Student Engagement and motivation – a Theoretical Primer

Student engagement is a good predictor of student knowledge acquisition and general cognitive development. Engagement, in turn, is a function of active learning and motivation. Fortunately, much research has been done on understanding motivation.

How can you Measure Student Engagement?  This a strategy you can use to have your students assess their own engagement level.


In order to foster engagement, we may need to increase motivation. And, in order to increase motivation, we have to understand it. Fortunately, much research has been done on understanding motivation.

Motivational Theory

A few points about prevalant motivational theories

  • Maslow Hierarchy of Needs: To understand how to motivate your students, start with Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs which documents the order in which students with more than one need will meet them. For example, a student who is hungry, tired and doesn’t understand reducing fractions will try to meet his need for food and rest before asking any questions about reducing fractions.
  • Ariely, Gneezy, Lowenstein and Marr (2005) Suggest that extrinsic motivation only works when an individual deems that the risk and effort result in something achievable and with a great enough reward.
  • Self Determination Theory: Deci & Ryan (1985, 2002) Identifies autonomy, competency and relatedness as intrinsic motivators
  • Self-Efficacy theories: (Bandura 1977, 1982; Corno & Mandinach, 1983): Identifies how a learner’s confidence impacts on their learning outcomes
  • Self-worth models: Speaks to the ego and ones fear of failure and self-preservation.
  • Goals Theory: Speaks of a students learning relationship, fears and ego.
  • Attributions Theory: (Weiner 1979, 1985 & 1986) Speaks of how a student will relate success or failure to a particular reason which is shaped by personal experience and motivation is based on if the student feels it is within their control.
  • Cross & Steadman (1996) suggest that it is 3 theories: Self-efficacy, Self-worth and Attribution that work together to satisfy a student’s needs
  • Expectancy x Values models: One model that makes the important factors in student motivation obvious is the Expectancy x Value model. This model looks at learners in terms of the degree to which they believe they can succeed at the learning task, Expectancy, and the degree to which they value the results of the learning task, Value. (Barkley, 2010, p. 11) Brophy approached this model from the perspective of classifying students by whether they have high or low expectancy and high or low value for a given learning task, and found 4 student types: (as cited in Barkley, 2010, p. 15) Covington found 4 student types (as cited in Barkley, p. 12) which maps nicely to the types Brophy found,

Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Motivation

Motivating Students – Resources and How-Tos

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