  • Autonomy: We yearn to have control over our behaviors and our lives.
  • Mastery: We want to keep improving at the things important to us.
  • Purpose: We’ll be more motivated if the things we do (or learn) are meaningful.

Here’s how I AMP it up in my classroom.


When I first started, I wanted to control every aspect of my lectures. It’s natural. But students stopped owning their learning. They were less motivated, because, what’s the point? They weren’t self-directed. Now, creativity plays a bigger role. For their final child development paper, they design a PDF recommendation guide, which ultimately goes to a school teacher or parent. “Ten Steps to Helping Your Students Thrive in the Classroom” kind of thing. All backed by evidence from their readings. What a way to encapsulate learning and help their target audience.

By using a graphic design tool website (like Canva.com), students make their PDFs professional-looking. It takes the finals out of the academic realm. No more double-spaced, 12-point type sized papers in Times New Roman! It’s something a professional might actually put on his or her website. And students control almost every aspect—the title, the target audience, the visuals, and of course the content.

How might you incorporate self-direction and choice?


This isn’t easy. Mastery is about giving opportunities to keep improving, especially in tasks students care about. If they get a low grade in one of my assignments, they can revise and resubmit.

I know. I’m fortunate I don’t have a huge class. And yes, who’s got the time to regrade everything?

But isn’t the point that students become competent? That they end up leaving my course ready for the next level? They’ll only accomplish this if they try—and try again. If they get a “C” grade, with no chance to improve, then the learning stops. That’s demotivating.

Learning is an iterative process. In real life, anything worth doing takes multiple tries. We undermine motivation when we only give students one chance. In reality, of course, I don’t provide multiple chances for every assignment. But you get the picture.

Another part is to make sure students have the necessary skills to be good at something. So giving them a really hard assignment at the beginning of the semester is demotivating. Start with something you know they’ll succeed at. Build their confidence. That’s the progress principle at work, according to organizational change expert Teresa Amabile: the more people experience small wins, the more motivated they’ll push through and finish the journey.

Conversely, the more onerous that initial challenge, the less likely students will complete it. Think of big dense books or online courses with 30 lessons. There’s a reason most people don’t finish either.

How can you improve students’ competence over the content? Maybe break up assignments in steps? Maybe stop grading every single thing? Sometimes I’ll just assess them informally. For example, I’ll ask one question about what they learned at the end of class (a type of assessment called an exit slip), collect their answers, NOT grade it, and talk about their collective responses next class. Address any misconceptions. NOW it’s about learning and growing. Mastery.


I have ONE question that drives my child development course: How do you help children develop into successful adults? A challenging task, for sure, but it’s a goal. I make students memorize this! On any given day, I’ll ask one of them the goal of this course. If students think, What’s the point of taking this class?, that’s a problem. Let’s be honest. It happens. Probably a lot. We have to answer that question!

Another way I imbue purpose is to spell it out in syllabus and emphasize it the first day of class. My syllabus literally states, “This is why you’re here—to answer this [BIG] question.”

Figure out why your students are here, not just in the course, but for each class session. They need to know the “why.” This starts in the planning phase. For help, see my “one-sentence lesson plan.”

Think about one of your classes. How can you add autonomy, mastery, and purpose (AMP) to your assignment or course? Please share.

To learn more about motivation, see: 1) Edward Deci & Richard Ryan’s book, Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior (1985); 2) their article Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation; and 3) a video based on Daniel Pink’s popular Ted Talks event, called The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (10:47).

  • I’ve heard about Ryan & Deci’s work on motivation, but it’s really helpful to see it applied using PAM. Love the idea giving students an extra chance to revise their assignments, esp since i have a smaller class. It changes the focus from getting good grades to being about learning. I’m going to try that!

  • Dig these suggestions. You could even rearrange them and AMP up your class with autonomy, mastery, and purpose! Keep it coming, doc!

  • I too follow the notion that students need the opportunity to see small wins, and I also discovered that when I take the high stress high points out of the assignment equation students seem a lot less inclined to cheat. So for some classes I have online, open note, untimed chapter quizzes, and to kick it up a notch I let them take them twice! There are typically 25 questions and I make them worth 1/2 points apiece.
    Now when the exam come around, I can easily see which students made full use of the chapter quiz and which didn’t! By reminding them that some of the exam questions will come from the chapter quizzes more students are actually reading the textbook (to find the quiz answers) and accidentally learning the material. Win win!
    Now that I have PAM and AMP to add into the mix, perhaps I can increase my overall students success in these courses!
    Thanks for the great tip!

    • I agree, Eugene–letting students take a test twice–why not? it’s all about building their competence. There’s lots of interest in k-12 education about so-called “competence-based education,” where students progress to next grade based on their abilities/understanding, rather than seat time. Hope to see more of it in higher ed.

  • Growing up, one of the most common questions I used to ask is, “Why do we have to be at school?”. The most common answers I received were that my parents had to …

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