Active learning and motivation and engagement, oh my!

Look what I found, as the very first diagram (that’s right, it’s “Figure 1.1”) in a book called Student Engagement Techniques (Barkley, 2010)!

Venn diagram student engagement

Yes, I’m excited about this.  Like, really, really excited. Excited enough to resort to an emoticon: XD

“Why?”, you ask.  “Let me tell you!”, I say.

I’ve been struggling to find ways to get students to ‘engage’ with course content for a while now, but have had only a vague, gut-based, feeling-y sort of definition of what that ‘engagement’ might look like.  ‘Engaged’ students to me are excited to learn and attentive in class.  They’re interested enough in content to ask probing and insightful questions about it.  They’re driven to find out more on their own; to discover more details, more applications, more sources of information.  They try to tie concepts together, to create a larger context for themselves, a Grand Scheme into which they can fit all the information they’re being asked to remember, nay, to process, rather than try to memorize isolated factoids.  Try boiling that all down to a single graphic.

Look at Barkley’s Venn diagram again*.  Ta-da!  There it all is, in all its succinct glory.  I’m framing that diagram and putting it on my wall.  Well, maybe after I glue some sparkles onto it 🙂

For any of you not as excited as I am, allow me to elaborate.

Motivation is what drives students.  It hints at why, and how much, students want to learn.  It ties together the excitement, interest, and willingness to learn that float to the front of my mind when I think of a ‘good’ student.

Active learning refers to manipulation of information.  This can include  purely cognitive manipulation of ideas (e.g., “thought experiments”) all the way through to moving around and physically handling objects, or any combination of those.  “Active learning” tasks can ask students to apply the material they’re learning about, to play with it, to look at it from different perspectives, to see a concept as a whole from which they can add or subtract details as needed.

What do you get if you have one without the other?  A bored student feeling forced to perform at the whim of an apparently eccentric instructor.  A super-enthusiastic student who struggles overly much to retain the information presented.

But what would you get with a combination of motivation with active learning?  A pretty great definition of an ‘engaged’ student, if you ask me!

Fantastic!  Next problem: How to do that?  Good thing Barkley (2010) also includes a list of techniques for targeting motivation or active learning… some of which will be featured here as I work my way through the text.  Stay tuned!

(*sidenote: Barkley (2010) continues on by trying to add another layer of complexity to their model, by describing engagement as a double helix rather than a Venn diagram, but actually I don’t care as much for that explanation.  I think it comes from me knowing too much about the most prominent ‘double helix’ in Biology – DNA.  The metaphor is just too strained for me.  The Venn diagram to me doesn’t “limit the influence of each” contributing factor, but emphasizes the importance of BOTH working together.  Neither are sufficient for true ‘engagement’ on their own!)



Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student Engagement Techniques. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


3 thoughts on “Active learning and motivation and engagement, oh my!

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