Enjoyment, anticipation, challenge as factors affecting personal intrinsic investment #heutagogy

In our research-informed development activities looking at learner non-engagement with formative assessment, with group work or with engaging in feedback, it is becoming clear that the lack of space given to developing learner ‘buy-in’ or developing ‘want’ is highly significant in academic design and practice.

I saw a group of academics drawing out a graphic plan for a project-based learning approach on a whiteboard in a workshop I ran the other day. It was certainly an interesting and powerful approach, all things considered. But what was remarkable was, without any call for a summative explanation, the team carefully assigned marks to each milestone point in the design. 10% here, 10% there, 10% everywhere. Marks assigned to nudge the students on at each stage. These were experienced academics by the way. It was not appropriate to comment in class but the thoughts going through my mind were, “Why is this group excited by using an intrinsically motivating, student-centred, socially constructed methodology like this but uncritically drawn to use extrinsic devices at each stage?” The danger of not relinquishing this dependence on extrinsic rewards is that you underplay the need to heighten the intrinsic motivation so that it becomes an unstoppable force for engagement. The opportunity to shift the learning culture into one in which a making ethos is centrally valued becomes dissipated.

This reflects Phil Race’s point about focussing on what students want, not on what you think they need, when designing for engagement (Race, 2015). Race also makes a big point about the importance of intended learning outcomes, especially when they are personalised, and how they can help “in the briefing of students for longer elements of their learning, including projects, group tasks, practical work and field work” (p. 24). However, I want to go further and ask us to consider personalisation in terms of unintended learning outcomes.

A phrase came out of my discussion with a colleague yesterday as we discussed engagement design in relation to student group work: personal intrinsic investment in a social context. While we may talk about briefing active learning, we often do so in terms of explaining the activity in hand; being clear about what the student must do. We may also explain why a student will do this and point to the intended learning outcomes as a bold set of statements that rationalise the activity. We may, from experience, be aware of the unintended learning outcomes and their value. But to what extent do we look at this as our starting point for engaging students?

If we start with the unintended learning outcomes, and move from their explanation to their exploration, we start to see the richness of an activity in ecological terms. If we facilitate this well by asking students to individually note the challenges and opportunities for them personally in undertaking the activity we start to address the basis for their personal intrinsic investment. If we then ask them to compare their notes with those of their peers, we will find some cross-pollination. But mostly this space for exploration of challenges and opportunities is about developing an individual student’s appreciation of self-determination as a basis for learning. Such a rich understanding, I propose, can help to change our individual and collective dependence on extrinsic devices.

My point, in our work, as we consider learner engagement is that we must create a rich space for exploring personal intrinsic investment as a precondition to attempting engagement. We can think of this simply as creating space for fostering anticipation. A space for allowing each learner to find their energy and flow and allow them to monitor, modify and evaluate their personal outcomes through the activity.

Perhaps this is where ideas such as negotiated assessment, negotiated criteria or negotiated feedback come into play too. We begin to see how ideas to do with heutagogy and self-determined learning do not sit apart from directed and self-directed learning, but can be integrated within existing models at any level and according to the readiness of individual students.

These thoughts have developed as I’ve thought about ‘want’ and ‘enjoyment’ and their relationship to ‘challenge’ in discourses on engagement with learning. Abuhamdeh and Csikszentmihaly (2012) usefully reappraise the value of challenge in relation to motivation and conclude that it is not necessarily the panacea to engagement it is often claimed to be (e.g. Chickering & Gamson, 1987). These leaves us needing to think even harder about intrinsic motivation and, for me, personal investment is helpful.


Abuhamdeh, S. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2012). The importance of challenge for the enjoyment of intrinsically, goal-directed activities. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(3), 317-330.

Chickering, A. & Gamson, Z. (1987). Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. AAHE Bulletin, p3-7 Mar 1987. Online at: https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED282491

Race, P. (2015). The lecturer’s toolkit: a practical guide to assessment, learning and teaching, Fourth edition. London & New York: Routledge.

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
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