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Four Ingredients that Motivate Our Learners to Engage 

Part 2 of the 4-part series on Promising Principles to Enhance Learning. Review part 1: Seven Promising Principles to Enhance Learning in Your School or Classroom 


Let’s start with a challenge.   

Once upon a time a local merchant went to a market and purchased a wolf, a goat, and a several heads of cabbage. On his way home, the merchant came upon a river and a boat. He knew that crossing the river using the boat would expedite his trip and get him home before dark. However, crossing the river by boat, the merchant could carry only himself and one of his purchases at a time. For each crossing he could carry either the wolf, the goat, or the heads of cabbage. This created some challenges. First, if left the wolf unattended with the goat, the wolf would eat the goat.  If the merchant left the goat and the heads of cabbage, the goat would eat the cabbage.  How did he get each item across the river and safely home? 

What is the solution to this problem? How does this individual get the wolf, the goat, and all of his cabbage safely to the other side of the river? Hold on to your solution until the end of this Corwin Connect blog. We will reveal the solution right before we sign off.   

For now, let’s reflect on what happened while you engaged in this particular problem. To do that, consider the following reflective questions:  

  1. Why did you not just try to find the solution to this problem, but likely persisted until you had at least one viable solution? 
  2. What kept you from scrolling to the bottom of this Corwin Connect blog and just reading the solution? 

Now, for those readers that did not persist and skipped right to the end of this blog post, answer the same question.  Why did you not persist and what compelled you to scroll to the bottom to immediately find the answer?

While this challenge involved a wolf, a goat, and heads of cabbage, we could easily have substituted that content for a specific text-based task, completing a laboratory experiment in science, writing an analysis paper in social studies, or solving a multi-step problem in mathematics.  Each of these situations requires learners to leverage our motivation to not only initiate our work with a task, but persist to the completion of that task.  Just like you did at the start of this blog post, our learners make a decision about whether to initiate and persist through the learning experiences and tasks in our schools and classrooms.  This decision made by our learners, or their motivation to engage, is exactly what we want to explore in this post.   

One of the most fascinating aspects of research on how our students learn is that almost every study begins with the assumption of a motivated learner.  As teachers, we know this is not a safe assumption.  Right?  Therefore, we cannot sidestep this very important part of the learning process.  Motivation in our schools and classrooms refers the general desire of learners to engage in the learning experiences or tasks.  This may also reflect the willingness of learners to uphold the expectations for being a member of the classroom learning community (e.g., norms and processes for social interactions, moving from one area of the classroom or building to another).  Motivation is an essential component of the science of how we learn simply because the learning expected in our classrooms will only move forward if learners have the desire or willingness to commit the necessary effort to learning.   

So how do we foster, nurture, and sustain the motivation needed to acquire, consolidate, and store declarative, procedural, and conditional knowledge (e.g., a specific text-based task, completing a laboratory experiment in science, writing an analysis paper in social studies, or solving a multi-step problem in mathematics)?  The body of research on motivation has filled journals and books for many years.  A review of that work is beyond the scope of this blog post.  However, there are several big ideas that provide a starting point for us in motivating our students to engage in the learning experiences and tasks in our classrooms.   

  1. Do you seek to tap into students’ interests or helping them see the learning in a positive light?  Interest/Attitude (Effect Size = 0.46).  Learners show increased motivation in putting forth effort in the acquisition, consolidation, and storage of learning when that learning is of interest to them and towards which they have a positive attitude.  Learning interest and attitude have an average effect size of 0.46 which means this particular ingredient has the potential to accelerate learning (Visible Learning MetaX, 2021). 
  2. Do you attend to learners’ self-efficacy(Effect Size = 0.71)?  Learners are motivated by the belief that their efforts in learning will pay off or provide some immediate or long-term benefit to them (Visible Learning MetaX, 2021). 
  3. How do you explicitly link student effort and expectations to specific outcomes (Effect Size = 0.68)?  If learners are able to link their efforts in learning to specific outcomes, both positive and negative, they are more likely to put forth effort in succeeding in their learning (Visible Learning MetaX, 2021). 
  4. How do we seek to focus on deep motivation instead of simply getting it done for a grade (Effect Size = 0.57)?  Deep motivation occurs when our learners want to develop competency, mastery, and deeper understanding to have a fuller understanding of overall content, skills, and understandings (Visible Learning MetaX, 2021). 
  5. In what ways do we incorporate cooperative learning into our schools and classrooms (Effect Size = 0.40)?  A pedagogical strategy through which two or more learners collaborate to achieve a common goal. Typically, cooperative learning programs seek to foster positive interdependence through face-to-face interactions, to hold individual group members accountable for the collective project, and to develop interpersonal skills among learners (Visible Learning MetaX, 2021).  
  6. How do we identify and leverage prior achievement and success in new learning (Effect Size = 0.59)?  As learners have mastery experiences or experience success in a specific area, their motivation to further engage and persist in future learning experiences or tasks goes up.  Prior achievement and success helps builds learners efficacy, raise expectations, and improve their overall attitude and dispositions towards learning (Visible Learning MetaX, 2021). 

