As human beings, most of us tend to avoid things that are difficult. For example, I was recently visiting a school where kids were running the mile as part of their physical education class.
The teacher I visited with mentioned something interesting. He does not tell his students in advance when they will run the mile. He has to ‘spring’ it on them—surprise them. Otherwise, kids don’t show up that day for school. Or…they mysteriously forget their gym clothes…or perhaps develop mysterious symptoms just before physical education begins. Why is that? It’s because most human beings hate to run the mile. And if left to our devices…we will avoid it—and anything else difficult like it—as if it were the plague.
Much of what we know about human motivation and engagement in difficult tasks can be summed up in something called Expectancy Value Theory. This construct suggests that whether or not you or I choose to initiate, persist in, and complete a task—like running the mile—is based on (1) expectancy, or our belief that we will be successful at… and (2) value, or our belief that running the mile is actually worth our time.
In other words, pretend that you are in the seventh grade, and the teacher announces that everyone will be running the mile during class this next Thursday. If you are a kid who feels like you stink at running the mile, you are a bit more likely to be ‘mysteriously ill’ the day it is scheduled to be run…or to find some other way out if it. Or…you might even show up the day of the mile, but will probably not run the entire way…because you think it is just too hard.
A similar phenomenon exists if you just don’t see the point in running the mile. For example, I had a student who was an accomplished high school wrestler and had incredible endurance, but…was walking the mile during P.E. When I asked him about it, he said, ‘What’s the point!?! I already ran 5 miles this morning before school. I will have to run again tonight at practice.’ His lack of motivation wasn’t due to a lack of anticipated success. Running the mile in P.E. just wasn’t something he perceived as worth his time.
It is the same in the classroom. I admit that it is really heart-warming to visit with so many schools and hear how they are working to make learning more rigorous and relevant. But an understanding of expectancy-value theory provides to points of insight. First…while rigor is important, we will undoubtedly lose students if our class becomes too difficult. Second…teachers should take every opportunity to design relevant learning experiences and articulate that relevance to their students. Kids want to connect with their learning, but it takes an effective teacher to help them to do so.
The truth is that, while they are actually two distinct elements of student learning, the terms motivation and engagement are often used interchangeably to describe students’ energy and drive to learn, work effectively, and achieve their potential at school and the behaviors that follow from this energy and drive. While the term student engagement is often defined in various ways, Chapman’s (2003) definition is widely accepted and applied—student’s cognitive investment in, active participation in, and emotional commitment to learning. In contrast, Maehr and Meyer (1997) define motivation as a construct used to explain initiation, direction, intensity, persistence, and quality of behavior, especially in goal-directed behavior. In other words, why it is that we are doing what it is that we are doing. Simply put, motivation is an essential part of engagement, just as engagement is an essential part of learning and achievement…
I recently had the chance to work with a number of amazing educators whose job it is to help engage students in learning tasks…and extremely difficult ones at that—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics classes where kids do everything from build water purification systems to design, construct, and drive robots that compete against other robots from around the world. They are all engineering teachers or are teachers that build extremely challenging engineering and design elements into core content classes…
Andersen, L., & Ward, T. (2013). Expectancy‐value models for the STEM persistence plans of ninth‐grade, high‐ability Students: A comparison between black, hispanic, and white students. Science Education.
Bernard, S. (Dec. 2010). Science Shows Making Lessons Relevant Really Matters.” Edutopia. Accessed 15 May 2014.
Brophy, J. (2004). Motivating students to learn (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Chapman, E. (2003). Assessing Student Engagement Rates. ERIC Digest.
Claxton, G. (2007). Expanding young people’s capacity to learn. British Journal of Educational Studies. 55(2), 1-20.
Gee, J. P. (2007). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy.: Revised and Updated Edition. Macmillan.
Gilbert, J. (2007). Catching the Knowledge Wave: Redefining knowledge for the post-industrial age. Education Canada, 47(3), 4-8. Canadian Education Association. www.cea-ace.ca
Harris, L. R. (2008). A Phenomenographic Investigation of Teacher Conceptions of Student Engagement in Learning. The Australian Educational Researcher, 5(1), 57-79.
Irvin, J. L., Meltzer, J., & Dukes, M. S. (2007). Taking action on adolescent literacy: An implementation guide for school leaders. ASCD.
Kamil, M. L. (2003). Adolescents and literacy: Reading for the 21st century. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.
Martin, A. J. (2008). Enhancing student motivation and engagement: The effects of a multidimensional intervention. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 33(2), 239-269.
Maehr, M. L., & Meyer, H. A. (1997). Understanding motivation and schooling: Where we’ve been, where we are, and where we need to go. Educational Psychology Review, 9(4), 371-409.
Marzano, R. J. (2007). The art and science of teaching: A comprehensive framework for effective instruction. ASCD.
Parsons, P. & Taylor, L. (2011). Student engagement: What do we know and what should we do? [White paper]. Retrieved from
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1–6.
Prensky, M. (2005). Engage me or enrage me. EDUCASE Review, 40(5), 61–64.
Prensky, M. (2012). From digital natives to digital wisdom: hopeful essays for 21st century learning. Corwin Press.
Rideout, V. and Hammel, E. (2006), The Media Family, Kaiser Family Foundation, Menlo Park, CA.
Sagor, R. (2010). The action research guidebook: A four-stage process for educators and school teams. SAGE.
Sweeny, S. M. (2010). Writing for the instant messaging and text messaging generation: Using new literacies to support writing instruction. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54(2), 121-130.
Veen, W. and Vrakking, B. (2006), Homo Zappiens: Growing up in a Digital Age, Continuum, London.
Vygotsky, L. (1978). Interaction between learning and development. Readings on the development of children, 34-41.
Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. S. (2000). Expectancy-value theory of achievement motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 68–81. doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1015
Willis, J. (2006). Research-based strategies to ignite student learning: Insights from a neurologist and classroom teacher (pp. 1-31). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Be sure to subscribe to receive an email of future podcasts.