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The Debrief

The Learning Science of Newsela

Jennifer Merriman, PhD
Jan 16, 2020

Learning only occurs when students are actively engaged in reading.  We can often tell if a student is engaged by observing if they are doing an activity (e.g. reading a text or answering questions about a text).  But why are some students engaged and others not? And why are students engaged in some tasks but not in others?

Underneath student engagement is student motivation, made up of several factors and mostly invisible from the outside. If we want to understand students’ motivations, we have to ask about them. Motivation is a necessary but not sufficient precursor to engagement (1), meaning that if students are not motivated to do a task, they are unlikely to engage in it.  Even with proper motivation, students may not do a task (for example, they may not know how to do the task).  

Student motivation covers a broad range of topics.  Researchers discuss academic motivation in ways that can be confusing, but one way to think about motivation is in the categories of expectancies, values, and cost (2): 

  • Cost means “do students think the cost of doing a task outweighs the benefits to doing it (e.g., less time to talk to friends)”?

  • Expectancies means “do students expect that they can do an academic task”?  

  • Values means “do students value the academic task they are supposed to be doing”?  

There are multiple subcategories under each of these three categories of academic motivation. For example, self-efficacy is generally considered to be in the expectancy category.  If students are not engaged in a task, there might be several reasons why they are not motivated. We can’t know these motivations unless we ask students.


Student academic motivation can vary across school subjects, days of the week, and months of the year. Research shows that students’ motivation tends to decline both over the course of a school year and over the course of schooling (students show higher motivation in elementary school that declines through high school) (3). But research also shows that we can change the trajectory of students’ motivation, which in turn can have significant impacts on student achievement, with many interventions showing positive effects under rigorous experimental conditions. (4)

Knowing that students come to Newsela with different motivations, we strive to offer reading experiences that support motivation and encourage engagement in reading. (5) The primary goal of Newsela is to provide educators with high-quality authentic content and instructional tools they need to drive students’ academic motivation and engagement in support of learning. These tools include leveled reading for all articles, power words, quizzes, annotations, and writing prompts. Newsela offers research-based guidance, but is not prescriptive with methods, so teachers maintain instructional autonomy. In the coming research blogs, we’ll share additional learning sciences research behind our product.

How will you use Newsela to:

  • Help learners who are not motivated to read?

  • Help learners maintain motivation throughout the school year?

  1. Appleton, J., Christenson, S., & Reschly, A. (2006). Measuring cognitive and psychological engagement: Validation of the Student Engagement Instrument. Journal of School Psychology, 44(5), 427-445.

    Appleton, J., Christenson, S., & Furlong, M. (2008). Student engagement: Critical conceptual and methodological issues of the construct. Psychology in the Schools, 45(5), 369-386.

  2. Hulleman, C. S., Barron, K. E., Kosovich, J. J., & Lazowski, R. A. (2016). Student motivation: Current theories, constructs, and interventions within an expectancy-value framework. In Psychosocial skills and school systems in the 21st century (pp. 241-278). Springer, Cham.

  3. Lepper, M. R., Corpus, J. H., & Iyengar, S. S. (2005). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivational orientations in the classroom: Age differences and academic correlatesJournal of Educational Psychology, 97(2), 184.

    Jacobs, J. E., Lanza, S., Osgood, D. W., Eccles, J. S., & Wigfield, A. (2002). Changes in children’s self‐competence and values: Gender and domain differences across grades one through twelveChild development, 73(2), 509-527.

    Scherrer, V., & Preckel, F. (2019). Development of Motivational Variables and Self-Esteem During the School Career: A Meta-Analysis of Longitudinal StudiesReview of Educational Research, 89(2), 211-258.

    Kosovich, J., Flake, J., and Hulleman, C. (2017). Short-term motivation trajectories: A parallel process model of expectancy-value. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 49, 130-139.

  4. Lazowski, R. A., & Hulleman, C. S. (2016). Motivation interventions in education: A meta-analytic reviewReview of Educational research86(2), 602-640.

  5. Newsela (2019). Research Foundations. https://go.newsela.com/rs/628-ZPE-510/images/Learning-Sciences-Research-Foundations-v3.pdf

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