Motivation is often inferred from observable behavior. When students study diligently and manage their time wisely we tend to describe them as motivated. When struggling students do not implement the advice they’ve been given to improve their academic situation, we usually label them unmotivated. This overly simplistic view of motivation fails to account for the internal processes that we cannot see.

Barriers to Enhancing Student Motivation

Academic advisors need to understand that some students may lack confidence (self-efficacy) or the skills necessary for academic success. Students may also struggle with competing motivations, wavering between multiple courses of action, each with perceived costs and benefits. It is important to acknowledge, then, that perception is not reality; it is judgment based on one’s interpretation of external events. Labeling students unmotivated amplifies these negative perceptions when, as academic advisors, we should be highlighting students’ positive intentions.

Discovering and understanding a student’s motivation is a prerequisite for enhancing it (see A Word on Motivation). Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for academic advisors to bypass this step and adopt a “cheerleading approach”, saying things like you can do it, you just gotta keep working hard, and I know that you have what it takes. These are positive messages indeed, yet they can also be verbal band-aids for significant challenges that may warrant further discussion. As Moskowitz and Grant (2009) noted, “setting specific difficult goals (e.g., write 20 pages of the book every day) is more motivating (i.e., produce better performance, higher persistence, mobilization of more effort) than urging people to do their best” (p.281).

Another ineffective method is the “salesman approach” in which academic advisors sell their students on the benefits of education prior to understanding what the student considers to be a benefit. Students who invest little time and energy into their academic pursuits are not necessarily unmotivated, they may be motivated for other things or possibly feeling discouraged. Convincing them that education will have a positive impact on their future dreams may seem irrelevant when compared to their immediate concerns. A much more effective approach is to adopt a stance of curiosity and genuine interest  in the student’s experience while eliciting motivation rather than instilling it.

Techniques for Enhancing Student Motivation

 “As a person argues on behalf of one position, he or she becomes more committed to it” (Miller & Rollnick, 2002, p. 21). Invite students to argue on their own behalf by eliciting self-motivating statements. Listen carefully for statements of Desire, Ability, Reason, and Need (DARN) and reflect, affirm, and amplify them. Desire statements include words such as want, wish, and hope (e.g. I hope to start a business, I want to be a role model to my kids). Expressions of ability sound like I can, I am able to, I am going to, and I am capable. Reason statements articulate benefits (e.g. If I have a degree, then…) whereas need statements are typically expressed as strongly stated desires using words such as must, need, and have to or got to.

Eliciting self-motivating statements is achieved by the following techniques:

  1. Open Questions – Directly ask for statements of desire, ability, reason, or need (e.g. what reasons do you have for, what do you hope to achieve by earning a college degree? What keeps you going?)
  2. Elaboration – Get details to reinforce DARN statements (e.g. How so?, Tell me more about X, give me an example of X)
  3. Querying Extremes – Request the extremes of concerns (e.g. What is the best thing about… or what is most important about…)
  4. Looking Back – Invite students to discuss past successes or missed opportunities (e.g. Tell me about a time you handled this issue successfully, What has prevented you from receiving promotions in the past?)
  5. Looking Forward – Encourage students to think about the future (e.g. Talk to me about how your life will be different with a degree?, What effect do you think having a degree will have on future employment opportunities?)
  6. Exploring Goals and Values – Inquire about how a degree is connected to values or goals (e.g. What goals are you hoping to achieve with a college degree? What does your degree mean to you?)
  7. Selective Attention – Selectively attend to DARN statements and ignore other statements (e.g. I hear you saying that you want to drop out but talk to me about the part of you that still wants a degree)
  8. Reflect Feeling – Being emotionally invested is crucial for persistence; strategically reflect emotion to reinforce motivation to persist (e.g. I get the sense that part of you is disappointed because you really do want your degree, you seem so proud when you talk about pursuing your degree)
  9. What If – Evoke new possibilities by asking what if questions (e.g. What if you were able to improve your writing/research/time management skills so that you could improve your grades? What do you think about that?)
  10. Combinations – Combine multiple techniques in one (e.g. What if this was the most difficult time…and a year from now you look back on how you successfully overcame this challenging time by persevering? How would you feel about yourself?

The Latin root word for education, educare, means to bring up, to raise, or to rear. Closely related is the Latin root word educere, meaning to bring out or bring forth what is latent or within.  The implication is that education is not a process of instilling, but, rather a process of evoking or eliciting that which is already within the student (see article on minimally invasive education). Similarly, enhancing student motivation is a process of drawing out motivation from within the student rather than convincing or telling students why they should be motivated.



Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2002). Motivational Interviewing: Preparing people for change. New York: Guilford Press

Moskowitz, G. B., & Grant, H. (2009). The Psychology of Goals. New York: Guilford Press.

Suggested Reading

Howey, S.C. (2008). Factors in student motivation . Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site:

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2006). New directions in goal-setting theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(5), 265-268. Retrieved from