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Fueling Student Motivation and Engagement

By Dr. Amy R. Littlefield

Learning cannot occur without motivating student engagement.

Throughout my career in education, that one sentence has held true. Fostering engagement in school is particularly difficult when students possess executive functioning and learning challenges. Therefore, teachers and parents should be mindful of the engagement piece as we educate our students. WRUS strives to create such an educational environment for its students.

a high school student engaging in a classroom presentation

So What Is Motivation?

According to the Self-Determination Model of Deci and Ryan (2000), motivation consists of three components, which are the human needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Competence is the feeling that you can do something. Autonomy is the feeling of being in control. Relatedness is the feeling of belonging and community. At WRUS, teachers consistently weave in activities and practices that foster motivation in our students.

So What Does Motivation Look Like In A Classroom?

Competence develops with greater ease when students receive praise for and support for incremental progress, encouraging students to successfully move forward to the next level of skill. Vygotzgy’s Zone of Proximal Development (1978) considers the gap between a student’s measured intellectual development and their level of potential development with the addition of classroom supports. When used effectively, assignment modifications and scaffolding provide students with a challenge, but not to the extent that they get frustrated and stop. Teacher scaffolding at WRUS is designed to meet each student where they are and help them get to the next level. When a student feels competent, they are willing to take more risks and move forward.

Autonomy is demonstrated at WRUS when teachers provide choices for students that encourage them to feel like they are in control of their learning. For example, this can include choice of topic, text, writing prompt, problems, or product format. Choice of final assessments or projects is especially engaging for students like those at WRUS, as it allows them to demonstrate their unique interests and talents. Some students may choose to write, while others might create a model, a game, a podcast, or a video to demonstrate what they know about their chosen topic.

Finally, relatedness is instrumental to the culture of WRUS as we work to build a strong school community. Relatedness is cultivated in the classroom through collaboration in activities and projects, along with exploring a topic in depth as a class. It is also fostered through peer mentoring, which builds trust. A secondary outcome of incorporating relatedness into curriculum is the building of social skills, a vital need for our population, especially in a post-pandemic world. Student feelings of belongingness are instrumental to classroom success and student happiness.

So What Is Student Engagement And How Is It Related To Motivation?

According to Able and Fraumeni (2019), engagement is “a condition of emotional, social, and intellectual readiness to learn characterized by curiosity, participation, and the drive to learn more.” Therefore, an environment for student engagement is created when students feel competent, autonomous, and are a part of a community. Throughout its classrooms and beyond, WRUS nurtures and cultivates engagement in the learning process in order to encourage independence and celebrate the uniqueness of its learners.


Ryan, Richard M., & Edward L. Deci. “Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being”. American Psychologist, January 2000.

Vygotsky, L. S. Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Edited by Michael Cole, Vera Jolm-Steiner, Sylvia Scribner, and Ellen Souberman. Harvard University Press, 1978.

Abla, C., & Brittney R. Fraumeni. “Student Engagement: Evidence-based Strategies to Boost Academic and Socialemotional Results”. McREL International, 2019.


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