What does student motivation and engagement look like?

Most people who have been at the front of a class or a lecture will agree that having a motivated and engaged group of students can make a big difference. Most likely those classes that you remember more fondly are the ones where you were highly engaged, participated a lot and were strongly motivated. You might already have heard about different strategies to engage and motivate students, but you might have asked yourself when are students motivated? What does student motivation and engagement look like?

Let’s begin by defining what student motivation is. Motivation is the personal investment that an individual has in reaching a desired outcome1. It plays a critical role in guiding the direction, intensity, persistence, and quality of the learning behaviors in which students engage. When they find positive value in a learning goal or activity, expect to successfully achieve a desired learning outcome, and perceive support from their environment, they are likely to be strongly motivated to learn. As students advance in their education (primary to tertiary), they gain greater autonomy over what, when, and how they study and learn. There are common traits among motivated students: they  are self-efficacious, which means they believe they can be successful, and they find value in the course material and feel supported in their learning environment.2

Moreover, we can understand engagement as meaningful student involvement throughout the learning environment, including curriculum, adults, peers, and community. We will consider three dimensions that comprise student engagement: behavioral engagement, emotional engagement, and cognitive engagement. For a student to be fully engaged, all three dimensions of engagement must be met. Fortunately, educators can positively influence all three.

Behavioral engagement refers to students’ participation in class, including attendance and concentration levels. It also pertains to students’ involvement in the social components of learning, such as peer feedback or problem solving with peers.

Secondly, emotional engagement refers to how students feel toward the subject or content they are learning and studying. This includes how students’ value both what they are learning and how they are learning. It also comprises how students feel about their educators and peers, their overall learning experiences, and the value of what they are learning.

Finally, cognitive engagement refers to the extent to which students take ownership over their own learning and their investment in their own education. Cognitive engagement also includes a student’s ability to self-regulate and strive toward personal goals in education.

Increasing student motivation can create a positive feedback loop, facilitating students’ future success. Once students are motivated, they are also more likely to have positive engagement. Positive engagement means that students can actively use strategies to understand content, problem-solve, think critically, and use information in a productive way.3 This creates a circular effect in that students who perform successfully are more likely to positively engage in the future. When students perceive a positive correlation between their effort and their success, they are more likely to persist and sustain their engagement.


  1. Maehr, M. L., & Meyer, H. A. (1997). Understanding motivation and schooling: Where we’ve been, where we are, and where we need to go. Educational Psychology Review, (4), 371-409. http://dx.doi.org/10.1023/A:1024750807365
  2. Svinicki, M., & McKeachie, W. (2013). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (14th ed.). Cengage Learning.
  3. Fredricks, J. A., Blumenfeld, P. C., & Paris, A. H. (2004). School engagement: Potential of the concept, state of the evidence. Review of Educational Research, 74(1), 59-109. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543074001059
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