George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

To Increase Student Engagement, Focus on Motivation

Teachers can motivate middle and high school students by providing structure while also allowing them some control over their learning.

November 17, 2022
Photo of high school teacher and student
FatCamera / iStock

A 2018 Gallup study found that as students get older, they become less engaged, or “involved, enthusiastic, and committed.” The study contained some alarming findings: In fifth grade, most students (74 percent) report high levels of engagement with school. However, by middle school, only half of students are engaged, and by high school the number of engaged students shrinks to about one-third. 

Student engagement continued to be a pressing concern for parents and educators during and after the pandemic. Approximately half of parents (45 percent), 77 percent of administrators, and 81 percent of teachers said that keeping students engaged was difficult during remote learning. In addition, 94 percent of educators considered student engagement to be the most important metric to look at when determining student success. Gallup found that students who are engaged with school not only report achieving higher grades but also feel more hopeful about their future. 

Student motivation

Engagement and motivation are separate, related, but often confused. Motivation is the driving force that causes a student to take action. Engagement is the observable behavior or evidence of that motivation. Motivation is necessary for engagement, but successful engagement could also help students to feel motivated in the future. 

In my book The Independent Learner, I discuss how self-regulated learning strategies help students to increase their motivation and willingness to engage in learning because they create feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. According to research by Ryan and Deci, these are the three components that facilitate motivation:

  • Autonomy is a “sense of initiative and ownership in one’s actions.”
  • Competence is a “feeling of mastery” and a sense that with effort a student can “succeed and grow.”
  • Relatedness is when the school setting “conveys respect and caring” that results in the student feeling “a sense of belonging and connection.”

Motivating students in the classroom

It is important not to confuse engagement with entertainment. In an EdWeek survey, researchers found that the entertaining activities that teachers expect to engage students are not necessarily working. While the majority of teachers who had increased their use of digital games assumed that games would engage students, only 27 percent of students reported feeling more engaged when digital games were involved. In addition, 30 percent of students said learning was actually less engaging. 

So what creates engagement? Gallup found that students who strongly agreed with the following two statements were 30 times more likely to report high levels of engagement with school:

  • My school is “committed to building the strengths of each student.”
  • I have “at least one teacher who makes me excited about the future.”

In other words, engaged students recognize that they have the support of caring adults who are willing to partner with them in their learning. 

Not all classrooms create these conditions. Controlling classrooms lower autonomy and motivation and increase student frustration. In controlling classrooms, students avoid challenges because they are afraid of failure. They work toward external rewards or to avoid possible anxiety or shame caused by mistakes. The teacher controls the answers and learning materials and uses language like “should” or “have to,” and students feel pressured to behave and achieve.

In contrast, creating classroom environments where students feel autonomy, competence, and relatedness helps students to maintain motivation and increase their engagement in school activities. Classrooms that foster motivation and increase engagement are high in structure but low in top-down control. These classrooms have the following qualities.

Supportive: Teachers support autonomy by listening and attempting to understand and respond to students’ perspectives. They look at what a student can currently do and where they need to go to reach the standard or objective, and they help the student by building scaffolds or supports to bridge the gap. This makes achievement toward grade-level content possible, even for learners who are not quite there yet.

Personal and individualized: Students feel like they are able to customize their assignments in order to explore their own interests. Students can also be taught to make their own connections to what they are learning through creating their own hooks for a lesson.

Recognizing students’ unique qualities and special talents, getting to know what interests students and incorporating these interests into lessons or assignments, and reaching out to parents with a note or email when a student does something well are all strategies that I use to make learning personal and increase relatedness in the classroom. 

Structured and goal-oriented: When teachers give students strategies, provide frequent feedback, and show them how to use those strategies effectively, students are motivated by observing their own progress. Teachers can provide a rationale or standard and guide students in setting short-term mastery goals for each required task. They can also help students to align their daily actions and effort with the results they are hoping to achieve by making a process plan.

I have found that when students graph their own progress or use their process plan as a checklist, this makes growth visual and allows students to see the steps they are accomplishing each day toward their goal. In addition, clear expectations, consistency in classroom structure, clear rules, and set routines are all important. 

Collaborative: Teachers provide students with choices and opportunities to partner with the teacher in their learning experiences and show ownership in the tasks that are assigned to them. When teachers encourage students to begin to make choices and take responsibility for their own learning, students see a purpose in school activities.

One way to do this is through using self-assessment to prompt reflection on strategy use. I have students analyze their graded assignments to decide what strategies to keep and what to do differently next time. When students see errors as a signal that they need to reflect on the process and learning strategies they used, they realize there are no real mistakes, just opportunities for learning.

Although the pandemic has been difficult, the majority of students (69 percent) report feeling hopeful about the future. Students who are hopeful and engaged are less likely to get suspended or expelled, have chronic absenteeism, skip school, or drop out of school. When educators put effort into the goal of creating a school environment guided by student engagement, motivation, and autonomy, students can see their own growth. This creates an excitement for learning that helps students to maintain hope for the future even through difficult circumstances.

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  • Student Engagement
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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