The issue of “motivating students” is often discussed in my office. I believe that no one should ever take ownership of another person’s motivation. This may sound trite, but I think it is far more important to remind students of their motivation than it is to motivate them. “Motivating students” is usually tantamount to cheerleading, which is useful for bolstering confidence and demonstrating support, but we must not forget that motivation resides within the student, not the advisor. To this end, we must dedicate some time to getting to know our students and understanding what drives them…even if it is just a brief moment. Here are some questions that tap into a person’s motivation:

What do you envision for your life five years from now? What dreams do you have for your future? What makes your degree significant to you? What are you passionately pursuing or longing for? What makes you tick? What drives you? What keeps you going? What are some best hopes that you have for your college experience? What difference will this make in your life? What are you most proud of?

Here is another question I like that is a bit more evocative.

Let’s say five years from now we happen to run into each other. You begin telling me how your degree changed your life. What do you tell me?

The reason I like this question is because students will usually respond in present tense, which helps them connect their future goals to their present situation. If students do not speak in the present tense, prompt them to do so.

We can also ask students directly what we can do to remind them of their motivation, which takes the guesswork out of the equation. For example, I often directly ask students: “What could I say to remind you of your motivation?”  “What could you do to remind yourself of your motivation?” “What could you do to help you stay motivated?” This line of questioning makes the student responsible for being motivated but also assumes that students are the experts; they already know the answer not us.

Aside from these conversational strategies, I believe the following statement is important to remember and I tell students this all the time: There is no such thing as lack of motivation; we are only motivated for different things 

 There is no such thing as lack of motivation; we are only motivated for different things.

From this basic principle, we assume that people are always motivated for something. Motivation is not lost, but rather redirected. Here, it is good to discuss the concept of competing motivations. When we are motivated for at least more than one thing, we may feel conflicted, ambivalent, or confused, which can lead us toward the path of inaction. Perhaps motivation toward one activity dominates the other, such as one’s motivation to watch television and relax vs. studying for an exam and undergoing the agony of hard work. Understanding competing motivations forces us to contend with the notion that the paths we choose in our academic journey (and in life) reflect our values; our decisions reflect our motivations. As Miller and Rollnick (2002) stated “when a behavior comes into conflict with a deeply held value, it is usually the behavior that changes” (p. 23)”

When a behavior comes into conflict with a deeply held value, it is usually the behavior that changes – Miller & Rollnick

Sometimes we lose sight of this bigger picture. We choose television over exercising; hanging out with friends over studying. This is perfectly fine until it turns into a pattern that becomes the norm and our primary goals become the exception to the norm. It makes sense for students to break down daunting, long-term goals into smaller, readily achievable goals to help them keep their eye on the prize. For instance, preparing for finals could involve a couple of hours of enjoyable activities sprinkled in with serious time dedicated to studying. Rewarding oneself for good behavior is a good motivator just like when we reward ourselves with ice cream for eating a healthy, low-calorie lunch. Small compromises help us stay balanced and at the end of the day, when we weigh the decisions we made – those that move us toward our most valued goals and those that move us away from them – our scales will be balanced and we will feel proud.



Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2002). Motivational interviewing: Preparing people for change (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press