Top 8 Strategies for Student Engagement

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In looking at a wide range of research on learner cognition, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, as well as popular stories and games, I saw a lot of common elements and themes. After realizing there was a lot of overlap between different mediums, between academic and non-academic uses, and for leisure or for learning, I grouped these elements into the top eight most commonly occurring strategies. These Top 8 Strategies for Student Engagement can be found in some of the most engaging books, games, courses, elearning modules, assignments, or discussions. What’s more is that many of the strategies are fairly simple to design into your course, curriculum, or elearning project to purposefully build engaging learning experiences for students!

#1: AUTONOMY

The most frequently mentioned element (by far) in research on motivation and engagement as well as studies on game design and workplace dynamics is autonomy. The essence of autonomy in education is that the student has agency in how to approach a learning activity, challenge, or other experience. As autonomy goes up so does motivation, where they are increasingly made the “director” of their own experience. ​

How to use it

  • Allow students to contribute to classroom decisions, such as grading structure and class norms. This can be a particularly effective strategy at the start of a course to also begin to build a sense of community in the class.
  • Allow the opportunity for the learner to find their own path through a challenge (unit, lesson, or assessment) with different strategies, based on their individual strengths, background, and interests. Move away from the one-size-fits-all approach to lessons and offer enough resources and pathways to ensure students can arrive at the desired outcome.
  • Offer multiple alternative texts and a “choice board” instead of a single author or reading. A choice board, or grid in which a student selects a set number of options or completes a straight line – horizontal, vertical, diagonal, can be used for multiple purposes. Alternative viewpoints can allow students to extend their learning through increased synthesis and exploration of interests.
  • Allow multiple means of expression on assignments – written composition, video, skit, infographic, or other multimedia presentation. Is it important that a student complete something exactly as you prescribed, or is it really about showcasing what they learned? There is more than one way to demonstrate knowledge, so why not enable that in your class? Multiple means of expression is a core pillar of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), by the way!
  • Reformat learning modules into quests that the user (or group) can complete at their discretion. If your content allows it (hint: most topics do), think about how project-based and problem-based learning can be utilized within an individual unit of study or even the full course! Letting students find creative solutions to problems through inquiry and sustained exploration is a great way to design for motivation on its own, but when paired with a sense of agency…WOW!

#2: CHALLENGE

A goal, ​quest, ​​o​r f​eat that must be completed to progress. It should empower user to perform personally meaningful tasks, and also should adjust to optimum level of difficulty for the user.

Example concepts

  • Instructional scaffolding
  • Zone of Proximal Development
  • Competition, quiz show style review games
  • Problem-based learning
  • Quest-based learning

#3: PURPOSE

Having a goal or objective to aim for. More important, though, purpose is a sense of “why I matter” in this story. Clearly stated rules, objectives, goals, and big picture help in determining purpose. Match motives with learner background.

How to use it

  • How can the learner apply the task or content to their personal motivations, teammates, or environment? Use a learner survey to uncover some of their background and call out later.
  • Integrate major world or community problems for students to solve when possible
  • Explicitly state your content’s relevance and importance to the community or broader world stage.
  • Create and state clear, measurable, authentic learning objectives. Align these to your course’s core activities – though this is good practice anyway!

#4: MASTERY

Mastery is our ​urge to get better a​t things – to accomplish something difficult through prolonged and repeated efforts, especially with the activities we find enjoyable. Engaging activities often stay within, but at the edge of what’s achievable to remain motivational. This internal drive to try to make ourselves better can also originate from a belief that we are not complete, often referred to as the growth mindset.

How to use it

  • Provide specific, ongoing feedback so learners know what they don’t know and how to improve.
  • Acknowledge and/or highlight the achievement of course objectives.
  • Create a space that is safe to fail and try again. Encourage continual practice and spaced repetition, similar to learning a new sport.
  • Build competence through peer teaching, student-facilitated instruction (jigsaw, student-generated discussion)

#5: STORY

A narrative or context on which a story/game/course is set. Evokes mental images, helps user apply old knowledge and skills to understanding and remembering new skills and content.

