Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Student engagement and learning

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Student engagement and learning:
What is student engagement and how can it be fostered to improve learning?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. How can educators engage their students to improve learning?

Most educators dread the bored, disinterested look of a student. Why is the student bored, disinterested or, worse, disengaged completely?

The search for better teaching strategies should never stop being a goal for educators, and this includes how to engage students and consequently improve their learning. The term student engagement has grown in popularity, and many researchers have investigated how best to engage a student to improve their learning experience (see Figure 1). The general findings are that motivation is crucial. However, motivation is a broad term, so how can educators better understand what motivation to use to engage their students and improve their learning?

Focus questions
  • What is student engagement?
  • What factors influence student engagement?
  • How can student engagement be fostered to improve learning?

What is student engagement?[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Students that are curious, interested or inspired are engaged learners.

Research shows that educators hold differing views on student engagement, defining and interpreting it differently from place to place (Great Schools Partnership, 2016; Trowler, 2010). A simple definition by Kuh et al. (2007, as cited in Trowler, 2010) defines student engagement as partaking in some form of academic practice, inside or outside the classroom, that has a measurable outcome (see Figure 2). However, Great Schools Partnership (2016) explains that student engagement requires motivation to learn and progress one's education. Furthermore, learning improves when students are curious, interested, or inspired. Otherwise, learning tends to suffer when students are bored, disinterested, dissatisfied or otherwise disengaged.

Influencing factors that can improve learning[edit | edit source]

Many factors can influence student engagement to improve learning. However, as noted by learning professionals, motivation is vital (Jiang & Zhang, 2021; Sergis et al., 2018). Motivation is what causes us to act, the driving force or the "why" behind our behaviour (Cherry, 2020; Psychology Today, 2009). Motivation is a fundamental element of students’ learning; teachers can increase and develop motivation for optimal achievement in the classroom (Valerio, 2012). However, different types of motivation can elicit different levels of engagement. So, the question is what type of motivation is best to engage students, and how can it be fostered to improve learning?

Types of motivation[edit | edit source]

Understanding motivation is paramount for educators because fostering the right motivation will engage their students and embed learning (Department of Education and Training Victoria, 2021).

There are three types of motivation: amotivation, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation (see Table 1).

Table 1. Motivation types and definitions

  • The absence of motivation (both intrinsic and extrinsic types).
  • No purpose or goal or intent to engage in an activity (Barkoukis et al., 2008).
Extrinsic motivation
  • Comes from influences outside of the individual.
  • Goal is a desired outcome distinct from the activity itself (Wikipedia, 2003).
Intrinsic motivation
  • Desire to act for the fun or challenge entailed to develop their skills and knowledge.
  • Spontaneous tendencies to be curious and interested, to seek out challenges, regardless of the reward (Di Domenico & Ryan, 2017).

All students are unique, so the challenge for educators is how to elicit intrinsic motivation to engage each student. An educator interested in engaging students needs to understand motivation and how to foster it to improve learning. One way to elicit intrinsic motivation and engage students is to adopt self-determination theory (SDT). Research demonstrates that fostering SDT in the classroom not only engages the student in learning but also improves learning (Cherry, 2021; Jiang & Zhang, 2021; Trowler, 2010).

Self-determination theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 3: Basic needs to grow SDT in students.

SDT (see Figure 3) is a theory of human motivation that can be used to explain students' learning process, classroom behaviour, and relationship with the environment. SDT proposes that students are motivated to grow and change by three innate and universal psychological needs. Imagine that SDT is a garden, and in this garden, you would like to grow something unique. To achieve this, one needs seeds and ideally wants them to grow, but seeds require attention. SDT consists of three seeds (autonomy, relatedness and competence) that need attention for a student to grow (and hence learn). SDT proposes that students become self-determined when their needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence are fulfilled (Cherry, 2021). Deci's (2017) video explains this theory in more detail:

"Self-determination theory" - Edward Deci

Autonomy[edit | edit source]

Figure 4: Autonomy seed in SDT

Autonomy (see Figure 4) is, in essence, self-directing freedom for individuals and arguably the most critical seed within SDT. While all three seeds are required to achieve SDT, autonomy is at the heart of SDT. Autonomy is the capacity to make an informed, uncoerced decision and be one's own person according to their own life, reasons and motives and not manipulated or distorted by external forces. If learners feel relatedness (socially included with their peers or family), they still may not have autonomy over their lives. In comparison, autonomy allows them to take action to achieve their goals, like relatedness and competency (Cherry, 2021; Sutton, 1997; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2020). Research indicates that students' experience lower pressure and higher enjoyment in learning when their psychological needs are positively related to autonomous motivation (Wang et al., 2019).

Seed one: Autonomy

To have autonomous students, teachers must let their students think independently, give student voices weight, and give students the freedom to constructively contribute to the classroom.

Example: A student is trying to work on a complex problem and is struggling. Rather than the traditional educator role of supplying solutions or knowledge (Sutton, 1997), autonomous learning encourages students to reach out to each other to share knowledge and solve problems (Darling-Hammond et al., 2019). Autonomous learning builds collaboration skills and fosters more profound learning and understanding (Darling-Hammond et al., 2019).

