Driving Student Engagement

7 Feb

“My students don’t read books.” “My students don’t come to the class prepared for the lecture.” “I spend too much time covering the basics in the class.”

These are some of the laments of instructors in higher education. They are not happy that the students don’t take their studies seriously, spend too much time in non-productive extra-curricular activities, don’t pay attention in the class, or don’t come to the class at all. This is, somehow, not surprising.

We hear the word “student engagement” multiple times every day. Instructors complain that their students are not engaged in the classroom, and we, as publishers and developers of learning content and technology, try our best to develop products that engage the students. So what exactly is “engagement”? And what drives engagement? Is it a really important piece of the education puzzle? If yes, what are we doing about it? Are we doing things right? Are we doing the right things?

Learning is a time consuming and difficult process, and attention increases the effectiveness of learning. If we pay more attention, we’ll learn more because we are not distracted and our brains are focused on the actual learning. Engaging content gives us enjoyment. It makes us happy. However, the textbooks are overly monotonous and didactic.

Engagement is driven by motivation. The more motivated we are, the more engaged we will be in any activity, including learning.

There are two types of motivation:

  1. Intrinsic motivation – the one that comes from within oneself, without any external stimulus, whether positive (reward) or negative (punishment)
  2. Extrinsic motivation – comes as a response to a stimulus, either positive (reward) or negative (punishment)

Research conducted over the past decades have proven that extrinsic motivation doesn’t work over the long term. If employees are promised a monetary reward every time they reach a certain sales goal, it will not make them more productive. It will only make them do things to achieve the goal, by any means. If students are forced to take tests for grades, it will not make them read the book or learn from other sources. It will only make them look for shortcuts to get past the tests, by any means including cheating on the test.

This is not to say that rewards never work. They do, but only in certain situations. External rewards (and punishment) do sometimes work. If it’s a routine activity, such as assembling a computer or packing things in cartons, the higher the incentive, the more is the productivity. However, when it comes to creative endeavors that require critical thinking and reasoning, external rewards actually hamper creativity. Also, when the reward is unexpected, it makes people happy. But when the reward (good grades) is expected, it doesn’t motivate students to devote more time to studies and learning.

What motivates students?
Student motivation is affected by the same things that affect all of us. We all ask the question – what is in it for me? Why should I care? Good grades are certainly a motivating factor if it is correlated with a good starting job, a great career, more money, or more recognition. However, getting good grades requires studying and performing on tests and other instructor-graded activities. But the reward appears a long time in the future and is not readily apparent. The study materials, both print and digital, do not engage the students, resulting in low attention levels and poor learning.

Good content should ideally enhance learning. However, the medium of instruction plays an important role in learning. Print books have a lot of limitations. They are not interactive, they do not let people practice or give feedback, and they do not support multimedia elements. All of these factors can be effectively utilized along with good content and instructional design to increase student motivation. We should stop being didactic and start taking into account the factors that engage college students and the factors that distract or discourage students from engaging with their studies. So what are those factors?

Related readings
Daniel Pink on the surprising science of motivation


One Response to “Driving Student Engagement”


  1. Today’s Motivations « Media Meme - February 8, 2012

    […] Driving Student Engagement (kumardeepak.wordpress.com) […]

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