Motivation AND Active Learning

motivation and active learning


Student engagement seems to be at the forefront of a multitude of educational discussions and research today.  So, what exactly is student engagement?  According to Elizabeth Barkley, in Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty,

Student engagement is the product of motivation and active learning.  It is a product rather than a sum because it will not occur if either element is missing.  It does not result from one or the other alone, but rather is generated in the space that resides in the overlap of motivation and active learning. (p. 6)

The above quote prominently stood out to me because I had never had someone summarize student engagement in such a simple way that made perfect sense in my mind.  Yes, if we want our students to become engaged we need both motivation and active learning for this to become possible!


When I first started teaching, I thought that if I am able to make my classes interesting, relevant to the students and have them engage in a lot of active learning opportunities then surely, they will all be able to be successful in my courses.  After all, what instructor doesn’t want to see all of their students succeed and do well in their courses?  Well very little time passed before I realized that no matter how much knowledge we share with our students and no matter how many active learning opportunities we provide them with, if the student is not motivated they are unlikely to succeed.  The opposite also rings true, no matter how motivated a student may be if all an instructor does is lecture to them and does not provide opportunities for active learning, they are unlikely to become engaged in the learning process.  I have yet to meet any instructor who doesn’t wish to have each and every one of their students engaged in the course material that they are teaching; after all, engaged students are more likely to succeed than their disengaged counterparts, an opinion that is shared within Student Engagement. (2016)


When I think back to my own learning experiences, both throughout university and this program, it really makes me realize how much motivation and active learning play a roll in student engagement.  I have always been a very kinesthetic learner, learning through touching, doing and seeing rather than through listening, so naturally I was more engaged in courses that allowed me the opportunity to be actively learning through various activities such as role playing, small group discussions, and completing case studies.  However, when I further reflect on those learning experiences, I also realize that no matter how many active learning strategies my instructors utilized, if I was not motivated to become engaged in the course material my learning suffered.

As discussed in Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice motivation comes in two different forms, either extrinsic, coming from factors outside of the person, or intrinsic, internal to the person themselves.  Motivation can also be driven by multiple different factors such as, seeking approval and attaining certain grades, extrinsic motivation, or being curious and challenged, intrinsic motivation. (2014, p. 147).  Considering that some motivators come from within the student themselves there are going to be factors that even the best instructors can’t change, however, I believe that by opening the door to students and allowing them to have more control over their learning experiences, giving them that sense of empowerment, it can only help to trigger that motivation from deep within even the most disengaged students.

While reflecting upon my own personal learning experiences I came to realize that I had never felt so engaged in any courses I’d ever taken as I have within the PIDP program.  This program offers students a lot of autonomy when it comes to assignments and this is something that I have come to really appreciate as I have progressed.  When I first started this program, I did not appreciate this as much as I do today as it was a new experience for me and it was out of my comfort zone, not to mention the fact that I was not the greatest self directed learner back then.  It is, however, this autonomy that motivates me as it allows me to choose which topic to discuss, which project to do, and with which program I want to use to complete it.  All of the assignments also promote active learning as we are being asked to expand our knowledge, reflect on various topics, share our thoughts and insights, work collaboratively with others, and use our creativity.


Going forward I want to incorporate more strategies to intrinsically motivate my students. One specific strategy I intend to adopt includes giving students more freedom of choice within their assignments.  Giving students more autonomy will allow them to have a sense of ownership over their learning and in turn make it more meaningful and valuable to them.  Another motivational strategy I intend to incorporate is challenging students to step outside of their comfort zones more.  By having student step outside of their comfort zone, learn new skills, and challenge their abilities they will be able to feel a sense of accomplishment which will increase their intrinsic motivation.

I already incorporate a lot of active learning activities within my courses, however, one specific activity that I plan to incorporate more of is reflective writing.  These assignments encourage students to share their thoughts and insights on the material being taught and promote a great deal of critical reflection, therefore, actively engaging them in the learning process.  By incorporating these assignments, it will also allow me to get to know my students better, allowing me to have a better understanding of their thought processes, so that I can ensure the course content is relevant and meaningful to each of them.



Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Merriam, S. B., & Bierema, L. L. (2014). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Student Engagement. (2016, February 18). In S. Abbott (Ed.), The glossary of education reform. Retrieved from