I'm a teaching assistant for the upper level under-graduate courses for Game Design and Development at my University, and the professor and I are having a hard time finding a way to motivate students to:

  1. Actually complete and turn in their homework on time.
  2. Attempt to do more than just the bare minimum.
  3. Listen to feedback for on-going assignments.

We have tried things like offering a bit of extra credit for turning it in on time or going above and beyond on the assignment, but as you can assume the only students that actually get that extra credit are the ones that are already excelling.

These classes are built around building a strong portfolio, but what generally comes out are projects that I wouldn't even want to include in my portfolio. Generally about 15% of the class are students that do work that deserve an A, and the rest is split fairly evenly between a C and an F (F's generally fall around 30% for these students).

I appreciate your feedback and thoughts, hopefully with the help of this community I can help motivate these students to excel.

Edit: Adding more to the 3rd bullet above. They have an assignment one week, and they get feedback on what they need to do to improve their marks. However, they ignore the feedback and end up losing the same amount of points they did the previous week for the same problem.

Edit2: Answering some comments here. This is in the United States and they are working in C# with Unity3D. The class has pre-requisites that do funnel nicely to the content, because they start with just learning the basics of C# then they learn more complicated computer science concepts in C# all while learning simple game design using gamemaker, which can essentially be a drag and drop tool. It isn't until around the second semester of Sophomore year that they start using Unity3D. As for the games they are creating, please feel free to take a look at my portfolio: http://ryandarras.weebly.com/examples-of-work.html. These are games I made throughout my undergrad, and while I'll admit I'm a big nerd that probably spent way too much time on my homework because I enjoyed it, I would expect a resemblance to this quality in their games. Homework is also given with a very detail description of the requirements, as well as the exact rubric that is used to grade the assignment (the rubric is as objective as we can make it).

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    $\begingroup$ Do you know if lack of effort is a problem just in your class, or with your university as a whole? $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 6:11
  • $\begingroup$ Hello Ryan, welcome to your community. Hope you enjoy it here, and ask many good questions. You can also look at existing questions, and add an answer. This question may be of some relevance to your question cseducators.stackexchange.com/questions/1410/… $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 7:51
  • $\begingroup$ Gaming development or coding or just learning in general, there is not much you can do to encourage masses to do something. if you are talking about an individual then sure, but a whole class....thats a tough one. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 9:14
  • $\begingroup$ It might also be the fact that these are "upper level graduate courses" that is at the heart of the problem. Such students may have more pressing concerns than this course. $\endgroup$
    – Buffy
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 10:40
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Computer Science Educators, Ryan! May I ask what country this is in? $\endgroup$
    – Ben I.
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 12:47

4 Answers 4


Something I wasn't sure about when I was reading your post was if the problem is whether the issue is if students lack motivation or if they lack the ability to succeed in your course.

If 30% of your students are consistently failing your course, then I genuinely do have to wonder if the latter is the case. If so, I'm not sure this is a problem you can easily fix within just within the context of your course.

For example, I'm assuming the students are expected to complete a few pre-reqs before they can take your course. Why aren't those pre-reqs adequately preparing your students? Etc.

If the students are genuinely under-prepared and have "given up" and are just going through the motions so they can graduate, then the best fix is probably to try and systematically repair your entire department. Perhaps that might mean finding more ways to add in support (especially in the intro courses), making sure students know where to find support, raising the bar on core classes...

It could also be the case that the pre-reqs listed for your course aren't actually enough, and that you need to add another pre-req class or two to make sure your students are prepared.

If it's the former (your students are capable but simply aren't motivated), then here are some thoughts:

We have tried things like offering a bit of extra credit for turning it in on time or going above and beyond on the assignment

Offering extra credit for going above-and-beyond is entirely normal and expected, but I think offering extra credit for turning assignments is counter-productive: it sets the expectation that turning in assignments late is ok, further normalizing that behavior.

In fact, if you're lenient about lateness, it would be stupid for a student to not take advantage of that leniency. The student is probably pretty busy/juggling a bunch of classes and other responsibilities, so naturally they'd want to use whatever advantage they can get.