Relatedness (see Figure 5) is the need to feel connected to others. Human beings are social by nature and relatedness taps into their need to experience connectedness, to feel close to others and where their actions are valued.

Competence[edit | edit source]

Figure 5: Competence seed in SDT

Competence (see Figure 5) is an individual's sense of mastery and knowledge that they can achieve their goals. In essence, the development of attitudes, skills, and knowledge they can apply to successful learning, living, and working (Bissenbayeva et al., 2013)[grammar?]. Research shows that providing positive feedback to a student on a task validates their competence (I feel capable at what I do), which increases or sustains satisfaction in the task (otherwise known as intrinsic motivation) (Niemiec & Ryan, 2009).

It is normal for an educator to 'tell' or 'direct' students, who usually comply. However, this teaching style relies heavily on extrinsic motivation (rewards or punishment) and does not teach or foster competence. It is always easier to do what one is told to do, but it is harder to know what to do. Fostering competence in students increases their confidence and creates an engaging learning environment where they become self-reliant and eager to learn to increase their competence levels (Bissenbayeva et al., 2013; Niemiec & Ryan, 2009).

Seed two: Competence

Competent students are confident, engaged and have a desire (or intrinsic motivation) to increase their competence which assists them in successfully coping with everyday life situations and problems.

Example: An educator notices a student struggling with a question; they have several options: provide an answer, offer how to solve it, or build the students' confidence. To build competence, the educator can ask the student to consider possible solutions to the problem and then attempt the solution that seems most likely to be effective. Encouraging the student to solve problems independently does not mean that the teacher cannot offer guidance (or intervene in a true crisis). However, the student's solution can often be more successful than those handed down by an educator. Actively involving students helps them feel in control and reinforces their sense of ownership and empowerment–essential ingredients in resilience and self-esteem (Darling-Hammond et al., 2019).

Relatedness[edit | edit source]

Figure 6. Relatedness seed in SDT

Relatedness (see Figure 6) is an individual’s need to feel connected to others through acceptance and intimacy (Kim et al., 2019). Human beings are social creatures by nature, and relatedness taps into our need to experience connectedness, feel close to others and know our actions are valued.

Students who feel socially isolated, lonely, or unsupported cannot create a connection with others and believe that they are alone. Consequently, this inability to create a connection has a domino effect and is usually because of negative emotions such as grief, fear of failure, stress, and loneliness (Yosof et al., 2020). Unfortunately, a student's lack of connection and feeling because of feeling alienated or marginalised can directly impact a student’s ability to learn because they find it difficult to engage in active learning or feel anxious (Anderson, 2016; Wang et al., 2019).

Seed three: Relatedness

To provide a positive learning environment for students, educators need to address and support students' well-being, pay attention to student relations amongst their peers and support academic and non-academic activities to help create connectedness (Yusof et al., 2020).

Example: A new student can feel isolated and not connected to their peers. This lack of connectedness has a negative impact on a student's ability to learn. Whereas, if an educator can create or encourage opportunities for a new or struggling student to create or enhance relationships, they can feel supported and experience a sense of intimacy when they feel close to or included by others (Kim et al., 2019)[grammar?].

Key points

  • Student engagement is partaking in some form of academic practice, inside or outside the classroom, that has a measurable outcome
  • Motivation is a factor that influences student engagement.
  • There are three types of motivation:
  1. Amotivation
  2. Extrinsic motivation
  3. Intrinsic motivation
  • Self-determination theory is the satisfaction of innate and universal psychological needs (Figure 7):
  1. Autonomy
  2. Relatedness
  3. Competence
Figure 7. Self-determination theory's universal psychological need to foster motivation.

Quiz 1
Choose the correct answers and click "Submit":

1 What are the 3 universal psychological needs in SDT:


2 How many types of motivation are there?


3 The need for mastery and understanding of the environment is an example of _____.

need for acceptance
need for competence
need for achievement
need for relatedness
need for autonomy

Autonomy and motivation[edit | edit source]

Figure 8: Taxonomy of motivation

Autonomy is arguably the most critical element (seed) within SDT[factual?]. Autonomy motivates individuals to think creatively without needing to conform to strict rules. By rethinking traditional ideas of teaching, educators can build trust and improve innovation and creativity. Research shows that educators who foster SDT can improve learning opportunities experienced by students (Cherry, 2021; Di Domenico & Ryan, 2017; Sergis et al., 2018). Fostering SDT draws on a student's intrinsic motivation, the internal drive and desire to want to be autonomous, related and competent.

Intrinsic motivation fosters the highest level of autonomy (see Figure 8) in the SDT framework, providing scaffolding for autonomy support (AS) in the classroom.

The age-old questions of why some students are more competent and perform better than others or why some students engage in school more than others are pondered by educators to this day. AS is a concept to try and address these questions.

