How Learning Works, Ch. 3: Motivation, Disengagement, and the Importance of the Learning Environment

This chapter on motivation feels a bit more abstract than the earlier ones in How Learning Works, but it provides some theoretical underpinnings  to the usual pragmatic “stuff that works” that experienced teachers often describe to their junior colleagues.  It also helps us understand why these kinds of practices tend to have some effect on students, but also why they sometimes get neutralized by other factors in the classroom. Consequently, it adds a new dimension to the book’s earlier chapters on students’ prior knowledge and their organization and processing of new knowledge, by showing the role of motivation in driving students to acquire new information and master new skills.

The key, for me, is the chapter’s theoretical breakdown of the rather difficult concept of motivation into three contributing factors: goals (what organizes our behavior to act in particular ways),  value (the value placed on attaining particular goals), and expectancies (the expectation that one can successfully attain a particular goal).

In many respects, this provides a more sophisticated breakdown of what we typically call “student engagement,” with some explanation of why certain practices help students engage with their instructor and fellow students, by adjusting students’ levels of motivation towards the course and its content.  It also provides some feedback and direction to instructors when they are faced with visible signs of student disengagement, in the form of apathetic, evasive, or defiant behavior.

Effective teaching aligns, and reinforces these three motivational factors so that students have learning goals appropriate to the course’s content, see the value in learning these skills and content, and have appropriate expectancies (i.e., expectations) about which actions will bring about the desired outcomes and about their own capacity to succeed.

As we have seen repeatedly in this and other works on effective teaching, the key seems to lie in the instructor’s skill in communicating clearly the goals and demands of the course, explaining its implications for students for their own lives and careers, and then providing feedback that helps students recognize where they need to place additional effort to succeed.

So, for example, in handing out a reading assignment on Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, I might tell students

  • that they need to read Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe carefully enough to remember its major characters, events, and themes for use in classroom discussion and their research projects (goals);
  • that by learning these aspects of Crusoe they will know something important about the history of fiction and early eighteenth century attitudes towards colonization and conquest (value);
  • that rereading and taking good notes are important for not just understanding the book but being able to research and write about it (outcomes expectancies), and
  • that they have been practicing note-taking, discussion, and essay-writing with earlier books, and they did these more or less successfully, and were given feedback to do it better this time (efficacy expectancies)

All these actions by an instructor, and their accompanying explanations, over the course of a semester amount to the broader “learning environment” that can be experienced by students on a spectrum that runs from supportive to unsupportive.  The learning environment could be considered the sum total of all classroom interactions, but students can readily distinguish between environments where a faculty member “goes the distance” to help people learn, or is available enough to provide additional guidance to the struggling, and classes where this does not happen.

The figure 3.2 that I have reproduced from p. 80 of How Learning Works shows how students, in all their various levels of efficacy and perceived values, interact with their environment:

What we have here with this diagram is a redescription of the whole range of disengaged behavior visibly manifested by students (rejection, defiance, evasion, hopelessness, etc.), but with an explanation that shows how students arrived at these responses through a combination of preexisting attitudes and interaction with their instructor and environment.

For example, the low-efficacy student who sees no value in reading Robinson Crusoe will simply reject the assignment and fail to read it.  The high-efficacy student who similarly fails to see the value would be capable of doing the reading, but chooses instead to scan a few pages and rely on a Sparxnotes summary. Note also that these responses occur in both the supportive and unsupportive classroom environments, if students place no value on learning the material.

This diagram is also useful because it suggests strategies to counter specific kinds of disengaged responses.  One place to begin is to explain the value of learning the class content for students in the context of the class requirements, their major, and ultimately their post-graduate plans and careers.

The other aspect of this is addressing the efficacy of students, their own perceptions of how well they can direct their own learning to succeed at the goals of the course, as these are inflected by the environment they find themselves in.  Students who understand the value of the course but feel themselves incapable will become hopeless and passive in an unsupportive environment, while those who understand it but feel that they are unsupported may go on to succeed at a course, but in an attitude of defiance.

From the perspective of motivation and student success, you want to find you and your students in the right-hand corner of the diagram: you want to see the competent, or high efficacy, students highly motivated and working hard our of their own sense of the importance of the material for their lives and careers, and you will recognize the lower-efficacy students in the “fragile” condition (upper right hand corner) wherein your feedback and their peers’ encouragement help shore up their efforts to improve.

Best of all, this diagram should help provide you with some feedback about your own success as a teacher in a course you are currently teaching: at any time, how many students of yours are manifesting signs of rejection or evasion?  Who could be described as hopeless or defiant? What steps are you taking to articulate the goals of your course?  What opportunities are you providing for students to identify and practice those skills that will help them in your courses and beyond?

So what do you do when you are midway through a semester, and you begin to notice these kinds of signs of disengagement?  How do you undertake a mid-course correction when things like this go wrong?

That will be the topic for the TA-led panel, “Mid-Course Correction,” at our upcoming conference next Friday, Oct. 14th at 1:30-2:45.  Our TA panelists will include Geneva Canino, English; Al Barnard, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences; Chris Nicholson, Political Science; Veronica Sanchez, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, with a response from our distinguished Plenary Speaker, Dr. James Lang (English, Assumption College).

See you then,



One Comment on “How Learning Works, Ch. 3: Motivation, Disengagement, and the Importance of the Learning Environment”

  1. Miranda Bennett says:

    Since I don’t do much formal classroom teaching these days, I’ve been reading this book from the perspective of a manager and teacher of professional colleagues (as reflected in my comments about earlier chapters) but also from that of a parent. This chapter on motivation brought to mind the fascinating work of Carol Dweck (, who has studied the effect of praise on motivation. (One of her articles appears in the reference list of “How Learning Works.”)

    How people interpret their success or failure and whether they attribute it to factors within or beyond their control appear to be remarkably important elements of motivation. I think about this a lot when I’m talking to our kids, and I try, as “How Learning Works” says, to “help them focus on controllable features” such as effort or repetition rather than inherent qualities like intelligence (p. 88). (Incidentally, it says something about how compelling I find the research of Dweck and others that I persist in doing this even when I think I sound kind of like an idiot!)

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