Motivation and Engagement in Student Assignments:
The Role of Choice and Relevancy
Dr. Joan Dabrowski @joandabrowski and Dr. Tanji Reed Marshall @Remarsh76
Heading to World History before the late bell, an adolescent drags his sneakers down the linoleum hallway. “I’m so tired when I’m walking to last period because it’s the end of the day and I’m ready to go,” he says. “But once I get there, I’m awake because it’s really engaging,” he continues. “It’s not just book work. We have arguments about the subjects we talk about and there’s always someone who has a counterargument. And the teacher, he’s never just like, ‘Alright, you’ve proved your point’. It’s ‘evaluate this’ or ‘explain this more’. And I really enjoy that.”
This student’s teacher is creating the kinds of engaged learning opportunities that research shows deepen content mastery and lead to improved academic outcomes. A positively engaged student is more likely to be a successful student.1 Too few students, however, have this experience in American classrooms today. Our recent analysis of over 6,800 middle school assignments yielded disappointing results in the area of motivation and engagement.2 For that analysis, we looked closely at choice and relevancy — two powerful levers for engaging adolescents. Students should be given choice in their learning and tasks should be relevant, using real-world experiences and examples for students to make connections with their goals, interests, and values. Few assignments, however, met such criteria.
For students to thrive and achieve at high levels, they must be interested and emotionally invested in their learning. Why? Because motivation, or the desire that propels one to do something, leads to engagement, where students are being attentive to their tasks, putting forth positive effort, persisting through challenges, and advancing their ideas and understandings with a sense of intention. And with current college- and career-ready standards demanding more rigor, collaboration, critical thinking, and problem solving, students — now perhaps more than ever — need to stay positively engaged with and socially and emotionally connected to their learning.3
Reading, writing, and talking about multifaceted topics and tasks is not to be taken lightly. Generating claims, solving complex problems, developing and navigating arguments based on credible and relevant evidence — all of this is challenging work. It requires students to grapple with rich content, plan, organize, set goals, and be socially aware. Engagement is essential. As noted in previous publications by The Education Trust, assignments are a powerful lens for viewing the day-to-day experiences of students. Assignments represent what teachers know and understand about the standards and show how students interact with the curriculum. It is this interaction — the engagement (or disengagement) — with the curriculum that we considered when setting the criteria for motivation and engagement on our Literacy and Math Assignment Frameworks. While classroom environment and teacher-student relationships influence motivation and engagement, these areas cannot be fully captured in a stand-alone assignment.4 Educators can, however, look at both the content and the design features of an assignment. These two areas serve as close proxies for student engagement because they hold the potential to ignite and propel interest and enthusiasm.
In this brief, we take a closer look at the criteria for motivation and engagement in rigorous assignments, specifically the role of choice and relevancy. What does it mean for educators to offer their students authentic choices? How can educators bring relevancy to their assignments, and what do they need to be cautious about? And finally, what steps do educators and school, district, and state leaders need to take to ensure that more students benefit from engaging learning opportunities and the successful outcomes that follow?
Anchored in the field of psychology, providing choice within an assignment promotes the healthy development of student autonomy. Affording students opportunities in which they are “in charge of their lives” is central to their academic achievement and emotional adjustment.5 When students make decisions about their work, they are empowered to own it. Moreover, their ownership of a task leads to self-direction and self-discipline because they are personally invested in the outcomes. Offering students choice supports a universally held goal in teaching and learning: Teachers want their students to become more capable independent learners. An opposite approach plays out when teachers control all aspects of the assignment or guide students in lockstep fashion through each step. In these scenarios, students are made to relinquish all power and decision making, and teachers revert to using power to control bodies and minds instead of using their autonomy to invite learning.6
Joan Dabrowski, Ed.D. @joandabrowski
Tanji Reed Marshall, Ph.D. @Remarsh76
Joan Dabrowski, Ed.D twenty-five-year career in education has afforded her the opportunity to spend time in many interesting places and to work with countless thoughtful colleagues. Currently, she is the Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Prior to this, she held a wide range of positions including K-12 teacher, literacy coach, adjunct professor, national consultant, curriculum writer, and district administrator. She has taught, consulted, or conducted research in schools and districts across the country including Baltimore, Boston, Cambridge, Detroit, Hawaii, Houston, Louisville, and Montgomery County. She spent ten years as a classroom teacher (grades K-2 and 4-5) before becoming a school-based literacy coach. She went on to be a district coach and the Director of Literacy in the Boston Public Schools. In each of these roles, Joan has embraced the chance to collaborate with others who share her commitment to positively impact the lives of children through literacy.
Joan’s interest in writing instruction—specifically interactive writing—initially stems from her own struggles as a grade 4-5 classroom teacher. During writers’ workshop, she did what she knew: modeled her own writing, scribed for her students, and read-aloud many mentor texts written by award-winning authors. She also dabbled in the six traits and frequently analyzed her students’ writing, seeking answers for where to go next. While much of this helped her students, she sensed they needed more explicit guidance. This feeling grew as she visited many classrooms as a district coach and then a national consultant. She also recognized a common challenge: writing instruction was not given the time nor the attention it needed. Moreover, the teachers she met were looking for ways to develop their student writers and were eager for concrete guidance on how to do so efficiently and effectively. When her coauthor, Kate Roth, approached her to write about interactive writing, it was an easy sell!
Tanji Reed Marshall, Ph.D. is the senior practice associate for P-12 literacy, leading Ed Trust’s Equity in Motion literacy assignment analysis work.
Prior to joining Ed Trust, Tanji worked in the Office of Academic Programs at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University to prepare the school of education’s accreditation with the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation. Before that, she supported prospective secondary English teachers who were working to obtain licensure through the school of education.
Before joining Virginia Tech, Tanji worked for as a district-level literacy specialist in Charlotte–Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, where she supported middle schools across the district to refine their literacy practices. She also worked to prepare the district as they transitioned to Common Core standards. Additionally, as a Title I literacy coach, Tanji worked with targeted schools to improve literacy instruction for traditionally underserved students. Her career also includes elementary and middle school classroom teaching in North Carolina and New Jersey, which has allowed her opportunities to consult with school districts across the country to refine and focus teacher practice on literacy and to strengthen student achievement — with an emphasis on traditionally underserved students.
Tanji holds a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, with an emphasis on teacher practice with high-achieving African American students, from Virginia Tech; a master’s degree in English education, with a focus on critical literacy, from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston College.
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