How can I help students feel intrinsically and extrinsically motivated to engage in active learning?

posted June 20, 2017 and revised January 29, 2021
by Stephanie Chasteen, University of Colorado Boulder

Chapter 3: Motivation. This expert recommendation is part of a series on helping students engage productively in active learning classrooms.

If students don’t want to engage in active learning, it’s pretty hard to force them. You can’t rely solely on grades to spark students to action. This chapter focuses on motivating students to engage productively in active learning classrooms through the use of various internal and external rewards.

The goals of this project is to identify and disseminate strategies that instructors use to engage students in active learning classrooms. This project arose from the Framing the Interactive Engagement Classroom project, led by Stephanie Chasteen (University of Colorado Boulder), with collaboration from Jon Gaffney (Eastern Kentucky University) and Andrew Boudreaux (Western Washington University). Many thanks to University of Colorado reviewers Rebecca Ciancanelli and Jenny Knight, plus undergraduate assistant Maya Fohrman. This work was generously supported by the University of Colorado Science Education Initiative and the University of Colorado Center for STEM Learning, via a Chancellor’s Award. Please contact Stephanie Chasteen with any comments or questions.

Click here to access the entire set of Expert Recommendations on productive student engagement. You may also download a zip file of all recommendations and activities (26 MB), a PDF of these articles, and a PDF summary of our recommended strategies.

How does motivation affect student engagement?

Motivation is probably the most important ingredient of learning (Pintrich, 2003; Ambrose et al., 2010). Learning is hard work and a motivated student is more likely to engage deeply with the material and push past difficulties. Students have busy and complicated lives, and the demands of your course are competing with multiple obligations. Make sure it’s worth their while to prepare for your class, and engage in the activities. Luckily, there are many things that an instructor can do to motivate students to engage.

Motivation is a complex construct, with several different elements. First, some vocabulary. “Extrinsic motivation” is driven by external factors, such as rewards or grades. “Intrinsic motivation,” on the other hand, arises from within the individual. The major components of intrinsic motivation are interest, a sense of ownership, and confidence in one’s ability. For a useful review of factors affecting intrinsic motivation to learn, see this short handout on Motivating Learning. Intrinsic motivation is more powerful than extrinsic motivation in empowering students to learn, but both have their role. Below is a brief review of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for engagement in active learning.

Extrinsic motivation

Students are more motivated to work together if they are held accountable for doing so. One of the most common failure points of cooperative group learning is a failure to include accountability for working together and learning well as a group (Moreno, 2009; Slavin, 2010) – such as working collaboratively towards a group goal, or complete an assessment of their group process (see Chapter 7: Group Work for more). Student engagement hinges on such accountability (Engle and Conant, 2002; Svoboda and Passmore, 2010; Fredericks et al., 2004; Slavin, 1995; Moreno, 2009). The intrinsic motivation of social interaction is not sufficient to generate engagement. If students feel a sense of “positive interdependence,” or a sense that the group cannot succeed unless all members of the group succeed, they are more likely to participate, work together, and take each others’ learning seriously (Moreno 2009, Slavin 1995). Indeed, when there is no group accountability, cooperative learning may be no more effective than traditional instruction (Klein and Schackenberg, 2000). Students also need individual accountability (e.g., assessment of individual learning, such as a clicker question on the group activity content, or an individual test of learning), so that all students contribute.

Grades can backfire as incentives.

Don’t rely on grades alone to incentivize students. Several studies have shown that grading acts as a negative motivator -- students are motivated to avoid bad grades, rather than to engage in learning. Grades dampen students' intrinsic motivation, make them more externally motivated, decrease their enjoyment of the learning process, increase their anxiety, and increase competitiveness between students; particularly for students who are struggling (Moreno, 2009; Fredericks et al., 2004; Ames 1991). And even if grades initially boost student engagement, once the grading incentive ends, student engagement tends to end (Moreno, 2009). Grading trumps feedback: Students are demotivated by grades even when they are accompanied by positive written feedback (Schinske and Tanner, 2014 and references within. See Chapter 2: Metacognition for more information on creating a classroom atmosphere that focuses on growth, or mastery, mindsets.

Intrinsic motivation

Students are more motivated if material feels personally relevant.

