Engagement And Motivation

1 Jun

Here’s a true story. An online game on biology for middle school kids was developed by people holding PhD degrees in biological sciences and affiliated with Stanford University. The game shows a patient lying on a hospital bed, and the kids have to answer questions correctly to improve the health of the patient. If their answers are wrong, the patient’s condition deteriorates, and multiple wrong answers leads to the patient’s death. The interactive game provides challenge, engagement, and learning opportunity. The kids are engaged with playing the game, they are having fun, and they are motivated to answer the questions. Engagement and motivation are what every educator wants to see in children. What could possible go wrong? But something did …

The students were engaged and motivated, but they were “motivated to play the game”, and not “motivated to learn”. They were having more fun when the patient was dying (funny animations) than when the patient was getting better. Apparently, engagement does not always lead to an increase in motivation to learn.

Use of iPads in schools may be leading to similar results. Children are engaged with their shiny new devices, but are they learning more? We’ll have to wait and see if long term studies prove tablets’ effects on learning.

When a child is interested in something (ex: dinosaurs, video games) or has a positive attitude toward a subject area (ex: physics, history), he wants to do more  with it and learn more about it. It leads to an intrinsic motivation to learn so the child visits a dinosaur museum or reads a science experiments book. If the museum or the book’s contents manage to grab his attention, he is hooked, or “engaged”. If the book is hard to understand, the interest and, therefore, engagement goes down. If the content is relevant to his life and challenging just enough, he continues. Instructional methods, such as examples, practice, and feedback are important, but only when they engage the child.

On the other hand, extrinsic motivation (reward or punishment) would most likely force the children to study. They probably would not be interested in learning, but if the content and instructional methods are engaging, it might generate intrinsic motivation leading to further engagement.

I think the first step toward making our children great learners is getting them interested in and developing a positive attitude toward a subject area. Parents and teachers have the biggest role to play here. And then employing instructional methods based on sound instructional  design principles and educational research findings. Intrinsic motivation leads to engagement. Extrinsic motivation such as forcing the children to study might make some of them aim for good grades, but they would not be learning for the long term. Being a “tiger mom” might help too, but it’s not for the weak-hearted parents and would not work for most of the kids.

You study hard, you get good grades. It’s a simple logic. Unfortunately, the reward of good grades doesn’t motivate or engage students or even grown-ups. And it’s sad that educators and administrators responsible for teaching our kids do not understand this.

Suggested Readings
Engagement Versus Motivation
Why Steve Jobs Would Have Loved Digital Learning


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