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Published in Print: October 22, 2003, as Student Engagement

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Student Engagement

Students must be convinced not only that academic achievement matters, but also that hard work will, in fact, result in more learning.

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Students must be convinced not only that academic achievement matters, but also that hard work will, in fact, result in more learning.

One of the intriguing paradoxes of education in the United States is that many people believe the nation's schools are badly in need of reform, yet most parents report that they are satisfied with the schools their children attend.

Another is that everyone acknowledges the importance of academic achievement for success in life, yet many Americans remain deeply ambivalent about how much time and effort their children should spend on schoolwork rather than sports, the acquisition of social skills, and other activities deemed important for development. This ambivalence contributes to the fact that during much of the time most students spend in school, they are less than fully engaged in learning academic skills. And it helps explain why the nation has made so little progress in improving education despite nearly three decades of intense effort by educators and politicians alike.

Learning requires engagement on the part of the learner.

So far, no one has discovered a way to impart skills or knowledge without engaging the attention of the learner in some fashion. Just what is meant by engagement in learning? The words that come to mind when we try to describe this concept all involve the investment of energy or effort on the part of the learner. They include paying attention, listening, concentrating, trying to remember, mentally rehearsing, thinking, and practicing. All of these activities depend, centrally, upon the motivation of the student.

The late Herbert Simon, a psychologist and a Nobel laureate in economics for his work on decision theory, once described motivation as the "black hole of American psychology." All theories of learning in the field of psychology rest on either explicit or implicit assumptions about what motivates learners to invest energy in the learning process. Only recently, however, have psychologists and educators begun to think systematically about the implications of what we know about motivation for educational policy and practice.


What would it take to increase the level of engagement of more of our students in academic learning? As a first step, many more parents and their children must be persuaded to place a higher priority on academic achievement compared with other activities in their children's lives. Parents, along with schools, are properly concerned about broader aspects of children's development, including character, physical skills, and the abilities necessary to deal with people. In trying to strike a balance among the various goals they have for their children, however, many parents neglect the fact that real academic achievement requires a great deal of hard work, much more than a majority of students are prepared to expend.

Is motivation to learn the 'black hole' of American education?

Adjusting this balance does not mean emphasizing academics to the exclusion of other things, but it might mean homework before sports, or music, or television, or hanging out with friends. As momentous a change as this might be, in and of itself, we must also overcome three other barriers to increasing the engagement of our young people in academic learning.

  • We must modify our beliefs about the relative importance of ability vs. effort in learning. While there is much talk in American society about the importance of hard work and its relationship to success in life, Americans have long been fascinated by the notion of inherited aptitudes and abilities, and educational policies and practices have reflected this preoccupation with native ability. These practices include the use of measures of intelligence to select students for gifted-and-talented programs and special education programs, scoring of standardized tests based on comparisons with how well other students perform as opposed to independent standards, and continued reliance on college-admissions tests that purportedly measure aptitudes instead of achievement. If more students are to be persuaded to work harder in school, however, they must be convinced not only that academic achievement matters, but also that hard work will, in fact, result in more learning.
  • We must dramatically increase the availability of rewards for engagement in learning. There is ample evidence that rewards—both intrinsic and extrinsic to the learning process—play an essential role in getting students engaged in the learning and in sustaining their engagement and motivation to learn, especially when the going gets difficult. Yet we have created an educational system in which both types of rewards are in short supply. No one believes that the current curriculum, specific subjects, or teaching methods in our schools are engaging enough on their own to sustain the motivation of most students over time. In 2000, only 20 percent of high school seniors reported that most of their courses were quite or very interesting. At the same time, the limited numbers of available extrinsic rewards—for example, praise or encouragement from teachers and good grades—go disproportionately to the best students.

Overcoming this barrier requires finding ways to increase the number of potential reward-givers in schools, including teacher's aides, volunteers, older students, and, of course, teachers themselves. Teachers as well as students also must come to believe that every student can learn even the most challenging subject matter and, indeed, is expected to succeed.

  • We must reduce inefficiencies in the way education is organized and conducted in this country. The effort that students invest in learning must be viewed as a scarce commodity. A great deal of effort is wasted as a result of inefficiencies in the way teaching and learning are organized and conducted in our schools. For example, recent research in cognitive science makes clear that there are many ways to teach a skill, some more productive than others. Yet most teachers are left alone to figure out how (and often what) to teach their classes. Education is the only activity in America in which many of those responsible for its conduct resist attempts to improve performance by taking advantage of what is known about best practice. Heretical as it may sound, it is time to consider seriously what could be done to ensure that all students benefit from what is now known about the most effective ways to teach the most important academic skills.

Increasing the engagement of students in academic learning means ... placing more emphasis on the importance of hard work.

In sum, increasing the engagement of students in academic learning means reducing somewhat the amount of time and energy that our children devote to a wide range of competing demands, including athletics and the acquisition of other non-academic skills, watching television or using computers, engaging in social activities, dating, and employment after school. It also means placing more emphasis on the importance of hard work, as opposed to innate ability, for academic performance; increasing the availability of rewards for such hard work; and working to incorporate best practices in our schools.

Despite the constant drumbeat of criticism of schools in this country, students who work hard and take school seriously are, on the whole, well served by these institutions. If the large number of students who are at present doing only what is necessary to get by could be enticed into increasing their engagement in learning, even by a modest amount, the results would be impressive indeed.

David A. Goslin is the former president and chief executive officer of the American Institutes for Research, in Washington. His book Engaging Minds: Motivation and Learning in America's Schools was published this year by Scarecrow Press, a division of Rowman and Littlefield.

Vol. 23, Issue 8, Pages 32,34

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