Don’t motivate students!

Students need to motivate themselves

Does this sound familiar to you? You put a lot of effort and spend a lot of time preparing the teaching material, only to find that students don’t even bother to come to the lectures, let alone put their heart into studying or doing their assignments.

As educators, we often become stuck on how to motivate students during the learning process. Perhaps the focus should change – rather than trying to motivate students, let’s focus on helping them motivate themselves!

But how?

Do you remember your job hunting experience? Do you remember the deciding factor – the reference check after you have gone through writing the application, getting shortlisted, Skype interview and face-to-face interview?

There will come a day when our students graduate and need a referee check. How about instead of waiting for that day, we ask students now:

What do you want your referee to say about you?

The subject ENG261 Engineering Challenge 3 is open to our second-year engineering students. It consists of a semester-long project where students work in teams of three or four to solve a real problem for a real client. Subsequently, students commence a cadet placement in the industry so they are very aware of their need to project themselves well to external employers.

At the start of the subject, students are asked to project their thoughts to the end of the subject and imagine themselves as a referee (client) from whom they would seek a reference letter for their upcoming job application. At the end of the session, students are asked to revisit this reference letter and reflect upon the statements made in the letter as they have now completed the subject. Students analyse whether this reference letter is how their referee actually perceives them as a result of their conduct and achievements in the subject, thus self-identifying tangible competency gaps for their ongoing professional development.

Reference letter and reflection


This assessment pair promotes students to reflect on what is involved in being a competent professional. The reference letter contributes to the students’ learning experience and achievements in that letters project a positive outlook around which students took ownership. They held themselves accountable throughout the semester to reach the aspirational standards they set for themselves. The reflection concluded students’ design experiments during the semester while opening another chapter of an informed learning path for continued career development.

What did it look like?

The reference letters

Students used descriptive vocabularies which formulated a positive and motivational mindset at the start of the semester:

Through practical lab-based exercise, Xxxx has shown that he is both enthusiastic and capable of conducting a variety of soil tests.


As Xxxx has progressed through her studies, she has shown a commitment to her growth as a professional engineer.

In addition to committing to technical outcomes, many students also chose to emphasise professional skills in their reference letters. They commented particularly on reflective practice, communication, teamwork and leadership skills.

Through the use of her weekly reflections, and seeking feedback from the relevant academic on assessment items.


He has exhibited his ability to work in a team environment through his success in the four engineering challenges presented to him throughout the duration of the course, showing leadership, compatibility and the desire to complete any and all work to the highest possible standard.


Xxxx displayed exciting communication skills. He was comfortable presenting to a large crowd consisting of non-engineers, as well as more intimate professional conversations about intricate engineering details.

The final reflection

With reference with this semester’s first assessment, I predicted that attitudes I would need to possess as an engineer include being professional, diligent and confident. Nearing the end of this semester, I feel that I have improved these attributes greatly, for example, I was tasked with frequently contacting and communicating with our client in a professional manner. I have enjoyed this task and feel that it will serve me well in the workplace. I have surprised myself with my new-found confidence when presenting my work to an audience and my ability and desire to work on a project until it is complete to a high standard.


Reflecting back to the beginning of the semester, I can see a growth in my project management and scoping abilities, communication with team members and clients, and in my self-confidence. One of the most notable skills which I have developed through this challenge, I believe, is my ability to write and communicate information in a succinct way.

Clients’ feedback

As shown in the below examples, clients were indeed willing to endorse the reference letters that the students had written at the start of the project.

The group have taken to all tasks with enthusiasm and what seems to be a thirst for gaining new skills and knowledge related to the many different facets of which I think is quite a tricky project.


The students have proven to be highly professional in aspects of the service they pledged and highly proficient in all interactions that we have had and their ability and eagerness to communicate information and milestones (either verbally face-to-face or in written form) is a credit to their knowledge, abilities, planning, professionalism and maturity.

By switching our focus from motivating students to helping them motivate themselves, we help students develop the skills that they’ll need well beyond university.