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Student motivation and engagement

September 30, 2013

So here we go- my first blog post!  I thought the topic of student motivation and engagement would be a good place to start for a couple of reasons.  First, this topic consumes so much of my time in conversations with colleagues, teachers, students and parents.  Second, there seem to be be so many contrasting opinions on the topic (i.e. teachers think students are not motivated enough or “too lazy”, parents think students are too “stressed out” or “overworked”).  Third, there seems to exist such a fine line between the two.  I purposely framed the title of this post as motivation and engagement because I think those two words represent the two sides to the issue- teachers want students to be motivated, students want their teachers to engage them in the material being taught. This is the common ground that exists.  So where do we go from here?

Like most principals, I try to make a habit of visiting classrooms on a daily basis.  When I visit a classroom of highly “motivated” students the teacher tends to be using effective teaching practices strategically aimed at engaging students in the learning.  The fascinating thing to me is that these strategies are typically very simple in their design and execution.  Despite (or perhaps because of) their simplicity, it is clear that the teacher has given very specific thought to two crucial questions: 1) What is it I want students to specifically know and/or be able to do as a result of today’s lesson? and 2) How will I know the students know what I want them to know and/or be able to do?  These two questions establish the focus of the day’s work keenly on the students and their learning, not on the teacher and his/her teaching.

This student-centered mindset results in a classroom environment that is more dynamic, engaging and fun.  Students are challenged to think deeply about topics that interest them.  Students are given multiple opportunities to express their opinions or thoughts introspectively, with their peers or with the whole class.  Teachers are able to closely monitor student performance on a daily basis, in an ever-changing cycle of instruction, assessment and feedback.  What’s more, student motivation is higher because students see that the work they are doing is meaningful and interesting.

In closing I would like to offer a few questions aimed at specific groups, as well as a few links to engaging teaching strategies.

For teachers:

1) Am I designing student-centered lessons on a daily basis that are aimed at specifically targeting knowledge and skills to be learned, rather than content to be covered?

2) Am I utilizing dynamic instructional strategies that engage and challenge students to think deeply about topics of interest and importance?

3) Am I utilizing effective practices of both formative and summative assessment to measure student understanding on a daily basis?

For students:
1) Am I prepared each day to think deeply about complex topics and actively participate in my own learning?

2) Am I willing to take risks and learn from my mistakes?

3) Am I understanding of the fact that the best questions have no “right” answer and that my opinions only matter when supported by relevant facts?

Here are some engagement strategies that you may find helpful:

Have a great week, everyone!



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  1. Kathy Lake permalink

    Thanks for opening up this topic for conversation. I have found that the Teacher Talk strategies that Chick Moorman has developed ( ) very helpful in empowering students to see what they can achieve to increase their internal motivation.

  2. Mary Ellen Tillotson, Ph.D., School Psychologist permalink

    I agree! This is a truly important topic to discuss! Indicators of engagement are many. As we discussed at RtI, Indicators of student engagement can be both Observable and Internal.

    Observable indicators can be further thought of as Acadmic Engagement (time on task, passing subjects, credit accural, homework completion) and Behavioral Engagement (attendance, classroom participation, following rules). Those can be seen with the naked eye and via quantitative data.

    What’s not always so clear, are Internal Indicators of Engagement such as Cognitive Engagement and Affective Engagement. Cognitive Engagement refers to pereceived relevance of schoolwork, goal setting, and the use of cognitive behavioral strategies by the student. Affective Engagement refers to Identification with school and a sense of belonging.

    As we greet students, welcome them to participate, forgive their mistakes, laugh with them when things are indeed funny, empathize with their struggles, encourage their growth, believe in their potential, invite them to belong to the community of the classroom, reinforce their value to the collective learning of the classroom, check up on them when they’re struggling, set boundaries in a caring and supportive way, refuse to reject them when they are making poor choices….I think we contribute to all of those indicators of engagement. That’s what I see anyway in classes all over this school.

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