Students must, on some level, care about the course content or activity if they are to be motivated (Kerssen-Griep, 2001; Pintrich, 2003). If the activity feels interesting and worthwhile, connected to everyday life or to students’ professional goals, students will be more likely to genuinely engage in it. A related idea is that of student identity and belonging; if students feel “I don’t belong here,” they may feel less motivated to engage (Cohen et al., 1999) – a problem particularly common for underrepresented students (Murphy, Steele, and Gross, 2007; Walton and Cohen, 2007). See Chapter 4: Class Community for ideas on how to intentionally create an inclusive, respectful class community.

Students feel more motivated when they have a sense of ownership and autonomy.

Ellis (2013) found that students who resist active learning are often influenced by feeling forced to engage in a learning environment that they don’t like. Thus, student ownership and control are critical ingredients for engagement. If students feel that they have control over their learning, are engaging for their own reasons, and they have a say in classroom decision-making, they are more likely to engage (Fredericks, Blumenfield and Paris, 2004; Ames 1991, Pintrich 2003; Moreno, 2009), enjoy learning (Hall and Webb, 2014) and to learn effectively (Piaget, 1954). Autonomy is critical; even if other aspects of intrinsic motivation (see below) are adequately attended to, students may not be motivated if they don’t feel that they are in control of their educational outcomes (Lim and Bowers, 1991 Thus, teachers need to give students some control and choice in their learning (such as choice in assignment topics, voting on office hours, ability to choose group members, or opportunities to give feedback to the instructor), and minimize external pressures (such as grades and deadlines). Of course, there are many places where you, the expert, should be making choices about how to proceed, but even modest amounts of student control or choice can make a large difference in motivation. Consider the following parable: “The zookeeper told the monkeys in the zoo that they would be given 5 nuts in the morning and 2 in the afternoon. The monkeys were very angry. So the zookeeper said, OK, you can have 3 nuts in the morning and 4 in the afternoon. The monkeys were overjoyed.” Consider – where are decision-points equal for you as the instructor, but may make a large difference for students? Those are the places to give students control, once you can find them.

Students are less motivated if they feel controlled – but it’s difficult, as the instructor, to avoid controlling behaviors.

Controlling behavior is quite common: Using external rewards (like points), using language that puts pressure on students, being impatient for students to come up with the right answer, and asserting power in the face of student complaints or disengagement (Reeve, 2009). You can become more aware of your own controlling behaviors if you ask yourself the following question: Do you focus on students’ internal motivations, or do you try to get students to think, act and feel in a certain way? While it is healthy for teachers to productively recommend ways of thinking or behaving, those recommendations become controlling when he/she tries to overrun the student's perspective (Reeve, 2009). This occurs, for example, when a teacher interrupts a student to take control of a computer simulation that the student is using, takes the marker out of the student’s hand, or the teacher tells a student that he/she has to do something without explaining why it will be beneficial. Unfortunately, our culture tends to value a controlling classroom structure, and our natural tendency in the face of a student who is disengaged is often to fall back on these controlling behaviors (Reeve, 2009; Ambrose et al., 2010).

Students are more motivated to engage if they feel capable and competent.

Students’ sense of competence and confidence, or “self-efficacy,” is key to their engagement and persistence (Boekaerts, 2010; Moreno, 2009; Pintrich, 2003; Bandura, 1997; Cervone and Peake, 1986). Women in male dominated fields typically have low self-efficacy (Betz and Haacket, 1981). While a student’s beliefs about their ability might not seem to be something you can impact in a single class, peoples’ reactions vary greatly in response to different tasks. Your challenge is to tap into students’ internal confidence through what you say and do in the class. On the far end of the scale are struggling students who have developed a sense of “learned helplessness,” where they believe that their actions don’t affect their academic success (Moreno, 2009). Framing tasks as helping students improve, rather than to evaluate their performance, can increase engagement for such students (Ames, 1991).

Students are less motivated to engage if they feel “dumb”.

Don’t forget that students are social animals. When we find ourselves in an embarrassing situation, we struggle to “save face.” Such embarrassing situations are said to be “face threatening” (Witt & Kerssen-Griep, 2011; Kerssen-Griep, 2001; Lim and Bowers, 1991; Gaffney and Housley Gaffney, 2016; Gaffney and Whitaker, 2015). In active learning classrooms, there are plenty of opportunities for such “face threats” to occur, when students will be in situations where they feel unsure about their abilities. Feedback in particular has great potential for lessening the negative effects of face threat (Witt and Kerssen-Griep, 2011). See also Chapter 4: Class Community for ways to mitigate face threat in how you respond to student ideas.

