Rules of engagement – how to motivate students

fingerpostI have been working with course teams across the University recently on a number of themes where there is a common articulation of a fundamental problem – how to engage students. Without marks. Many books have been written and many words spoken about this, but I am going to do my best to give you a single answer, supported by three approaches.

The essential answer comes from Phil Race in his book The Lecturer’s Toolkit – a must read for anyone teaching in higher education because he makes everything so clear and straightforward.

Focus on ‘want’ – investing in personal intrinsic motivation

To engage students you must understand their ‘want’. What does each student want? If you can’t answer this you are going to struggle. Let me break that down a bit.

It is not about spoon feeding students or accepting their expectations. After all, do students have a better understanding than the academic of the subject, the rich meaning, the deep possibilities awaiting their discovery, or how university-level teaching works? No, these need to be developed. You, the academic, have the role of designing for personal investment.

So ‘want’, or intrinsic motivation and the best interests of the student, needs to be fostered. I say fostered rather than developed because much of this comes from establishing a conducive learning environment (UKPSF Area of Activity 4). This is about negotiating and creating a learning environment for the curious.

Neither is this about telling students what they need. This is a common teaching strategy, but one that inevitably fails to ignite engagement. “You need to engage in this formative assessment… yes, I know there are no marks, but you need to engage anyway. Trust me, it’ll be good for you.” Or, “I have gone to a lot of effort to mark your assignment and I have produced loads of feedback. Do me a favour and read it!” Both examples describe a teacher-centred ‘need-based’ strategy to engagement. Trust needs to be developed and earned and even if you are ‘really nice’ it is not going to be the factor that sways students to put effort into their study.

A ‘want-based’ strategy is a student-centred strategy. Here, student-centred refers to both the individual student and the collective. To achieve this I think there are three essential analyses a teacher can conduct:

  • Benefits analysis
  • Enjoyment analysis
  • Identity analysis

Benefits analysis

A benefits analysis focuses on a student’s self-interest – ‘what’s in it for me?’. It requires the academic to put on their “designer’s” hat. For example, first be clear why you are using a method and why it is the right method to achieve the intended learning outcomes. Be sure that this is the right method. For example, if you are using audio feedback to convey visual information it is probably not a good idea to try and convince students to use it. On the other hand, if you are trying to clarify why their performance in an activity was misconceived, it may give you the right space to address the issue clearly in a personal and timely way. Whatever your conclusion, you should be able to explain to your students the benefit to them associated with the methods you have selected before you expect their engagement.

Secondly, if you know ‘what students need’, then time spent developing their expectations is not only time well spent, but critical. Students don’t always know what they want or what will help them. Developing a student’s sense of learning purpose will not only help you to solve your engagement problem but, more to the point, will help them to see themselves in your curriculum.

Benefits are often expressed in terms of time and money. We can discount money I think (!), but we should think about other value systems such as experience and reputation. Experience, more than simply success, is a tradable commodity especially if it results in a record of engagement e.g. an assignment artefact, a reflective account, feedback, a story, etc. By designing for experience you are offering a rich learning opportunity; one with multiple dimensions each of which has a different mix of benefits for each student. Talk about this. Engagement with rich experiences generates evidence of learning and growth and gives the student a basis for referring to the activity and what they learnt from it, and what they believe are the implications of this learning for them. Again, support each student to negotiate what it is they think they want to get out of this opportunity, whether that is a formative activity or feedback. In what ways will they want to measure themselves? You can even agree to give them feedback, or ask others to, according to the criteria they devise or shape for themselves.

Time in class spent discussing the why’s and the how’s to frame individual and collective benefits is a sound investment for all and will help to situate the learning. Not doing this is, quite frankly, rude. (Though academics often tell me they don’t have time to do this as they’ve got a job on their hands to cram all this content in..! Cram it in then, but with no student investment the only outcome is likely to be a tick on your sheet to confirm you delivered it – it may not necessarily arrive however!!).

You can talk to students informally about what they want: from an activity, the course, life… Your job is to find out what makes a student tick and oil their cogs!

If you and your students share an understanding of the benefits you are able, if not yet ready, to situate the intervention. Many lecturers begin a session by setting out what they intend to do. How often do we ask, is this what you want? There is the danger that they might say “no”. Then what do you do? Well, you’ll do more or less what you planned to do, but you’ll first discuss and clarify the benefits.

Enjoyments analysis

Life doesn’t need any more tedium, passivity or frustration! Learning is a serious business and warrants serious fun! This is not to undermine the quality of the content and the intellectual rigour of the academic process, but nobody ever suggested learning should be a dull and passive experience. Learning should be challenging for each student, always. We need to focus on vibrancy; the life-affirming quality of the spaces we create for learning.

Enjoyment, challenge, curiosity, stimuli, and good feelings create a powerful cauldron for engagement. Sitting creativity and criticality side-by-side is a good starting point for designing enjoyable learning situations, for example in designing activities that require constant negotiation, navigation and decision making.

Building in a social dimension can heighten enjoyment and support, and help your students to feel they have agency over their learning. They need to sense they have ownership over their learning, and from this, responsibility. This is what we mean by learner autonomy – agency and responsibility leading to self-efficacy and self-determination. Asking them to make something (a statement, hypothesis, an object, a presentation, a joke, an excuse……) creates a meaningful focus for them laden with opportunities to smile.

We must be careful not to trivialise learning, however. There is a great danger that creating a fun environment can be misunderstood by the students and detract from what we are trying to do. It can appear patronising and end up being demeaning. Co-designing enjoyable activities with students can be an interesting approach. The learning objective, serious intent, and the benefits should all be clear so that there is learning investment. At the heart of enjoyment, then, is peer co-operation, activity, challenge, interactivity and integrated feedback. These ideas are central to Chickering and Gamson’s 7 Principles of Undergraduate Teaching (1987).

The idea of ‘conundrum’ is worth reflecting on for a minute. It conjures up the idea of an engaging, solvable problem, and one that may take several attempts to complete. If we look at Problem-Based Learning, for example, how can we make the problems we use more enjoyable? While the essential problem remains the same, the context we create around it gives us our focus for enjoyment. Who sets the problem, how is the problem situated and communicated? Will this be serial, parallel, sustained, thematic, etc, etc? What interventions can be made and what is there purpose? For example, what happens if you (or someone else) provides further information as the problem progresses? We are now looking at the problem from a designer’s perspective and touching on ideas of gamification.

Identity analysis

Our third focus for considering intrinsic motivation for engagement is identity. To analyse questions of student identity in the way you teach you can simply ask,

  • Do – what do we do?
  • Be – existentially, what dispositions do we display?
  • Become – how do we become?
  • Belong – how do we belong?
  • Connect – how do we relate to knowledge and people?

You and your students should be able to confidently answer these questions.

If you can, then I suggest the activities and interventions will all be clearly situated; they will have meaning that can be depended upon. You will not need to explain why engagement is necessary, everybody will have an understanding of why taking part is highly desirable and will be able to add to and shape the situation.


The academic is first and foremost a designer in the domain of active learning. Effective engagement is achieved by designing for intrinsic motivation. This means designing a learner-centred ethos. To do this the designer focuses on the learners’ interest and self-perceived needs and desires before using a strategy that scaffolds the learner’s development in a ways that matters to them. By exploring benefits, ensuring learning is a rich and enjoyable experience, and relating activities and interventions to a student’s curation of their identity, engagement in well-designed learning activities should follow.

About amiddlet50

Educational developer working in academic innovation in higher education in the UK
This entry was posted in active learning, belonging, learner engagement and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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