Sources of Student Engagement and Motivation

Motivation and engagement can be the deciding factor with regard to the success of a class. Even the most well thought out and planned classes can fall through because students are disengaged. That being said, engagement and motivation are hugely important aspects of learning and applying the proper strategies can make all the difference. Motivation is a huge factor when engaging students , the more motivation to learn, the higher the engagement. But it is natural to ask where does student motivation come from?

There are two main theories around the source of motivation: intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation.1 Intrinsic motivation, the drive within us, can be one of the best ways for students to stay engaged. Self-Determination Theory states that intrinsic motivation is based on three psychological needs:2

  1. Competence, which can be fostered by striking a balance between the level of challenge and effective feedback.
  2. Autonomy, which can be achieved when students feel supported to explore and implement solutions independently.
  3. Relatedness, which can be established when others are listening and responding

However, while it is critical to foster intrinsic motivation, it is not always possible depending on the content at hand. That’s where extrinsic motivation comes in. The most clear example we have in schools are grades. Moreover, it may be useful to consider other factors that motivate students, such as the Expectancy Theory of Motivation. This theory suggests that motivation is impacted by the individual’s future expectations. It revolves around the questions:  

  1. Will my effort lead to higher performance? 
  2. Will higher performance lead to rewards? 
  3. How desirable do I find the rewards?

When planning, educators can consider these questions while trying to get students motivated. For example, when designing a project you can make intentional choices to ensure effort leads to high performance and that the high performance is rewarding to the student. That being said, it is important to remember that students tend to enjoy learning and perform better when they are more intrinsically than extrinsically motivated to achieve. So simply expecting grades or academic performance to motivate their learning will not lead to the expected results and might leave students ill equipped to succeed.


  1. Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.
  2. Vroom, V. H. (1964). Work and motivation. Wiley.
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