Student Motivation Needs

Students seek to fulfill their needs in order to attain satisfaction and rewards.  Needs are thus innate feelings, beliefs, and desires that focus energy and direction towards determining and meeting priorities and goals.  In the context of student learning, needs are reflected in a student’s attention and engagement with a topic, assignment, and activity.  There are several theories that illuminate the most important needs of students.

Self actualization: students are motivated to act in ways that will help them achieve their maximum potential. Therefore, personal fulfillment is a primary source of motivation.


What students find meaningful and important determines motivation, therefore weakening the ability of what the discipline and faculty find important to be a powerful motivator without careful construction and communication of its significance.

Enhance class assignments, discussions, and engagement by connecting them to ideas, topics, and themes to related to personal fulfillment. Key is in clearly establishing and communicating the connection.

Need to achieve: achievement motivation theory proposes that the need to achieve is a personality characteristic that can either develop and lead individuals to need to achieve success, or need to avoid failure. Many factors and experiences, with parenting and childhood environment being preeminent among these, determine which outcome is pursued.


Students with a high need for achievement should be steered towards challenging and moderately difficult learning activities.

Students with a high need to avoid failure typically exhibit fear and anxiety, and thus need more guidance, structure, and feedback.

Competence: posits that becoming competent, that is, possessing the ability to affect and influence one’s environment, is a primary need of students. Students develop confidence through successively mastering more challenging activities.


Student learning activities and programs should be designed to build confidence while maintaining rigor and provide specific feedback about their achievements and areas for improvement.

Self-worth: the need to maintain a positive view of one’s self. This need affects the decision to enter into an activity, how a student interprets their performance, and subsequent behavior regarding similar activities.


Student’s often connect their ability to achieve with their self worth, therefore students gauge their ability to achieve against future opportunities and make decisions about their effort and level of motivation.

Structuring classes, assignments, and programs that emphasize rewarding effort, rather than ability, may increase student engagement with the activity.

Developmental: college students are motivated by what interests them, what challenges them, and what competencies or abilities they feel a need to improve. Chickering (1969) identified seven vectors that represented students’ primary areas of concern, or need: developing competence, managing emotions, developing autonomy, establishing identity, freeing interpersonal relationships, developing purpose, and developing integrity.


Faculty can challenge students by demonstrating that there are multiple perspectives on problems and solutions, and that perceived authorities may not always be right.

Faculty can engage students by creating activities, assignments, and discussions that are disruptive to the students’ current perspectives and beliefs.

Goals: college students also determine needs through the goals they set for themselves, with preference typically given to goals that are moderately difficulty yet reachable and that focus on learning rather than performance.


Need to understand your students knowledge and ability in order to get a sense of what goals are perceived to be moderately difficult.

Goals that are concerned with increasing competence and developing new skills should be prioritized.

Next we explore theories that explain student expectations and the implications each theory has on student  motivation.

 Next – Student Expectations

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