Increasing Student Motivation and Engagement: The Science & Strategy Behind It

Increasing Student Motivation and Engagement: The Science & Strategy Behind It
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Today’s job landscape is ever-changing. Employers are always changing their demands. That is why the employees of the future have to be well-equipped with various competencies even when they are students. Those can be detrimental to their future successes. The effectiveness of teaching in the post-digital era is strongly connected with the ability to create cognitive-transferable learning experiences, emotionally safe learning environments, and promoting an autonomy-focused approach for self-regulated learning.

But how can instructors and mentors increase student motivation and engagement to ensure that these objectives are met?

In this article, we present the most relevant, actionable strategies for increasing student motivation and engagement. Let these strategies augment your own to help prepare students for the next crucial stages of their lives.

15 Key Strategies for Motivating and Engaging Students Table of Contents

  1. What do we know about student motivation and engagement?
  2. Key Strategies for Increasing Student Motivation and Engagement

What do we know about student motivation and engagement?

Mary Ainley (2004) defines engaged students as those who hold their relationships with their teachers and classmates in high regard. They also perceive school as an integral part of their life. On the contrary, demotivated or disengaged students do not feel a sense of belongingness and are likely to quit schooling.

Participation and a Sense of Belongingness

Attendance records (attendance and absenteeism in the two weeks before the survey) were used to measure participation and one index of engagement was used in Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Around 20% of U.S. and OECD students were identified as disengaged (Ainley, 2004).

Participation is a behavioral standard of engagement that centers on the person and, together with the sense of belongingness, stands for individual differences with reference to schooling. These analyses also identify the contextual elements that exhibited constant connections with engagement. One of the ways that mentors can get students to participate in classes actively is to present interesting debate topics for college students.

Engagement and Achievement

Identifying the predictive effects on students’ achievement is usually the matter when motivation and engagement issues are brought up. Taking heed of international surveys of education again, there has been vast dispersal of outcomes regarding the link between engagement and reading literacy. According to PISA, engagement in reading tasks is a necessary factor in learning achievement. On this account, engagement was gauged by certain reading habits like time allotted to reading and the content and multeity of reading. Attitudes when reading is also considered through self-report grades on the extent of interest in, and the worth of reading. Engagement in reading is a more compelling predictor than gender as well.

Additionally, socioeconomic status is a key component of learning achievement and reading engagement pertaining to socioeconomic status. Low-income students who are into reading acquire higher than average reading ratings than middle- to high-income students who are not that engaged in reading. To emphasize, disposition to reading (the perspective on individual differences) and the outside factors affecting reading activities (the situational angle) are significant for high reading achievement (Ainley, 2004).

engaged students on grades and performance

Proofs from Classroom and School-Based Analysis

Extensive surveys have focused on behavioral factors of engagement backed up by some self-awareness proceedings of attitudes and interest toward certain achievement fields. But a huge body of smaller scale, school-based studies have probed motivation and engagement by determining certain motivational agents and then exploring how these respond to students’ behavior and achievement.

Mastery goals, performance goals, intrinsic motivation, self-awareness, personal interest, eagerness, work evasion, extrinsic motivation, studied helplessness, recognized competence, and self-competence have all been used to recount motivational features of students’ relationship with learning and mainly display their personal outlook. Some indicate a positive relationship, while others indicate a negative relationship or turning away from learning.

Individual Variables

There were terms used in empirical motivation studies in leading publications for five years, classified by Professors Priscilla Karen Murphy and Patricia A.Alexander. Goal concepts, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, individual interest and situational interest, and self-schema (agency, attribution, self-competence, and self-efficacy) appeared as the four principal groupings.

Then, five major concepts describing what motivates students were suggested by educational psychologist Paul R. Pintrich. These are adaptive self-efficacy and competence beliefs, adaptive attributions and control beliefs, higher levels of interest and intrinsic motivation, higher levels of value, and goals.

Murphy and Alexander divided intrinsic and extrinsic motivation from different interest forms, while Pintrich arranged them as a single category. Contrarily, Murphy and Alexander have listed self-schema concepts as one group, while Pintrich divided them into efficacy and competence beliefs and attribution and control beliefs. Pintrich has put value in another category, while Murphy and Alexander deemed this aspect as being beyond their purpose, further explaining that expectancy-value concepts made by Jacquelynne Eccles and colleagues are broad notions connecting more particular motivational concepts.