Instead, I would institute a strict no-late-work policy (perhaps with some mild leniency -- give students a fixed number of late days they can use or something).

Attempt to do more than just the bare minimum.

Same sort of thing as before -- if you're a busy student, then it makes sense that you'd do only the bare minimum needed to pass the class. In particular, the students probably aren't thinking of the work they need to turn in as the "bare minimum": they're probably thinking they're turning in exactly what's expected.

In that case, one thing you can do is to raise your expectations. Make the assignments harder, or (if there's room for creativity on the assignments) show students examples of good projects other students have completed in the past. Maybe tell students that they're required to complete at least one item from the "above and beyond" section (though they're free to chose which one they want to do).

You can also perhaps try motivating the students in other ways by explicitly telling your students that the purpose of this class is to help them build a portfolio they can show employers so they should put their best foot forward.

Making the assignments more interesting, as ctrl-alt-delor suggests, would also help. Making your assignments group-work might also help (and help partially compensate for the added difficulty).

Listen to feedback for on-going assignments.

Getting students to listen to feedback is always challenging. I would first double-check that:

  1. You aren't overwhelming the students with feedback -- if you give too much, they tend to ignore it altogether (I learned this the hard way).
  2. The students are actually aware that they're given feedback, and that they're expected to read it. I'm not sure how exactly you're returning feedback, but if it's through some website, perhaps that website's UX is bad.
  3. They're aware that the feedback contains info they're supposed to apply/contains warnings of things you're going to continue deducting points for.

Beyond that, I suggest telling the students about the "growth mindset vs fixed mindset" thing, as ctrl-alt-delor expects.

A somewhat more blunt tactic would be to modify each assignment (apart from the first one) and ask students to answer a question about their feedback -- something like "Summarize the feedback you were given on the last assignment. How did you apply what you learned while reading that feedback on this current assignment?". Basically, force them to at least think about their feedback, instead of avoiding it.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! I added another edit to the main topic to answer some of your questions. The students aren't under prepared, I can assure you. To get to this point every single one of them have had to take the same courses. I've been a TA for a while, and there were classes I took Sophomore year where X person was there with me. I then TA'd that class a year later, and they were in it again, failed, and now I'm the TA in that class again this year and they are in it again, and they either haven't turned in the assignment, or turned it in two days late. (I'm speaking about two individuals) $\endgroup$
    – Ryan
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ Feedback is given on every assignment that doesn't receive a 100%. It is given both at a broad level, and for each section of the rubric. I try to keep it down to just a few paragraphs, because I know that when I see a wall of text I generally move on unless I'm truly interested. Also, your comment about asking them to respond to the feedback on the next assignment is brilliant and I'm going to try to work that in. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Ryan -- the more I think about it, the less comfortable I feel with my answer (and by proxy, you accepting my answer). I have to agree with Buffy and Kevin in particular -- if 85% of your students are getting Cs and Fs, I do think that there's some fundamentally deeper issue at play that lack of motivation alone doesn't explain. And if that's the case, making things harder, as I suggest, would be a terrible move to make. I'd start by getting feedback first, talking with your professor, and other professors + TAs in your department before making any changes. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 13:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Ryan -- I also want to remind you to keep in mind that not all students are you. While you may have excelled at your coursework and found it to be engaging, interesting, and valuable, that doesn't mean that other students have done the same. I've been guilty of falling into the same sort of trap myself: just because you might find something doable doesn't mean it actually is for the majority of students. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 13:50

Give credit where credit is due.

Don't give credit for doing the minimum (handing in on time). Instead deduct credit for being late. They should feel lucky to get anything if they don't get it in on time.

Intrinsic Motivation

There have been a lot of studies on motivation (most of the ones that I am aware of are industry based, but that is because I spent most of my life there). They show that most attempts to motivate via giving rewards e.g. pay for performance, back fire. That is they demotivate. They show that the best way is to pay well, and make the job interesting (intrinsic motivation). The only exception, where extrinsic motivation works, are simple manual jobs, that don't involve much thinking.

