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Engagement Vs. Motivation

Updated: Feb 9, 2023


Alice Keeler (mom of 5, high school math teacher, author, keynote speaker/teacher trainer, and Founder of #coffeeEDU) and I are working on a book 50 Ways to Engage Students with Google Apps. She’s the Google expert and I’m the engagement expert. Early in our collaboration, Alice used the words motivation and engagement synonymously. I cautioned they were not the same and explained…



​Engagement is the desire to do something due to the extrinsic consequences (interest) or the intrinsic consequences (absorption)

Motivation is a “force or influence that causes someone to do something;” motivation is a variable that influences engagement BUT it is not a synonym for or result of engagement.

In other words, engagement is how you feel about WHAT you’re doing and motivation is how you feel about WHY you’re doing it.

I’m thinking about engagement and motivation because I recently read the post by Barton Keeler, “How my school district improved our ELA scores overnight.” Spoiler alert, to achieve these overnight improvements, Barton’s district decided they wanted to create a “Big, Tangible, and Immediate” incentive (a.k.a., motivator).

The results don’t lie.

Were the students more engaged in the test? Probably not. However, were they more motivated to do well on the test? By their own admission, YES.

There is so much to unpack here I barely know where to start. First, I’m jealous of the ability to create real motivation for taking the state assessments. In New York, where I work, the 3-8 state assessment results are not made available until the following school year despite administering the assessments one to two months before the end of the school year. This means we have no way of knowing how the students do on their tests during the year in which they would be able to demonstrate they’ve learned the information. Hence, we cannot exempt the students from the local final exam or additional assignments as Barton’s district did. This lack of timeliness in how students do on the 3-8 assessments undermines their actual purpose and the district’s ability to support and celebrate student learning.

Additionally, assessments, by definition, should be valid and reliable. Valid means the assessment is measuring what it intends to measure and reliable is "the extent to which an assessment method or instrument measures consistently the performance of a student." If the student learned about apples, a valid test would measure their knowledge of apples. (Not oranges. Not forks. Not planets.) In terms of reliability, "a medical thermometer is a reliable tool that would measure the correct temperature each time it is used. In the same way, a reliable math test will accurately measure mathematical knowledge for every student who takes it and reliable research findings can be replicated over and over." How valid or reliable is a test that has significantly different outcomes depending on the incentive provided for the people taking it? In fact, rather than validly and reliably measuring student knowledge of ELA, the test is actually measuring their response to the motivator. That is a problem.

Given that the students performed better when offered a meaningful incentive, their initial performance can be seen as high skill, low will (i.e., “Grumpy Experts” per the matrix above) who needed “Motivat[ion]/Excite[ment]” from their leader. Once offered a meaningful incentive, their performance shifted to high skill, high will (i.e., “High Performers). Notice, the level of skill was high in both scenarios even though the outcome varied. Thus, their performance on the test was not due to their knowledge of ELA, but their motivation to do well on the test.

Just because educators in New York (and other states) are unable to offer their students the incentive Barton’s district was, does not mean that we cannot consider what, if any, incentives might help create better motivation to demonstrate students’ skill. As well, I can’t help but wonder in what ways we can use this knowledge about will and motivation in a classroom setting for things like classwork, homework, and tests.

I’d love to hear from you about a time when you found yourself or people you worked with (students or peers) in a place where motivation was lacking and what helped people move from low to high will?


P.S. My Catch of the Week is Bo Seo’s book Good Arguments, which I read after listening to Adam Grant’s podcast with Seo, “How to Have Good Arguments with World Champion Bo Seo.” I thought the book was going to be a how to style about listening to and framing arguments. Though I did learn about debating well by listening, etc., in the book, he wrote it in a memoir style which was well-written and very compelling. Below is a summary of the book from Amazon…

When Bo Seo was 8 years old, he and his family migrated from Korea to Australia. At the time, he did not speak English, and, unsurprisingly, struggled at school. But, then, in fifth grade, something happened to change his life: he discovered competitive debate. Immediately, he was hooked. It turned out, perhaps counterintuitively, that debating was the perfect activity for someone shy and unsure of himself. It became a way for Bo not only to find his voice, but to excel socially and academically. And he’s not the only one. Far from it: presidents, Supreme Court justices, and CEOs are all disproportionally debaters. This is hardly a coincidence. By tracing his own journey from immigrant kid to world champion, Seo shows how the skills of debating—information gathering, truth finding, lucidity, organization, and persuasion—are often the cornerstone of successful careers and happy lives.

Drawing insights from its strategies, structure, and history, Seo teaches readers the skills of competitive debate, and in doing so shows how they can improve their communication with friends, family, and colleagues alike. He takes readers on a thrilling intellectual adventure into the eccentric and brilliant subculture of competitive debate, touching on everything from the radical politics of Malcom X to Artificial Intelligence. Seo proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that, far from being a source of conflict, good-faith debate can enrich our daily lives. Indeed, these good arguments are essential to a flourishing democracy, and are more important than ever at time when bad faith is all around, and our democracy seems so imperiled.

P.P.S. Please remember to...

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1 Comment

Michael Davis
Michael Davis
Feb 20, 2023

Thanks for the interesting article. Our company is constantly improving the software to facilitate the work of the personnel department.

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