A number of studies have delved into student engagement, many of them centering on determining how achievement goals affect achievement. Martin V. Covington’s assessment of this study reached the conclusion that generally, students’ achievement goals are demonstrated in the approaches they use and this affects achievement in return. Certain achievement goal patterns are linked to whether students approve of memorization techniques or elaboration techniques. The distinctive use of these strategy types has been associated with achievement. This conclusion is accordant with a broad range of studies, although many of them have not examined all the three factors in this relationship.

In the early 1990s, two studies conducted by Mary Ainley and Judith Meece and Kathleen Holt exhibited the relationship between students’ goals and purposes in learning and strategy types they used to learn, and this was also connected with achievement differences. Both studies recognized groups of students with various achievement goal profiles. Meece and Holt’s conclusions were for grade 5 and 6 American students who were boys and girls, and evaluated relationships between goal profiles, active and superficial methodologies, and science learning. Ainley disclosed the same conclusion with a sample of secondary female students. Connections between achievement goal profiles and test preparation techniques for grade 11 students were remarkably diagnostic of performance in their culminating school assessment one year after.

In the final decade, the center of these strategies has widened to involve intuitive variables, feelings, achievement emotions, and mood. The connection of motivational and emotional factors as they may affect learning has some academic backing from theories of emotion, such as Carroll Izard’s theory that emotions are primary motivational variables. Basically, the evaluation procedures that carry emotions entail approach or avoidance reactions that rule upcoming processing. Similarly, educationalist Monique Boekaerts contends that motivation entails habitual behavior, while emotion entails students’ present issues. Hence, in any learning situation, evaluation procedures take on both motivation and emotion to rule behavior. The involvement of emotion in these models is a segment of an academic shift that extends beyond studies into learning and achievement. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson then endorsed a model of positive emotion to comprehend a wide scope of behaviors, which include both academic and health-related scenarios.

Favorable emotions extend experience, whether through paying more attention to a task that has aroused interest or redoing a fun activity. Fredrickson discerned interest as one of the vital positive emotions. She noted that it widens not only a person’s fleeting thought-action repertoire as the person is convinced to investigate but, over time, and as a result of continued investigation, interest also establishes the person’s store of knowledge and analytic potential. Interest leads the person to new experiences and makes him or her in unmediated contact with knowledge and experience that extends beyond his or her present achievement level. In terms of achievement, favorable emotions maintain relationships with learning tasks. Feeling fascinated with an activity results in decisions and actions that sustain contact with the activity. Exploring, repeating, and pursuing experience nurture and combine knowledge and cognitive mastery, efficacy, and competence beliefs. Moreover, it cannot be sufficiently described without dealing with the developmental patterns regarding beliefs about the connection between ability and effort in learning and achievement (Ainley, 2004).

teacher engagement figure

Contextual Factors

The assessment of motivational concerns for education into the twenty-first century by S Sansone Hidi and Judy Harackiewicz centered on the problem of motivating the pedagogically unmotivated. Their assessment is limited to the study of the findings from research into the fields of interest and achievement goals; however, it also notes the importance of motivational researchers and their ability to identify how classroom and learning context attributes may be designed to serve as ‘external triggers’ for interest and favorable achievement goals. Yes, a relationship with a learning task can be motivated by advanced technology or some other attractive packaging. Nevertheless, to aid compelling cognitive results, the learning task must not only urge interest but also sustain it enough to back the determination and effort needed to obtain skills and extend knowledge. This is a challenge for teachers of young adolescent students.

Precisely, modifying the classroom achievement goal design can affect students’ learning methodologies and achievement. Lynley Anderman and Carol Hicks-Midgley revealed recognizing such changes in the achievement goal design of math classrooms between middle high school and high school, and they were associated with students’ self-declared pedagogic cheating. For instance, cheating grew when students transitioned from strong mastery orientation to weak mastery orientation settings, and when they transitioned from weak performance orientation settings to strong performance goal settings.