Therefore apart from deducting credit for late handing in, you should avoid extrinsic motivation.

Try to find out what their interests are, and design interesting assignments. Try to get a culture of working in the computer lab, where students can work together. This way they will learn from each other. Provide an extrinsic motivator (pay well) to be there at certain times e.g. lab food.

Mind set

Do some mind set work with them. See the work of Carol Dweck (This Ted talk is a good introduction).

Dwecks work shows that there are (to put it simply), two types of mind set

  • to believe that outcome is based on hard work, trial and error, making mistakes, seek challenges, listening to feedback, … When you have this mindset you tend to do well.
  • to believe that outcome is based on ability. When in this mindset, you tend to do poorly.

Is it ever too late to foster a growth mindset in students?

Dweck: No—we’ve developed a number of online workshops addressed at adolescents and shown that when we teach [those] students a growth mindset, many of them regain their motivation to learn and achieve higher grades, especially students who have been struggling or students who have been laboring under a negative stereotype about [their own] abilities.

It may be (probably is), that the low performing students, have a fixed mind set. If so they will not try hard, they will not listen to feedback.

  • $\begingroup$ Even fining (reducing grade) for lateness, may not work. There was a study that showed that when a day nursery fined parents for late pick-up. late pick-ups increased. Parents no longer felt guilty, they just paid the fee (they saw it as $fine = fee$). $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 17:42
  • $\begingroup$ Assignments that get turned in late are reduced by 10% each day. If you are late 10 days, you get a 0. Also, the assignments are laid out in such a way that student X and student Y may have completely different games by the end of the semester but still get 100% on every assignment. It gives students the freedom to make games that they find fun and exciting instead of, "Make pac-man". $\endgroup$
    – Ryan
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 19:52
  • $\begingroup$ Note that the "growth mindset" theory has failed multiple replication attempts, e.g.: (1) sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886917303835 (2) osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/tsdwy $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 8, 2019 at 21:44
  • $\begingroup$ The first study is closed: I can not read it, so is meaning-less. The second has some problems: reward of sweets. I would expect this to undo any positive affect (Extrinsic motivator: even if it is unconditional, the subjects way see it as conditional, as given at end). $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 8, 2019 at 22:05

The other answers are already very good, but I wanted to offer another suggestion:

Students need to start smaller, and work in smaller increments.

To oversimplify: students should start in Pong. Their first homework should be to make a simple change to Pong. You need to make sure every student understood the setup, expectations, and processes involved in that homework before you move on. Then ramp up from there, but make sure you work in small increments. Each step along the way, make sure you aren't losing students, and leave some room for review and getting everybody on the same page.

I gather that the literal Pong step might have taken place in a prerequisite class, but my point is that you can't dump students into a complicated project, know that they aren't following the homeworks, but continue expecting more complicated tasks from them every week. If a student couldn't do the assignment from 3 weeks ago, they certainly aren't going to be able to do this week's assignment, no matter how "motivated" they are.

If you said that 85% of your students were getting As, and 15% were getting Cs or Fs, then I'd agree that you might have a problem of motivation. But since your ratio is reversed, and 85% of your students are getting Cs and Fs, I think it's time for you to take a harder look at your lessons and expectations. It sounds like you're asking too much, and trying to build on milestones that haven't been met yet.

Hopefully it's not too late, and you can salvage the semester by going back to basics. When did you lose students? Start there. Maybe split that assignment into multiple steps, and have them do those steps one at a time. Every step of the way, your job is to make sure that students are looking at something they can handle. Keep it as simple as possible- this might be simpler than you or the teacher (or even the students) think is interesting. But keep working forward in small steps until they've built something larger.

Edit: If you're already doing all of the above, and you're sure that the students understand the assignments, and you're already working in small incremental steps and you're sure that the students are just being lazy...

You might have students demo their work.

After a big homework assignment, spend half a class period having the students come to the front of the room and show off their projects. You could even have students vote in different categories: best game, funniest, best art, etc. A little bit of competition goes a long way.

Or you could mix your homework assignments with "real life" game jams.

