Professors can teach emotional intelligence concepts and activities to college students to boost motivation

college students

It’s 8:00am in Professor Samuel’s calculus class and the seats are full of community college students. What made those students get out of bed so early to attend? What keeps them coming back and what motivates the students who are getting top grades? Could it be the scintillating way the teacher talks about math, or is it something else related to emotional intelligence?


college studentsThese are the questions that education and psychology researchers have been trying to answer through numerous studies and many arrows are pointing to high emotional intelligence as a predictor of success.

As someone who teaches first and second year students in a community college, I have often wondered what motivates the students who seem eager and excited to learn to every day. They seem to bubble over with ideas and contributions. Is it just ambition? Or is there something deeper going on inside?

They not only engage with the material and discussions, but they seem to be having fun! Dialog and participation seems to give them even more energy and enthusiasm, and fellow students are inspired by them and want to get to know them outside class as a result.

The need for relatedness is in play here. We humans are biologically wired to connect socially, especially in our prime reproductive years.  college students looking into devices at schoolBut what about the shy students, or the students who do the work, but do not seem particularly interested?

How do we understand what is driving their motivation and more importantly, what can instructors do to help students move from amotivation to intrinsic motivation?

Competence, Relatedness, Autonomy: Three Basic Needs

Intrinsic motivation to learn entails engaging in learning opportunities because they are seen as enjoyable, interesting, or relevant to meeting one’s core psychological needs (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

According to self-determination theory, all people seek to satisfy three inherent psychological needs: the need for developing competence, the need for relatedness (creating meaningful connections with others), and the need for autonomy (perceiving that one is able to initiate and regulate one’s own actions) (Froiland,Oros, Smith, & Hirchert, 2012)

college student with hand upGiven the educational system’s focus on grades and teacher and parental approval as rewards for learning (extrinsic motivation), how can college students enter their freshman year intrinsically motivated? How can teachers support the development of intrinsic motivation? Did you show up to your freshman year knowing why you were there? I certainly didn’t. I spent the first year like a bee in a garden, buzzing from one class and one major to the next. It took time to really own my future path and use my education opportunity wisely and intentionally. With college fees and student debt on the rise,  it’s no wonder fear and insecurity about the future are driving some decisions.

What distinguishes the students who come in fired up and ready to work hard from those who are dragging into class late and not turning in assignments in week two?

A study by John Mark Froiland, PhD at Northern Colorado University describes motivation on a spectrum of motivation levels.

In his paper he states, “Motivation can fall anywhere on the continuum from amotivation (lack of the intent to act), to extrinsic motivation (seeking to avoid punishments and gain external rewards), to introjected regulation (studying or behaving well because one feels pressure from within), to identified regulation (recognizing the importance or value in developing a behavior or skill), and finally, to intrinsic motivation (behavior motivated purely by the inherent benefits) (Deci et al., 1991; Ryan & Deci, 2000).

So what can teachers do to facilitate movement of students along this spectrum from blasé to fired up and on task?

At Six Seconds, we assess emotional intelligence using eight competencies, and one of them is intrinsic motivation (IM).

KCG detail modelIntrinsic Motivation falls under the “Choose  Yourself” pursuit of the “Know, Choose, Give” Six Seconds’ model of emotional intelligence.In the area “Choose Yourself” are four competencies;

Apply Consequential Thinking – Evaluating the costs and benefits of your choices

Navigate Emotions– Assessing, harnessing, and transforming emotions as a strategic resource.

Engage Intrinsic Motivation– Gaining energy from personal values & commitments vs. being driven by external forces.

Exercise Optimism– Taking a proactive perspective of hope and possibility.

Part of the equation is helping students figure out what their personal values are and what they really care about. College and career counselors can help, but so can some EQ activities and exercises.

The more intrinsic motivation students have, the higher their quality of life.

ET1075In this white paper, Joshua Freedman and Lorenzo Fariselli look at the data that shows a strong correlation between increased success and emotional intelligence.

One of their findings shows that the EQ competency of Engage Intrinsic Motivation shows the strongest predictive relationship with the outcome of Quality of Life.

Resources for Bringing Emotional Intelligence into Your College Classroom

Read these tips for practicing emotional intelligence

Online Discussion Group

For faculty wanting to explore EQ and connect with other teachers, you may join our Higher Ed Group on You may login and create a free Ally account then login to access and join this group.

Webinar Recordingteacher and pupils working on computers

Recently, Six Seconds presented a webinar with the Director of Fielding Graduate University : “Using Emotional Intelligence to Boost Leadership and Student Success”. View Webinar recording

Grants for Faculty

Six Seconds also has a grants program used by many faculty and students in higher education. The grants consist of non-competitive awards for researchers to use our emotional intelligence assessments at minimal cost. We have an option to customize, by adding university logo on a letter describing  the grant process for any university that would like to send this out to their students.

Graduating EQ–Strategies for EQ in Higher Ed webinar: Read blog post here.

Rachel Goodman

Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and communications professional, editor, producer, and writer for effective outcomes. Ms. Goodman has been a radio producer for much of her career, specializing in short features and documentaries. Some of her work includes Southern Songbirds: the Women of Early Country Music, Pastures of Plenty: A History of California's Farmworkers, and The Boomtown Chronicles: Reflections on a Changing California. Ms. Goodman teaches journalism at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz County. Her goals are to facilitate positive change in the world through effective communication, and to continue conducting her work with the highest level of integrity possible.

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