Concurrently, as the classroom harbors the primary concept for learning tasks, the classroom and the entire school are situated within the wider community and social group context. On top of the huge-scale survey results, research centering on certain classroom elements, such as peer standards and values, have exemplified that when the peer group does not prioritize studying, there is low engagement. The appeal of outside-of-school choices is one of the situational facets influencing student motivation and engagement. Real-world competitiveness and social relationships make this a challenge for teachers (Ainley, 2004).

Individual and Context

Published in the AARE Annual in 2004, Mary Ainley’s paper, “What do we know about student motivation?” argues that “understanding motivation and engagement and the role they play in student achievement depends upon adequate models [of] how person and situation interact in achievement settings. We need to be able to describe students’ goals and purpose in learning, their beliefs about themselves as learners, the patterns of effective responses that are typically aroused in learning situations. We need to develop models of the situation, the contextual factors operating at the school level, the classroom level, and the family factors that also influence students’ motivation and engagement.

“What is required is a closer articulation of how personal and situational factors influence cognition and development. Wentzel (2000) addressed this issue in her multiple goal approach to understanding how social and academic goals influence students’ behavior, suggesting that knowledge of the complementarity and hierarchical ordering of social and academic goals, as well as knowledge of the goal structure of classrooms, is essential to understanding the interdependence of individual and situation.”

Source: Fierce Education, 2020

In her book, What Is It I Am Trying to Achieve: Classroom Goals from a Content Perspective, Kathlyn Wentzel reasons that focusing on the content of student goals can offer rare and prized feedback into systems in which students’ different social and scholarly missions may affect their scholarly achievements.

Key Strategies for Increasing Student Motivation and Engagement

Daniel Pink asserts in his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, that grades, standardized exams, and monetary awards (extrinsic motivators) are only short-term stimulants that cannot sustain a foundation for caliber learning and professions.

As an educator, you must be able to instill in your students the need to be determined to learn and succeed in their own ways. But how? Extrinsically motivating students to intrinsically motivate themselves appears contradictory, yet there are five major aspects to build an atmosphere conducive to intrinsic motivation (Getting Smart, 2016). Apart from that, it could also help to be guided by instructional design models when preparing the curriculum for classes.

Build relationships with students and build on their strong points.

Marzano Research Laboratory CEO Robert Marzano posits that positive teacher-student relationships are one of the most prevalently mentioned strategies for increasing student achievement. Positive relationships make teaching methodologies more effective. Gain the trust of your students and know what is important to them by taking note of the items below.

Source: EdWeek Research Center, 2021

Providing them with an opportunity to express what they treasure the most

For instance, if they are working on an art activity. Give them the freedom to do what they want to do with it. Let them decorate it with whatever they think best represents themselves. Activities like this can be a great way to begin the school year. It can also give you an idea of how students see things.

If you wish, you can also work on art projects so that they can know more about you, too.

Gathering student data and making the right decisions based on them

Before you make decisions on certain school matters, such as projects and exams, gather necessary student data first and rely on them. Doing this will let you decide based on their strengths and interests.

Finding out students’ expectations of you, and meeting them

Show your students that you are passionate about what you do to earn their respect, then they will do what it takes to earn yours as well. Ask them for their opinions on the traits of a teacher and live up to their insights. Show importance to what the students are saying and they will see and appreciate it.

Offer them choices.

Most academics agree with Pink’s statement that independence is an ingredient in intrinsic motivation. Teachers have to obtain certain skills, but these skills must be used and evaluated independently. As a teacher, you can offer students choices.

Allow students to decide on what they want to study.

The ‘Genius Hour’ has been a significant academic trend. Google and Federal Express originally had this concept where employees were allowed to venture into their personal creative projects. Now, teachers the world over have come up with ways to incorporate this in their schedules. Check out this Genius Hour examples and resources guide that you can use in your class.

Let students achieve their learning goals by giving them options.

If allowing students to decide on what they want to study is unattainable, perhaps you can give them options to achieve their learning goals. One good example is the Choice Boards, which allows students to customize their learning tasks to personal choices.

Let students select their own evaluations.

Evaluations are necessary because they attest that students are learning, especially to their parents and the school. But they come in different forms. Choice boards, for example, can recommend ways to display learning and lay out a selection of learning tasks.

The Differentiator is an excellent digital tool for a product recommendation, which was tweaked from The Flip Book, Too, and David Chung.

Explain how lessons can be relevant to the students.