Students are more motivated if they feel that the class environment is favorable for learning.

The classroom context sends a strong message to students about the degree to which their ideas will be respected. If students feel included and supported, they are dramatically more likely to take the necessary risks to engage in cooperative learning. See Chapter 4: Class Community.

Strategies for enhancing student motivation

Because motivation is such a complex concept, let’s summarize the above in a short table (adapted from Ames 1992; Reeve, 2009; Lim and Bowers, 1991; Stefanou et al., 2004).

What motivates students to engage?

So instructors can…

1. Accountability

  • Use individual and group goals and rewards
  • Give credit for participation
  • Offer small incentives, but reduce them over time
  • Focus on improvement and effort
  • Encourage a mastery goal orientation (see Chapter 2: Metacognition and Mastery)

2. Interest

  • Provide stimulating, varied tasks
  • Provide material that is personally relevant

3. Autonomy

  • Engage students in decision making
  • Welcome and build on student ideas and input
  • Explain the rationale behind activities
  • Avoid controlling student behavior

4. Competence

  • Help students “save face”
  • Express respectful interest in contributions
  • Give opportunities to feel successful
  • Offer reasonable challenge

5. Social context

6. Instructor credibility

Below are specific examples of how to accomplish this. By attending to a few of these strategies, you will be able to foster a classroom where students are intrinsically motivated to engage in active learning. See Chapter 7: Group work for suggestions on building interest and motivation directly into your activity design. To hear from several seasoned instructors watch this 5-minute video on how they tap into student motivation.

The First Day: Connect to students’ interest and identity

From the first day, and onward through the course, seek to learn about your students’ interests and clearly connect the course to those interests and goals. This strategy is very powerful for engaging students’ intrinsic motivations, as well as helping them to feel a sense of identity and belonging in the course.

It is difficult to target activities to student interests if you don’t know what those interests are. What you find interesting may not be as fascinating to your students as you would expect. You can ask students to answer a few questions about themselves on the first homework assignment, use a brief survey, or ask them to write on an index card (name on one side, answers to a few questions on the other side). This index card can then be used for randomly calling students to respond to discussion questions (see below). For examples, see this discussion of first day surveys on SERC, and this 5-minute video on how they informally assess their students on the first day.

You can discuss the relevance of the course to students’ lives or careers, describe career opportunities related to your subject, or have students build their own lists of what scientists in your discipline do. See First Day Questions for examples of discussions about students’ personal goals in your course, and Why Study [Your Course] for discussion activities related to course relevance.

Use grading and praise effectively

As discussed earlier, grading can be a poor motivator for students to engage. A good compromise can be to offer small external incentives that show the value you place on engagement, and that are directly linked to the behavior (like participation points for speaking up in class). You may be able to reduce grade-based incentives over time, as students become habituated to classroom expectations and more comfortable with speaking up (Dallimore, Hertenstein and Platt, 2012). In addition to points, you can use other types of external rewards, such as a built-in need to consult with other groups in an activity, or limited and specific praise on performance. In general, extrinsic rewards are more useful if they give students information about their learning, support effort and improvement, and are not perceived as trying to control or bribe student behavior (Anderman and Dawson, 2010; Ames, 1991). Below are examples of how to use grading in such a productive way to encourage engagement.

Grading on a curve sets students up against each other. Instead, use curving that focuses on individual performance and growth. If an exam question was confusing, eliminate it from analysis instead of curving it. See Chapter 2 (Metacognition and Mastery) for suggestions on using feedback to motivate students, and allowing students to revise and resubmit work.

Give students opportunity to earn credit by doing the work and engaging with the material by providing credit for participation on in-class assignments (such as clicker questions or one-minute papers), for completeness on out-of-class assignments, or for having a quiz score exceed an earlier performance. Assign a portion of the overall course grade to effort and participation. Try using “Sticky Participation Points” to reward participation: When students speak up in class, give them a token that can be exchanged for participation points.

Informational feedback that praises the effort of a student is motivating (e.g., “excellent job,” or “you planned your work well”). But, if you give praise for every behavior, students can interpret this to mean that you don’t think they can perform at a high level. Specific praise, used sparingly, is most effective (Moreno, 2009).

When working in a group, students must be striving for both group and personal achievement. See Chapter 7: Group Work for suggestions on how to support this in your classroom.