How to use it

  • Use real-world case studies, stories from the field, and expert speakers
  • Games, simulations, and branching scenarios that allow learner to practice in a more authentic environment
  • Use alternate persona(s) as your expert or guide

#6: MYSTERY

Element of chance ​or unpredictable nature of a story/game/course. The user’s knowledge structures are inconsistent or incomplete in the beginning and they’re driven to correct it. This could also involve information complexity to peak curiosity.

Example concepts

  • Cognitive disequilibrium – introduce new ideas and concepts that conflict with previously held notions or norms
  • Project-Based Learning, Problem-Based Learning
  • Randomizers for participatory activities
  • Introducing a new previously unknown element
  • The possibility of failure (with the space to try again)

#7: ALTRUISM

A sense of belonging in a team, being able to help others i​n need, or giving back in some way. Cooperation and working together to achieve goals further build purpose.

How to use it

  • Service-learning activities
  • Add peer teaching time into lessons, encourage study groups
  • Team assessments and projects (with clearly defined roles and norms)
  • Recognize when someone helps others succeed.

#8: RECOGNITION

Most have a need for status, recognition, ​fame, prestige, attention, and/or respect of others – often an extrinsic motivator. We all like that warm fuzzy feeling when we know that others know that we’ve done a good job (even for bragging rights). Highlight a learner’s achievements publicly. Give feedback along the way.

How to use it

  • Use frequent “shout outs” for questions received, outstanding work and effort in a lesson or unit
  • Utilize badges, leaderboards, or other visible showcase of achievements (with a tool like badgr.com)
  • I​n-class reward (extra time on test, bonus points, etc.) for contributions and work ethic.
  • End-of-year style recognition for quality assignment artifacts and growth

Putting it All Together

It is important to note that instructors DO NOT need to add all eight of these strategies to a course for change to happen. One can often pick one or two elements and there be a noticeable impact on engagement!

In addition to the examples and recommendations above, we could separate these eight motivating strategies with the natural divide that occurs between (A) those that require some change or reformatting of your course content and (B) those that can be added on top of your existing curriculum with little to know change to the content itself. We’ll call these two groups Foundational and Environmental. Let’s take a look:

Group Foundational Environmental
Elements Challenge, Story, Mystery, Purpose Autonomy, Recognition, Mastery, Altruism
Details May take longer to set up because of alterations to course content, but great impact on learner engagement. For example, adding a compelling story that relates to your content can be tedious – finding guest speakers or constructing authentic case studies takes time. Easier to implement as it requires little to no change in content. Shift how students are interacting with your existing content. Can be thought of as an additional layer to your course that can help propel learners. For example, if you wanted to increase autonomy within a single assignment, you don’t have to change much besides how the learners can work through (choice board or flexible pathways) and showcase and submit their work (multiple means of expression).

What can you focus on right now? What do you have the time and energy for? Who in your school/university or personal learning network is also thinking about this? Can you start small – an assignment, discussion, or other learning activity? Can you think big – module structure, syllabus changes, additional texts or guests, considering new instructional strategies?

Other resources for your consideration:

The list below is by no means exhaustive – only initial thoughts – and will be updated as suggestions come up and/or lost bookmarks are recovered 🙂

Select works that inspired this article:

  • Theory of intrinsically motivating instruction (Malone, 1981)
  • Principles for intrinsic motivation (Lepper, 1985)
  • Motivational processes affecting learning (Dweck, 1986)
  • ARCS model of instructional design (Keller, 1987)
  • Taxonomy of intrinsic motivation (Malone & Lepper, 1987)
  • Self­ Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000)
  • Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Pink, 2011)
  • The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-based Methods and Strategies for Education and Training (Kapp, 2012)
  • Student engagement: What is it? Why does it matter? (Finn & Zimmer, 2012)
  • Expectancy-value theory of achievement motivation (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000)
  • Six Dimensions of Games (Garris, Ahlers & Driskell, 2002)
  • Game Dynamics (Bunchball, 2012)
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