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Teaching the Whole Student


Motivation is essential to any learning—and indispensable to self-directed, lifelong learning. While extrinsic motivators like grades, degree completion, or not disappointing the professor can mobilize student efforts in the short term, cultivating intrinsic motivation can help students take ownership of their learning and claim agency within their educational journey. Students are most motivated when they perceive the subject as valuable and relevant; have a high sense of self-efficacy (belief in their ability to succeed); and feel that the learning environment is supportive. Instructors can improve perceptions of value by:

  • Overtly and regularly communicating enthusiasm for their disciplines
  • Sharing relevant, diverse examples of the course's importance and applicability
  • Inviting students to connect course material to their values 

We can help students build self-efficacy by:

  • Carefully scaffolding assignments to provide practice in component skills
  • Proving early opportunities for success
  • Normalizing struggle and failure 

Finally, instructors can create supportive classroom cultures by communicating interest in student success and by helping students form peer support networks with one another.

Check out these related teaching tips on articulating the value of what we teach and value affirmations. [requires Sharepoint Login] 

Emotions and learning

The role of emotions in the process of learning cannot be overestimated. Emotional engagement can pique curiosity, sustain attention, sharpen working memory, improve memory consolidation, boost motivation, and help create communities of learning. Conversely, negative emotions like fear, shame, or anxiety can overwhelm students, distract away from learning, and corrode self-efficacy. By acknowledging and activating student emotions, we can enhance academic engagement and performance. Some suggestions from research include:

  • Projecting enthusiasm, confidence, warmth, and interest to boost student motivation and persistence
  • Opening a class session with an emotional hook to capture student attention and reinvigorate interest in course content (especially during a midterm slump)
  • Sharing narratives, real or fictional, as a tool for engaging learners
  • Facilitating immersive role-playing activities to activate students disinterested in traditional class discussion
  • Using appropriate humor to counter learning-related anxiety and bring the class community together
  • Making room for reflection and emotional processing to provide a broader context and transfer learning beyond the classroom
  • Facilitating peer-to-peer networks rooted in authentic emotional engagement

Check out this related teaching tip on enhancing student learning with emotion. [requires Sharepoint Login]


While instructors are not, and should not try to be, therapists, we can promote student wellness by acknowledging mental health needs and struggles, offering grace to those who fall behind, and promoting a culture of trust and respect. We can support student wellness in a number of ways:

  • Directing students to appropriate campus support systems when needed
  • Structuring regular check-ins and establishing clear communication channels
  • Practicing active listening, exercising empathy, and supporting student agency
  • Providing multiple means of access and engagement according to the principles of Universal Design for Learning
  • Fostering an inclusive atmosphere through non-content instructor talk
  • Encouraging students to identify and employ their unique strengths 

For additional support, see services offered through Drexel University's Counseling Center.

Last but not least, faculty should also prioritize their own mental health and wellbeing. Academic work is not always conducive to a healthy or balanced lifestyle. Making wellness a priority, setting and respecting boundaries, cultivating meaningful relationships, and making time for community sets a good example for students and helps transform academic culture in a positive way. Drexel's Office of Faculty Advancement provides additional resources for faculty work-life balance and self-care.

Check out this Drexel Faculty Flowchart for Student Disengagement and Mental Health

Check out these related teaching tips on trauma-informed teaching and faculty self-care. [requires Sharepoint Login]


Traditional pedagogies that require students to sit still and pay attention for long periods of time are not well aligned with the scientific consensus regarding human learning. Embodied pedagogy encourages an awareness of the physical body not merely as a vessel for the mind but as an essential component of the learning process. Instructors can support embodied cognition by:

  • Incorporating movement into class activities (e.g. brainstorming strolls)
  • Using spatial awareness (e.g. where do you stand "surveys" in which students express their position on an issue by physically positioning themselves on a spectrum)
  • Adding sensory perception to their pedagogical repertoires (e.g. using physical objects or visualizations)
  • Building field trips and field assignments into the course 

Next: Additional Resources and References