Educators are tasked not only with addressing learning recovery but also with supporting students with a wide range of their own personal emotional needs.
So how can teachers help bridge that gap to cultivate student engagement in the classroom — and beyond? The key is to understand the biology behind learning, as well as the relationship between motivation and student engagement.
Dr. Pamela Cantor, the founder and senior science advisor at Turnaround for Children, joined Newsela founder and chief academic officer Dan Cogan-Drew in a webinar to discuss how educators can cultivate the student engagement needed to rise to the coming year’s challenges. In this article, we’ll explore Dr. Cantor’s one-of-a-kind insight and the ways teachers can understand and build engagement within their classrooms.
Prioritize connection and belonging
Dr. Cantor explained that although the school system has not historically accounted for learning’s biological foundations, educators cannot afford to ignore them. Chemicals and hormones. including oxytocin, are essential in building the neural connections that enable complex learning. Educators have a role to play here by taking actions that invoke students’ neurological reward pathways: Building a safe, welcoming environment, providing meaningful learning experiences, and fostering positive relationships.
Cantor added that administrators can add much-needed support when it comes to building a welcoming school environment. Creating a sense of safety and belonging — and the engagement that comes with it — means integrated support in all aspects of students’ lives.
As she put it, “to balance academics with other opportunities to know who children are and to build and nurture their interests and their passions, this kind of support will tip the balance toward an environment… where there are many sources of emotional and academic support.”
The relationship between motivation and student engagement
Educational research shows that the key to student success lies in each student’s ability to motivate themselves when it comes to their own learning. Essentially, there must be a balance between the joy of learning and persistence so that even when faced with a difficult task, the student will work to solve problems out of curiosity, rather than fear.
Active learning can help encourage students because it provides meaningful learning experiences. If classroom tasks become repetitive, tedious, or under-stimulating, student behavior may be affected. They may retreat from classroom engagement. In worst-case scenarios, they may even actively disrupt the learning process or become frustrated with school.
A great way to encourage academic achievement is to understand exactly what motivates students — what drives them to succeed or learn in the classroom.
Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation for students
Before a teacher makes any changes to their lesson plans, it’s important to understand the two different types of motivation that drive students in the classroom: intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic motivation, also known as internal motivation, comes from a personal desire to learn. This means that the student is driven by a love of learning or a particular fascination with a subject. For example, a student may have a passion for reading. Due to this, they’re motivated to learn new vocabulary words and grammar rules because it helps them read and explore more books. From a biology perspective, this type of academic motivation isn’t causing stress, but actually reducing it — ultimately encouraging learning.
Alternatively, there is extrinsic motivation, which comes from exterior influences. The student desires to do well in school because they either want a reward or they want to avoid punishment. Extrinsic motivation can be used beneficially in the classroom. For example, a class-wide extrinsic rewards system can motivate students to work well together and engage in class. As Cantor explained, invoking students’ neurological reward pathways with performance goals will help create a welcoming learning environment.
However, it can also cause fear in students and hurt their overall learning if their extrinsic motivation is to avoid punishment. This may cause the student to feel unsafe in the classroom. Identifying what is motivating and driving a student will help each educator personalize their approach to encourage engagement in the classroom.
Challenges to student engagement in the classroom
It may seem obvious that educators should encourage and try to cultivate intrinsic motivation in the classroom. But that’s much easier said than done. Oftentimes, educators - especially if they’re teaching elementary school - are required to push their students to meet certain skill sets and test scores above all other expectations. This can trigger extrinsic motivation based on fear of not being successful.
This can be difficult in everyday classroom life, but what about with today’s additional challenges? Many teachers are now struggling to support their students emotionally while also addressing learning recovery due to the pandemic.
Teachers can combat these challenges by creating and incorporating class material that is relevant to their students’ lives and interests. Discover what gets each student excited in the classroom and highlight that in some way to make them enjoy their time in class. Teachers need to spark joy in their students, which will encourage them to engage with the material inside and outside of the classroom.
Learn more about how to reevaluate classroom lessons from the student’s perspective here.
How can educators cultivate student engagement?
Students bring so much to their classrooms: life experiences, cultures, and prior knowledge that can enrich the learning environment beyond measure. This also means that each will experience curriculum and instruction differently, and what engages one student will not engage all. That, Cantor explained, is why students need “personalized, rigorous instructional experiences” to fall in love with the curriculum and discover their own capabilities.
In practice, that means a challenging curriculum that incorporates student choice and empowers them to use their agency as learners. “If educators teach only to the discrete math skill,” she said, “some children will learn it. But if they teach to the whole child, they can support students to understand it, become curious to learn more, and be able to apply it to other problems.”
This means providing materials that celebrate learners’ identities and contextualize the lesson content within other parts of their lives. One participant shared how she offers students 10 books to choose from in her reading units. The texts are selected to offer a variety of themes at different reading levels, and she teaches students to consider both their interests and the text’s difficulty level when they choose a book. Together, these variables can promote engagement by letting everyone discover texts that inspire and challenge them -- no matter who they are and what experiences and talents they bring to the classroom.
Student engagement means healing trauma
When students feel that they are safe and belong in the classroom, they are more open to the relationships that accelerate learning. And oxytocin, the hormone that ensures this can happen, has another function: It offsets the effects of cortisol, the brain’s main stress hormone.
Students may enter the classroom under extraordinary stress, and it turns out that the same relationships that enable learning are also critical in giving students the chemical building blocks their brains need to recover from trauma. With this in mind, administrators and educators can seize this moment to ensure that all learners leave the classroom more resilient and engaged than ever.
Excited to dig deeper into the science of student learning and hear more from Dr. Cantor? Watch the full recorded webinar here.