Figure 9. Elements of autonomy support

AS refers to a student's feelings of choice and control in their learning. Students possess inner motivational resources that classroom conditions can support or frustrate and AS fosters these motivational resources to encourage students to be proactive and engaged in the classroom. AS is shown by an educator's respect for the students' opinions and feelings, facilitating time to think, opportunities to choose, and encourages independent problem-solving (Núñez & León, 2015). Furthermore, AS in the classroom is related to greater feelings of competence and autonomy, inspiring intrinsic motivation (Reeve, 2006). Encouraging intrinsic motivation is vital to engaging students and improving learning.

Key points

  • 3 different types of motivation:
  1. Amotivation
  2. Extrinsic
  3. Intrinsic
  • Intrinsic motivation assists with student engagement.
  • Autonomy-support (see Figure 9) fosters student engagement:
  1. choice in learning
  2. respect shown by educator for the students' opinions and feeling

Quiz 2
Choose the correct answers and click "Submit":

1 Autonomy support fosters extrinsic motivation:


2 Intrinsic motivation is vital to engaging students and improving learning:


Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Figure 10. Graduation

Most educators have at one stage endured the struggle of how to engage their students. To achieve optimal functioning, students need to satisfy their psychological needs and be intrinsically motivated. SDT offers a teaching strategy that looks after a student's well-being (through relatedness and competence) and fosters engagement through tapping into the student's autonomy (self-directing freedom). By understanding SDT, and adopting an autonomy-support focus within a classroom, an educator can foster engagement and improve student learning.

Only once a student's psychological needs are satisfied, can they be engaged with having a desire to learn successfully (see Figure 10).

Key points
  • Motivation is a key factor to engage students, specifically intrinsic motivation.
  • Self-determination theory is understanding human motivation and consists of three seeds: autonomy, relatedness and competence.
  • Autonomy-support encourages students engagement and improves learning.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Anderson, S. (2016, December 7). Learning by osmosis isn't a thing. StudyRight.

Barkley, E. F. (2009). What Does “Student Engagement” Mean? In Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty (pp. 3-16). John Wiley & Sons.

Barkoukis, V., Tsorbatzoudis, H., Grouios, G., & Sideridis, G. (2008). The assessment of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and amotivation: Validity and reliability of the Greek version of the academic motivation scale. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 15(1), 39-55.

Bissenbayeva, Z., Aigerim, K., Zinagul, T., & Zhanar, N. (2013). Students’ competency level evaluation on the basis of competence centered tasks. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 89, 872-875.

Cherry, K. (2020, April 27). The psychology of what motivates us. Verywell Mind.

Cherry, K. (2021, March 15). How does self-determination theory explain motivation? Verywell Mind.

Darling-Hammond, L., Flook, L., Cook-Harvey, C., Barron, B., & Osher, D. (2019). Implications for educational practice of the science of learning and development. Applied Developmental Science, 24(2), 97-140.

Department of Education and Training Victoria. (2021, January 11). Dimension: Empowering students and building school pride.

Di Domenico, S., & Ryan, R. (2017, March 24). The emerging neuroscience of intrinsic motivation: A new frontier in self-determination research. PubMed Central (PMC).

Great Schools Partnership. (2016, February 18). Student engagement definition. The Glossary of Education Reform.

Jiang, A. L., & Zhang, L. J. (2021). University teachers' teaching style and their students' agentic engagement in EFL learning in China: A self-determination theory and achievement goal theory integrated perspective. Frontiers in Psychology, 12.

Kim, J., Chung, M. K., & Dray, B. J. (2019). Students’ relatedness needs in a teacher education course: The role of identities as learners & capital. Heliyon, 5(7), 1-6.

Niemiec, C. P., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom. Theory and Research in Education, 7(2), 133-144.

Núñez, J. L., & León, J. (2015). Autonomy support in the classroom. European Psychologist, 20(4), 275-283.

Psychology Today. (2009, March 17). Motivation.

Reeve, J. (2006). Teachers as facilitators: What autonomy‐supportive teachers do and why their students benefit. The Elementary School Journal, 106(3), 225-236.

Sergis, S., Sampson, D. G., & Pelliccione, L. (2018). Investigating the impact of flipped classroom on students' learning experiences: A self-determination theory approach. Computers in Human Behavior, 78, 368-378.

Sutton, B. B. (1997, July 1). The teacher as a guide: Letting students navigate their own learning. Edutopia.

Trowler, V. (2010). Student engagement literature review. The Higher Education Academy.

Valerio, K. (2012). Intrinsic motivation in the classroom. Journal of Student Engagement: Education Matters, 2(1), 30-35.

Wang, C., Liu, W. C., Kee, Y. H., & Chian, L. K. (2019). Competence, autonomy, and relatedness in the classroom: Understanding students’ motivational processes using the self-determination theory. Heliyon, 5(7), e01983.

Wikipedia. (2003, May 23). Motivation. Retrieved September 6, 2021, from

Yusof, N., Awang-Hashim, R., Kaur, A., Abdul Malek, M., Suppiah Shanmugam, S. K., Abdul Manaf, N. A., Seow Voon Yee, A., & Zubairi, A. M. (2020). The role of relatedness in student learning experiences. Asian Journal of University Education, 16(2), 235.

External links[edit | edit source]