These starting points, or ingredients, must be blended together in just the right ratio based on the specific context of our classrooms.  That is, instead of looking at these ingredients as a checklist, we should consider the specific learning outcomes for particular content, skills, and understandings and decide what is necessary to foster, nurture, and sustain our learners’ engagement.  For example, some of the learning in our schools and classrooms is interesting on its own and our learners require very little convincing to engage.  Sometimes we have to support our learners in enhancing their self-efficacy (see Hattie, Fisher, Frey, and Clarke, 2021). The figure below provides specific examples for us to reflect on and adapt for use in our own schools and classrooms.   

Again, the process of adapting and using these strategies must take into account the specific learning outcomes and the specific needs of our students.  

Motivation is an aspect of learning that will need continuous monitoring and adjusting.  What is an impetus for effort on Monday, may not be as effective on Wednesday.  What moves  learners to devote resources to learning in the morning may not do the same later in the day.  If we are to have great learning by design, we need to keep a close eye on the motivation of our learners.   

Finally, let’s return to the opening challenge of this blog. For this particular problem, the merchant must first take the goat across the river.  Then return with an empty boat to get the wolf.  Then take the wolf across and exchange the wolf for the goat.  Returning to original side of the river, the merchant must leave the goat and now talk the heads of cabbage back across the river and leave them with the wolf.  Finally, the merchant must return to the original side of the river with an empty boat to get the goat and complete the journey.  That is just one solution.  Our real question is what ingredients for motivation were present in this challenge?  Maybe that is why you were more than willing to take it on before reading this Corwin Connect blog.  Now, let’s put these ideas to work in our schools and classrooms. 


References 

Hattie, J., Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Clarke, S. (2021). Collective student efficacy. Creating  

independent and inter-dependent learners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. 

Visible Learning MetaX. (2021, January). Retrieved from  

https://www.visiblelearningmetax.com/ 

Written by

Dr. John Almarode has worked with schools, classrooms, and teachers all over the world. John began his career teaching mathematics and science in Augusta County to a wide range of students. Since then, he has presented locally, nationally, and internationally on the application of the science of learning to the classroom, school, and home environments. He has worked with hundreds of school districts and thousands of teachers. In addition to his time in PreK – 12 schools and classrooms he is an Associate Professor in the Department of Early, Elementary, and Reading Education and the Director of the Content Teaching Academy. At James Madison University, he works with pre service teachers and actively pursues his research interests including the science of learning, the design and measurement of classroom environments that promote student engagement and learning. John and his colleagues have presented their work to the United States Congress, the United States Department of Education as well as the Office of Science and Technology Policy at The White House. John has authored multiple articles, reports, book chapters, and over a dozen books on effective teaching and learning in today’s schools and classrooms. However, what really sustains John and is his greatest accomplishment is his family. John lives in Waynsboro, Virginia with his wife Danielle, a fellow educator, their two children, Tessa and Jackson, and Labrador retrievers, Angel, Forest, and Bella. John is the author of Captivate, Activate, and Invigorate the Student Brain in Science and Math, Grades 6-12.   Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. He is also the author of PLC+, The PLC+ Playbook, This is Balanced Literacy, The Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12, Teaching Literacy in the Visible Learning Classroom for Grades K-5 and 6-12, Visible Learning for Mathematics, Grades K-12The Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbook and several other Corwin books.    Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is Professor of Literacy in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. The recipient of the 2008 Early Career Achievement Award from the National Reading Conference, she is also a teacher-leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College and a credentialed special educator, reading specialist, and administrator in California. She has been a prominent Corwin author, publishing numerous books including PLC+The PLC+ PlaybookThis is Balanced LiteracyThe Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12Engagement by DesignRigorous Reading, Texas EditionThe Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbookand many more.  To view Doug and Nancy’s books and services, please visit Fisher and Frey Professional Learning. 

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