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  • Writer's pictureTom Garside

Student engagement and motivation

Teachers often talk about the need to motivate their students, by creating activities and topics that they like doing. However, is it really possible for a teacher to motivate their students? Just because students are interested in a certain topic, game or activity, does this mean that they are more motivated to learn? 

The distinction between motivation (the broad desire to learn and improve) and engagement (the level of interest that a student shows in a specific class activity) is an important one. Small-scale engagement in tasks is an important part of any educational setting, though whether this can lead to the larger-scale drive which motivates a learner to focus on their long-term improvement is questionable. By understanding the difference between motivation and engagement, we can understand more about how to best facilitate learners’ long-term development, and foster independent and self-motivated learning activity in their future study.

Where does engagement come from?

A group of learners who is invested in a classroom activity, focusing on the task and working together to complete it well are clearly engaged in that task. They may feel a positive outcome form completing it, and may want to do well at it. However, in another lesson, the same group of learners may not show the same enthusiasm if a different task does not give them the same sense of achievement or fun as they perform it. Both activities may be equally beneficial for their learning, leading to clear progress when it is completed, but the learners’ response in these two tasks may be quite different.

This difference in engagement may come from a range of sources. The topic of the lesson may not be something that interests the students. The task itself may be too easy, repetitive or unrewarding. In this case, the learners do not ‘feel’ the benefit of the task to their own development. This feeling of benefit, through fun, interest or other kinds of stimulation, is the root of learner engagement, and can change depending on the tastes or preferences of the learners according to the design of an activity.

Where does motivation come from?

Now imagine that the same group of learners is offered a treat (some sweets, or a prize of a toy) as a reward for completing the task correctly. Suddenly, the level of value that the learners feel about the task may be different. The addition of a physical reward does not change how interesting the task itself is - it may still be repetitive or focused on a topic that the learners find bring. However, they will probably be more diligent about their work on the task and want to achieve a better result. In this case, the learners can be said to be highly motivated by the promise of the reward, rather than engaged in the task itself.

Now imagine that the value of physical reward for completing the task is replaced by a personal value that is put onto the learners’ achievement of tasks, performance in tests, and an overall good result from a period of study. This is the ideal situation, where the learners perceive the act of developing their skills as valuable in itself, no matter what kind of tasks they are asked to do, or what topics or activities are presented to them in class. These are now truly motivated students. They may not be engaged in every task that they do, but they feel the value of the activity they perform in class, and know that it will benefit them in the future.

To summarise the difference between these two factors, engagement is a fleeting interest in specific types of activity according to taste, and can change depending on what is presented in class. Motivation, on the other hand, is a broader appreciation of the importance of what is being learnt, whether it interests students or not. Motivation is a much stronger force for learning than engagement, so it is important that motivating factors for learners are taken into consideration by teachers, rather than just focusing on how much fun students are having in individual activities.

So can teachers motivate students?

Teachers tend to see the benefits of learning in a much longer-term way that students. Teachers have a knowledge of each activity, lesson and term in the context of the wider curriculum, learning outcomes and aims of a course of study. Students, on the other hand, tend to see learning in terms of individual classes, or even from activity to activity, some of which may engage them, and some of which might disengage them.

For this reason, teachers tend to assume that an engaging activity receives a positive response because it is helping students to appreciate its value to their learning (ie they are motivated by the activity), whereas most students are only thinking in terms of the interest that they have in that task in that moment (ie they are engaged in that activity). True motivation comes either from within the student (their internal, or intrinsic motivation to do a good job and achieve) or from a source external to the student (the extrinsic motivation of a future reward - the ability to progress to a university, achieve a better job, for example, or avoidance of some negative outcome, usually reinforced by parents).

So, is it possible for a teacher to provide extrinsic motivation to learners, or instil an intrinsic desire in them to learn? Most research shows that the answer to the first question is no - teachers who try to motivate students directly, as an extrinsic force (say, by explicitly showing why working hard and achieving external rewards is a positive result of learning) have lower motivation levels in their students. However, teachers who foster an environment where learners have the freedom to explore their own values about education, take on a growth mindset and think about the learning strategies that work for them tend to foster more motivation in their learners. 

Notice that in the second example, above, the teacher serves as a guide to enable learners to develop their own sense of motivation. The teachers themselves do not (and cannot) directly motivate students. Students have to motivate themselves through greater understanding of what works for them. A focus on these intrinsic, personal benefits of learning is much more effective that direct explanations of why this or that type of activity is beneficial for them.

To sum up, the difference between motivation and engagement is subtle, but very influential to the type of learning that goes on in classrooms. If you are trying to directly motivate students in your classes through the lens of your own views on the benefits of what you teach, this is unlikely to provide motivation to your students. Rather, teaching learning strategies and appealing to your students’ study preferences may help them to independently develop their own longer-term motivation to succeed - something that can only indirectly be attributed to you as their teacher.

The next time you lead a successful (or unsuccessful) activity in class, think about whether this was due to students’ engagement levels in a single set of tasks, or whether they were motivated to perform the task for their own intrinsic reasons. You might be surprised by where your students’ (lack of) interest comes from on closer inspection.

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If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher development courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.

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