If you're unfamiliar, a game jam is a "contest" (usually with no prizes) where participants have a certain amount of time (usually a weekend or a week) to make a game around some theme that's announced at the beginning of the event.

Here is a list of ongoing game jams, and here is a similar list just for itch.io game jams.

The idea is that the assignment would be to participate in whatever game jam you choose, using the topics you discussed in class. My guess is that this would be much more motivating than a "regular" homework assignment.

  • $\begingroup$ You bring up some good points, and I agree with you entirely. There might be some issues in the course structure, but I am certain the key contributor is the lack of motivation. Myself and the Professor are available almost 24/7 through email and phone, yet the only people who come talk to us are the ones getting A's already. I know for certain these students are capable of doing this material, as they often do in-class labs that involve developing with Unity3D. Also, the first assignment was to create a minimum viable product which is as simple as to make the first level in super mario bros. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 23:16
  • $\begingroup$ Am I wrong in assuming that a 3 credit hour course should have ~5 hours of homework per week? Could this be something that is intimidating them to where they put it off until the last minute? $\endgroup$
    – Ryan
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 23:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Ryan Take a look at my edit whenever you get a chance. But I will say that doing an in-class lab (where you have neighbors to ask, the topics are fresh in your mind, etc) is a different beast than going home and doing a homework assignment. One does not equal the other. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 23:32

I'm worried that you may be diagnosing the problem incorrectly. Of course, I don't know the exact situation you have and am trying so recommend based on incomplete information. But you give a few hints. I think the most important one is that the course is for upper level graduate students. You don't, however, say whether many of them are involved in research and their dissertations/theses. If that is the case they are expected to rigidly prioritize their time, I think, and little you can do will change that.

Changes to the question invalidate some of my concerns, but the basic recommendation remains the same - learn more about who you are teaching. See below:

However, and more important, I think you need to find out what is really going on. You have asked a question here where we have little information, but have you asked the students themselves? Feedback from the students is just as important as feedback to them. There is probably nothing that prevents you from developing a mid-course evaluation that students fill out - in class if necessary. It needs to be anonymous and it needs to have at least a few open ended questions so that you can get a feel for why they behave as they do.

  • What do they think of the course?
  • What do they think of how it is taught?
  • What helps do they need beyond what you are doing now?
  • Is the course a benefit or a hinderance to their current goals?
  • How important is "building a portfolio" to them.

I note that if you or the professor thinks that the students are "just like you" then you are probably mistaken. That is an error that leads to a lot of trouble. Instead, assume they are nothing like you and then try to discover who they really are. Speaking personally, it took me years to absorb that lesson.

Once you know more, you can devise a plan. It may involve motivational steps, but it might actually involve not holding the course in the future if there are too many competing student goals.

I would agree with some of the other answers here, but disagree with others. Some of them sort of say "put the stick about". Those are more likely to increase frustration than motivation.

  • $\begingroup$ Oh my god... I put upper level graduate, when I meant upper level under-grad... Besides that, answering your bullets: I've talked to many students, and I've gotten feedback that there is too much homework given, but there is no way that we can reduce the load considering it is roughly 5 hours a week for the average person (per class of course). In terms of how I can help them, I offer office hours and basically 24/7 methods of contact, yet I only ever get contacted by those who are already getting A's. Those who are struggling never contact me or the professor. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 20:06
  • $\begingroup$ Make it anonymous. Then you might get different (possibly more honest) answers. $\endgroup$
    – Buffy
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ The GDD degree at my University is essentially a UX focused CS degree done with game design. IE: Instead of Assembly and Machine Language, you take UI design and development. So if their goal is to be a game designer, programmer, or UX dev, then these courses benefit them greatly. While they might not be focused on doing well in class or building a portfolio, they know how useful it is in the long run because of how often I talk about my person experiences with it. I had a hard time getting a job with just a resume, but once I put everything in a portfolio I got a few calls within a week. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 20:10
  • $\begingroup$ That's a great idea. I'll work on getting an anonymous feedback system in place. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 20:12

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