If you want students to participate in class discussions, students need to feel a responsibility for doing so. “Random call” is one way to generate this accountability, and increases students’ comfort with participating in class discussions (Dallimore, Hertenstein and Platt, 2012), including participation by female students (Eddy, Brownell and Wenderoth, 2014). Random call after a group activity can also increase student participation in the group activity itself: Shekhar and Borrego (2016) found that cold-calling on students at the end of an activity increased group participation from one activity to the next. Conversely, when the instructor announced that she wouldn’t call on students after the activity, the percent of students actively engaged in the activity dropped from 90% to 10%. Warm students up to the idea of random-call by telling students in in the first class that you will be doing this, but that you will give students a chance to reflect and prepare their answers in advance. You can use a randomized class list, dice, a deck of cards with student names on them, or phone applications such as Names in a Hat.

In many active learning classrooms, instructors require pre-class preparation so that students arrive to class ready to engage. The best strategy is probably to require students to complete an assignment for a small number of points (which count towards their final grade), and to make sure not to cover the material from the preparation task in class. That way, the preparation feels more necessary and important. See Just in Time Teaching for more ideas about pre-class preparation.

In a group exam, students complete the exam individually, and then again as a group, which contributes to their scores. Such an exam style supports student motivation by including both individual and group levels of accountability, using the exam situation to provide immediate feedback on learning, and focusing assessment on understanding and collaboration. See Group Exams for detail.

Support students’ ownership over their learning

To support students’ autonomy, teachers need to cede control of learning to the students, allowing students’ own interests to drive the process of learning. As the instructor, you can let students make choices regarding their learning, ask for student input, and act on student suggestions and ideas (Moreno, 2009). The importance of autonomy also reveals why well-meaning attempts to explain why you’re using active learning may backfire, since “selling” active learning may make students feel that ideas are being imposed upon them (Gaffney and Whitaker, 2015). It can be hard to avoid acting in a controlling way in the classroom, resorting to providing punishments and rewards for student behaviors, especially if students are not engaging productively. See below for some suggestions.

Since students need to feel in control of their outcomes (particularly grades), make sure you have made it abundantly clear to them how they can succeed in the course. See Chapter 1: Expectations for ideas on setting clear expectations. If you try too much to convince your students that this approach is good for them, they may push back. You can also share success strategies from former students (see Advice to Future Students activity); if suggestions for course strategies and success come from their peers, rather than the instructor, students may be more receptive.

There are many ways to give students a chance to decide how they want to achieve their educational outcomes. You may allow students to choose their group members, seating assignments, paper or assignment topics, the form of the final project, or develop their own homework problems (Kerssen-Griep, 2001; Ames, 1991; Ferlazzo, 2015; Stefanou et al., 2004). Have students diagnose their own learning needs, assemble their own learning resources, or evaluate their own learning (e.g., with a self-assessment checklist; Felder and Brent, 2016). It can be helpful to build in some flexibility, so students can vote on some aspects of the course such as optional topics, or the formatting of assignments. Deeper types of choices (such as how to solve a problem) can promote deeper engagement than more superficial choices (such as seating arrangements; Stefanou et al., 2004), but both are valuable.

Ask for student input and suggestions, and respond to their ideas. This practice is deeply empowering for students, and is likely to have a high impact on student engagement. You can use Just in Time Teaching (where student answers to pre-class preparation activities are used to drive the following lecture. You can also ask students for their input on activities, projects, and assignments – and incorporate these suggestions if they align with their objectives. Provide them clear mechanisms for voicing their opinions, and let them know how their opinions have guided your practice (Moreno, 2009). You can ask for student input through a midterm evaluation (e.g., Stop Go Change), post-activity clicker questions, minute papers, or online reflection questions (Seidel and Tanner, 2013). With such mechanisms for students to voice concerns, you can respond to them before resistance swells (Seidel and Tanner, 2013). Listen to students’ concerns and acknowledge their discomfort – but only make adjustments if they do not threaten the integrity of the course (Slezak, 2014). Trust your curriculum; set realistic expectations about how much say students really have, but respond respectfully and positively to requests.

Be patient as students work on active learning activities. Give them the opportunity to work at their own pace. Take the time to listen, give encouragement, offer hints, praise their progress, and don’t rush them through. This supports their autonomy as self-directed learners (Reeve, 2009). You might use challenge questions within activities for students who finish early, to keep them engaged.

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