Creating Learning Environments to Support Student Motivation Post-Pandemic

Creating Learning Environments to Support Student Motivation Post-Pandemic

On March 30, 2022, TLL hosted a talk by Professor Carlton Fong of Texas State University on the many ways the COVID-19 pandemic impacted student motivation. Professor Fong discussed evidence-based strategies to maximize student confidence, learning, support, and belonging.

Why Discuss Motivation? 

The COVID-19 pandemic brought many challenges and uncertainties into the lives of adolescents, including mental/physical health concerns, disruptions to social connections, socio-economic concerns, worries about catching COVID-19 or complying with restrictions, uncertainties about the future, and academic challenges. Of these factors, Scott et al. (2021) found that academics, and specifically academic motivation, was the most common worry among adolescents. 

In a meta-analysis of over 150 studies that used the Learning and Study Strategies Inventory (LASSI), Fong and a team of educational psychologists concluded that of the ten LASSI subscales, motivation strategies were the strongest predictors of  GPA and persistence (Fong et al., 2021). 

Some studies found that aspects of students’ motivation, such as their sense of self-efficacy for learning, decreased significantly at the start of the pandemic with the rapid shift to online instruction (Hilpert et al., 2021). Given this, it is imperative to adopt practices that rekindle motivation if colleges want their students to be academically successful. 

Motivation theories 

In a recent article, Professor Fong synthesized five theories of motivation to create a framework for student motivation during the pandemic. These theories are described briefly below and in more depth in the associated paper. 

  1. Self-Determination Theory considers how a student’s environment can satisfy or thwart the student’s feelings of competence, autonomy, and relatedness and describes how these three basic needs, in turn, influence students’ motivation to engage in a learning environment. 
  2. Attribution Theory focuses on how students identify the causes of their success or failure, considering the extent to which students feel they can control the outcome. 
  3. Social Cognitive Theory explores the relationship between students and their environment, self-efficacy and perception of the situation, and behavior. Determinations of self-efficacy can include mastery experiences, vicarious experiences (i.e., the success or failure of peers), messages and feedback received from others (e.g., teachers), and emotions.
  4. Situated Expectancy-Value Theory considers how achievement choices are informed by expected outcomes and perceptions of the value and costs of engaging in an activity. 
  5. Goal Orientation Theory ascribes meaning to the attainment of mastery goals (i.e. developing competence) and performance goals (i.e. demonstrating competence).  

When viewed collectively, these five theories describe a range of past, present, and future factors that influence student motivation. Students arrive at college having been shaped by their identities, upbringing, interactions, successes, and failures. In college, student motivation is impacted by their sense of agency, how they can apply the assets they bring to the academic context, the personal and collective value of what they are learning, and their sense of belonging. Students are also considering their learning in the context of their future personal and familial goals, their sense of meaning, and their sense of what is possible for them given the realities of disparate opportunity structures. 

COVID-Related Shifts 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, students experienced instructional, social, future-oriented, and racial/sociocultural shifts that impacted their motivation in a variety of ways. 

Instructional shifts included the use of new technology and assessment types and a reduction in certain types of hands-on learning. Many students experienced lower self-efficacy because they had fewer mastery experiences in online contexts, limited background in online learning, limited vicarious experiences, limited verbal encouragement, and increased anxiety. Shifts in student feelings of autonomy were mixed. Many students felt that they had less autonomy due to the sudden mandatory shift online and the tendencies of some instructors to be more controlling due to their personal feelings of stress and burnout. At the same time, some students gained additional autonomy as instructors implemented asynchronous, student-paced learning options and more open-ended assessments such as projects.  

Socially, students had less reliable access to peers and instructors and many students faced mental health challenges. One study found that regardless of student beliefs about the effectiveness of online learning, a lower sense of belonging led to lower academic motivation. Similarly, poor mental health conditions also reduced motivation. Fortunately, virtual interactions increased positive emotions and feelings of relatedness, buffering some of the negative impacts of physical isolation from others. 

