Which Came First – Motivation or Engagement?

By: Charlene Aldrich, retired literacy instructor

To be or not to be.

Which came first – the chicken or the egg?

Do motivated students engage in learning more often and/or at higher levels?

OR

Does active engagement result in highly motivated students?

Rhetorical questions? Maybe not! Because it’s every teacher’s desire to instruct highly engaged and motivated students, let’s look at how to achieve this outcome!

Engagement and Motivation

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Human engagement begins at birth. Motivation to survive is instinctual; crying demands engagement. Survival is assured. John Bowbly writes that a newborn’s “need for attachment” motivates the demand for engagement. Engagement/attachment is achieved through proximity which fosters personal security. Similarly, Abraham Maslow theorizes that physiological and safety needs must be met prior to love and belonging needs. These are prerequisite for esteem and self-actualization to develop. Innate needs motivate engagement prior to high order needs.

If you have disengaged students, are they missing attachment, sustenance, safety, love, and belonging? And is it possible that Erik Erikson implies that instructional engagement as a result of motivation to learn stems from trust and autonomy needs being met?

Motivational factors: survival, protection, love, belonging – all before esteem and self actualization resulting from education

Engagement strategies: tears, proximity, physical contact – these preface acting out, poor academic performance, and feigned illness behaviors in students.

I’ve not told you anything that you haven’t already studied as educators; it’s just that the silo you live in has been built around the here and now. You may have lost access to vital background knowledge that enables you to discern students’ missing needs that stifle motivation and interfere with engagement. But it’s never too late to adopt new instructional practices and classroom language!

Dr. Timothy Shanahan says that challenging texts are motivating! Struggling students may be struggling readers who lack motivation as a result of “baby text” assignments that require no effort. Audio-visual instruction is passive learning; audio books are not a substitute for individual, independent, active reading. Students must be actively engaged in reading and writing to learn, retain, and apply content. Reading and writing processes require active engagement; changing groups every ten minutes is not active engagement.

Challenging, complex texts demand grit. Teachers who engage students with literacy process practices empower them to accept challenges, persevere, and experience success! Angela Duckworth says grit is the best indicator of future earnings and happiness – factors connected with success and a satisfying life. Accomplishments as the result of hard work are motivating! Participation ribbons are not. Carol Dweck says that the word ‘yet’ is amazing to motivate continued engagement in learning. When teachers believe that more is possible, striving students believe it as well!

The Impact of Open-Ended Questions

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My personal favorite way to engage students in challenging reading and writing assignments is with open-ended questions. Every answer has value as a way to shape discussion where the teacher wants it to go. There are no wrong answers! Teachers adapt, reframe, and ask additional leading questions. Each student can experience a place of belonging in an atmosphere that builds corporate knowledge.


“What do you know about…?” opens the discussion on a new topic or introduces a complex text.

“What do you recognize in this word…?” enables students to use visual clues to construct meaning from unfamiliar words.

“What did you read about?” paves the way for main ideas, details, and outlines.

“What happened?” is the foundation for summaries.

And when we follow-up with HOW and WHY questions, we lead students onto the path of critical thinking. “Prove it” is like a double-dare to students. “I don’t know; find out and tell us.” shows our humanness and need to continue OUR education as well. You will probably have to throw in bonus points as tangible reinforcement on the way to inherent satisfaction from learning.

Listen to yourself asking questions. I think you’ll find that “Does anyone know……” is the phrase of choice. This is not an open-ended question; it is binary. That begs a yes or no answer. Striving students and striving readers disengage from the lesson because their head voice says “no.”

Open-ended quick-writes such as bell-ringers and exit tickets allow students to become agents of their own learning:

  • “What was interesting to you about our topic today?”
  • “What was confusing?”
  • “How does today’s topic connect to our lessons earlier in the week?”
  • “What is something good about today?” “How did you spend your weekend?” “What are you looking forward to this weekend?”
  • “How does this relate to your career plans?”
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Questions don’t always have to be about content! But they DO need to be thought-provoking, sincere, and unpredictable.

You see at the end of the day, ‘correct’ answers and written responses are not as valuable as an answer that a student can support from reading and then, communicate freely in a written response. Correct answers can be found online; students’ answers are found in their brains as a result of active engagement in learning, motivated by successful prior experiences.

And when all else fails, offer chocolate…..

References (in order)

https://www.simplypsychology.org/bowlby.html
https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
https://www.simplypsychology.org/Erik-Erikson.html
https://shanahanonliteracy.com/publications/teaching-with-complex-text-1
Duckworth, A. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, 2016, Simon & Schuster
Dweck, C. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, updated edition 12/26/2007, Ballentine Books

About the Author

After 20 years of growing literacy in under-prepared college students, Charlene retired to focus on state-wide literacy initiatives such as LiD, 6-12 and her R2S approved literacy courses at College of Charleston.  She lets her life speak by empowering teachers to have the confidence and competence to implement a literacy model of instruction in any content area and at every grade level. Her best Covid-19 memory is teaching her grandson Algebra 1 via phone calls, Zoom, text messaging, and FaceTime.  It was online instruction at its best – synchronously and interactively.

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