Articles | The Sisyphean Problem of Student Motivation




I have always been fascinated by Albert Camus’ interpretation of the myth of Sisyphus—the classical Greek character condemned to roll a rock up a hill only to have it roll back down again. In Camus’ estimation, Sisyphus transitions from a cursed creature into a symbol of existential strength. One portion of Camus’ telling in particular is utterly intriguing.


It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate.


He is stronger than his rock. (Camus 2007, p.543)


A recent office conversation that drifted into the realm of student motivation brought Sisyphus and his massive rock immediately to mind. For many students, college is an immense, seemingly never-ending uphill slog fraught on all sides with aspirational, educational, emotional, psychological, and social struggles. From lack of familial support, to financial issues, to simply losing interest, there are any number of events that can derail a student’s higher education journey. Which begs the question, what motivates students to continue? Certainly job prospects and future earning potential are key motivators, and yet, a quick look at college retention/completion rates reveals that there are a large number of students for whom these are not strong enough incentives. When the cost of not completing college is taken into account, the how do we keep these kids in class and motivated question becomes even more dire. Further, when it comes to online courses, which often feel as impersonal as Sisyphus’ rock, how do we maintain and encourage student motivation? Or, even better, how do we keep from demotivating students?


In order to better understand this conundrum, I waded into the World Wide Web to track down a few resources. I discovered, much to my chagrin, that I was not the first person to consider the problem of student motivation. In fact, the Web is rife with articles and studies that tackle this very question. Towards that end, I have taken the liberty of listing a few for your reading pleasure.


An article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed on motivation and its importance for higher education institutions:


A link with a number of helpful suggestions and tips for motivating online learners:


A short article from eLearn magazine on motivation:


There are some basic elements of motivation mentioned in these links that apply to online courses, such as employing attractive design, adding multi-media, encouraging instructor presence, promoting community through discussion, allowing collaboration, providing meaningful feedback, giving learners the opportunity to practice, and so on. And yet, while the Web is filled with hints, tips, and links on how to motivate students online—and there is no way that I can actively distill all of that advice into one short blog post—we still face high attrition rates in higher education.


In the end, my goal here, as with all things philosophical, is not to solve the problem or try to present an easy solution, but instead to merely raise the question, start the debate, get the “stone” rolling as it were. What can we do to keep students motivated and wanting to continue pushing that rock? How can we instill that “silent joy,” as Camus calls it, regarding the struggle toward knowledge? What practical steps can we take to develop a sense of motivation in students? What can we do to improve motivation in online courses? For those of us involved in the construction/development of online courses, these are serious questions to ponder indeed.



Camus, A. The myth of Sisyphus. In Adler, J. E. & Elgin, C. Z. (2007) Philosophical inquiry: Classic  and contemporary readings. Indianapolis, IN.: Hackett pp. 542-4. Google Book Search