Students will only become genuinely interested in what you are teaching them if they see how they can use its lessons in real life. Below are some suggestions to establish real connections.

Use social media.

Since most students are currently hooked on using social media platforms, why not use them, too, as one of your strategies for increasing online student retention and satisfaction? Laura Randazzo used Instagram to give her students an assignment on literature. She then realized that this approach boost her students’ engagement.

Source: Legal Reader, 2020

Make real learning experiences, not abstract ones.

Most teachers recognize using real problems as a basis for learning. Take this second-grade students’ problem-solving activity, where they work together to find a bed for their classmate to sleep in.

Incorporate pop culture into your teaching.

There are instructional materials that motivate students by using commercials, while others use videos and music. Some even use memes to make learning more fun. You could also present icebreaker questions during each meeting to get the conversation going.

Promote goal-setting and goal-monitoring.

Motivation makes students care more about assessing their learning and development instead of garnering high grades, winning an award, and comparing themselves to their classmates. Help them track their achievements with the following tips.

Make goals visible to help students become responsible.

Just like a New Year’s resolution, keeping goals to oneself does not motivate the person to achieve them. On the other hand, publicizing goals strengthens one’s commitment to them. In the case of learning, students have a higher chance of contemplating their goals when they feel that others know what they are up to and if and when they have successfully achieved them.

Make vision boards.

A vision board is defined as a tool to help explain and focus on a certain objective. It is literally any kind of board with images that demonstrates what one wants to be, acts on, or possesses.

Guide students on tracking their developments.

When students are able to monitor where they are headed and what needs improvement, that is the only time that they can see the essence of their goals. Reflection sheets can be useful, specifically when they are carried out every day or every week as they can motivate students to ponder on their actions toward achieving their goals.

Give regular and constructive feedback.

Feedbacks that are not done frequently and without explanation are meaningless to students and do not help them learn and grow. Regular and constructive ones will make them think that their efforts are valuable and that teachers are actually helping them, strengthening their intrinsic motivation to learn.

Comment on students’ works objectively.

Subjective grades do not actually account for student learning. Give objective feedback instead, say with the help of the SE2R Feedback model by Mark Barnes. This model provides students with consistent, objective feedback that helps them improve as learners.

Praise students meaningfully.

Telling students they are smart can surprisingly demotivate them, because this praise may get in their heads and get abused by demeaning others. What you must do instead is to let them know what they did right. Alternatively, you can also tell them that you saw how they worked hard on something, how they persevered even if what they did was hard, and where did they improve on, among others.

Give prompt feedback.

Giving feedback after every activity completion makes more sense than giving them when there is no more time to let students improve. Prompt feedback makes both teachers and students reach their full potential as instructors and learners.

engaged students are more optimistic

Where Motivation Should Really Come From

This world is heavily reliant on extrinsic motivators when determining success. Although a tough challenge, educators are responsible for telling students otherwise, guiding them to create a stronger cornerstone for learning and stopping them from seeking instant gratification. In search of strategies for increasing student motivation and engagement, it turns out that getting students to care about what matters most to them, to eventually discover the true essence of learning and see that motivating themselves is more satisfying than being motivated by others (Getting Smart, 2016). Should you want to learn more about increasing student motivation, you can also consult our guide on fixed vs growth mindsets.



  1. Ainley, M. (2004, December 2). What do we know about student motivation and engagement? AARE Annual.
  2. Engage Their Minds. (n.d.) Genius Hour Resources. Engage Their Minds.
  3. Getting Smart Guest Author. (2016, August 5). 15 Actionable Strategies for Increasing Student Motivation and Engagement. Getting Smart.
  4. Kaplan, S., & Gould, B. (n.d.). The Flip Book, Too. Getting Smart.
  5. Marzano, R., Toth, M., & Schooling, P. (n.d.). The Role of Teacher Evaluation in Raising Student Achievement. Learning Sciences.
  6. Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Getting Smart.
  7. Randazzo, L. (n.d.). Instagram Challenge. Laura Randazzo.
  8. Wentzel, K. (2000). What Is It I Am Trying to Achieve: Classroom Goals from a Content Perspective. Science Direct.
  9. Wisconsin Association For Talented & Gifted. (2016, January 17). The Differentiator. Wisconsin Association For Talented & Gifted.

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