Student perceptions of the future also shifted as they contemplated a bleak economic outlook, gained new admiration for healthcare professionals, or struggled to stay engaged with their current academic work. The uncertainty about the future made it harder to derive motivation from a sense of utility value or clear mastery goals. Some students also worried about the cost of higher education, particularly if they were forced to take an extra semester or year to make up missed coursework. However, some students experienced a renewed interest in STEM, and medicine in particular, due to its perceived value during the pandemic. 

Race and sociocultural factors were also prominent during 2020 and 2021 as students witnessed increased attention to racialized police brutality, disparities in healthcare, and increased violence against APIDA individuals. In response, many students developed increased prosocial motivation aligned with community-oriented values. Many students also experienced oppression firsthand, which may have decreased their motivation or sparked motivational resilience.  

While these shifts were amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, they will continue to matter long after the pandemic ends. The college experience nearly always includes these four shifts, though their magnitude will vary by student, institution, and the state of the world. 

Instructional Strategies 

While certain aspects of student motivation remain outside of an instructor’s control, there are several strategies instructors can adopt to make their classroom a more motivating environment. To promote feelings of autonomy among students, instructors should take care to give students meaningful choices about what they work on and how. The more ownership students can take, the more motivated they will be to learn. 

Constructive feedback can also motivate students, but instructors should be mindful of how they deliver feedback. Positive feedback is more likely to increase student feelings of competence, but criticism can still be motivating if it outlines concrete ways to improve. When giving critical feedback, instructors should emphasize that they have high standards but believe in their students’ ability to meet those standards. Fong also highlighted the difference between feedback and grades. To effectively motivate students, instructors should deemphasize competition and numerical grades in favor of mastery. Practices like allowing assignment revisions can help students build competence and become more comfortable seeking and responding to feedback. 

Fong also recommends that instructors share their rationales for assigning particular work or including particular topics in a course. This additional context can help students relate their coursework to their personal goals and increase its perceived value.

To increase students’ sense of social belonging, Fong recommended that instructors try to normalize challenges and growth. Make it clear to students that struggling is common and feelings of belonging take time, but that you as the instructor believe in their ability to surmount the obstacles they face. Students with a growth mindset are more likely to seek feedback and put in the effort required to learn and improve. 

While Fong’s talk primarily focused on classroom learning, he directed faculty working with graduate students in research contexts to check out the work of Professor Nathan Hall at McGill University

Guest Speaker

Carlton Fong, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction, Texas State University

Dr. Carlton J. Fong is an assistant professor in the Graduate Program in Developmental Education and the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Texas State University. As a scholar-practitioner at the intersection of educational psychology and higher education, Dr. Fong uses a sociocultural lens to study motivational factors influencing postsecondary student engagement, achievement, and persistence. He is also an expert in meta-analysis and research synthesis and is currently the chair of the Motivation in Education Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). In 2021, he was recognized as an Association for Psychological Science Rising Star and an AERA Deeper Learning Fellow.


Fong, C. J. (2022) Academic motivation in a pandemic context: a conceptual review of prominent theories and an integrative model, Educational Psychology, 

Fong, C. J., Krou, M. R., Johnston-Ashton, K., Hoff, M. A., Lin, S., & Gonzales, C. (2021). Lassi’s great adventure: A meta-analysis of the Learning and Study Strategies Inventory and academic outcomes. Educational Research Review, 34. 

Hilpert, J. C., Bernacki, M. L., & Cogliano, M. C. (2022) Coping with the transition to remote instruction: Patterns of self-regulated engagement in a large post-secondary biology course. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 54:sup1, S219-S235, 

Scott, S. R., Rivera, K. M., Rushing, E., Manczak, E. M., Rozek, C. S., & Doom, J. R. (2021). “I Hate This”: A qualitative analysis of adolescents’ self-reported challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Journal of Adolescent Health, 68(2), 262–269. 

Written by Kate Weishaar

assessment belonging community growth mindset inclusive classroom student engagement student motivation wellbeing