Motivation and Student Engagement

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Sometimes the wrong train can get you to the right station.

—Tire Lunchbox (2014)


Intrinsic motivation takes place when students leant because they want to, because they see the importance of learning for their own personal growth. An intrinsically motivated student learns out of curiosity and love for learning, without looking for external rewards. Intrinsic motivation makes students activate the competences, skills, and processes that are necessary for deep learning to occur. Popular culture stories play a powerful role in engaging students and fostering their intrinsic motivation. Popular culture also encourages students to recreate and perform the professional activities of their discipline; and it helps to create an enjoyable and safe environment, which is also conducive to deep learning.


As discussed earlier in Chapter 2, the deep-learning process requires a connection between new knowledge, embedded in the input story in the form of a problem, question, or situation, and existing knowledge, which makes up our cognitive structure. This connection must activate a series of competences, skills, and processes both at the individual and social levels. Deep leanring also requires constant reflection about the leanring process and the changes at the individual (cognitive structure) and social levels (professional or academic community).

What is it that makes the learner actually make the connections, activation, reflection, and changes? It cannot be the input story alone. After all, we are exposed to literally hundreds of stories every day (at school, at work, at home, at a bus stop, at the supermarket checkout line) that come from many different sources (teachers, colleagues, bosses, family members, friends, neighbors, television, theater, books, and even complete strangers). But we rarely produce a conceptual change as the result of the exposition to these stories.

This chapter will analyze the factor that makes this process possible: intrinsic motivation. I will begin with a brief examination of the notion of motivation and the two categories of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. I will then discuss the factors and conditions that are required for, and that foster, intrinsic motivation, including, the role that popular culture plays in promoting intrinsic motivation. Finally, I will explore some circumstances that deter the occurrence of intrinsic motivation.


In Erin Brockovich (2000), directed by Steven Soderbergh, Erin (Julia Roberts) is an unemployed twice-divorced, single mother of three young children. She needs to find a job and, above all, a purpose in life. She manages to land a job as a legal assistant with her former lawyer, Ed Masry (Albert Finney). Erin stumbles upon a real-estate file, which contains medical records. Her instinct tells her that there is something fishy in the file and asks her boss for permission to investigate. Erin becomes passionate about, almost obsessed with, the investigation. She soon realizes that a gas and electric company has contaminated the water in the community adjacent to its compressor plant.

Erin truly enjoys working on this case. She feels elated. She is meticulous and aims at achieving mastery in investigation and legal research. At one point, she realizes that she needs more knowledge on the effects of chromium in the human body. So, she teaches herself advanced notions of chemistry and applies them to her investigations.

Although she faces numerous obstacles in the investigation, she does not get discouraged. She never, ever, gives up. Erin stops going to the firm and devotes full-time to uncover what happened. She needs to be in the conununity, talking to those affected by the contamination and reading files in the county water board. She needs tune. She does not need to be given directions or instructions from a boss. She sets her own goals. Erin wants to get to the bottom of the case. She needs to work freely without directions and control. This does not mean that she only wants to work alone. She seeks out other people who are involved in the case and who can give her helpful advice. She is curious and asks lots of relevant questions.

But her boss does not understand this. He fires her because she is not in the office from 9 to 5 and because she works independently. He takes Erin’s initiative and yearning for autonomy as signs of lack of care for her job rather than as relentless passion for rigorous legal work. Ed Masry is only concerned with office discipline. He wants all his employees to follow his orders. He does not care about anything else.

After being fired, Erin is not discouraged. She keeps working hard on the case. She spends tireless hours hying to solve all the puzzles of a very complex environmental law case. Word gets to Ed Masiy, who rehires her. And Erin continues to work as passionately as always.

Erin works hard because she wants to help others. She does not seek any rewards or a multimillion-dollar settlement to get a six-figure check. Unlike Ed, who is only interested in his fees, Erin is engaged in the case to improve the lives of the families affected by the pollution of their lands and water. She does not care about recognition. Surely, she is happy when Ed gives her a 2 million dollar check when they win the case. But she is never obsessed with making money for herself.

Motivation is “some kind of internal drive which pushes someone to do things to achieve something” (Hanner, 2001). Motivation determines people to act toward a goal, tiy hard, and sustain the actions to accomplish the goal. In the deep-leaming context, motivation is the force that stimulates the learner to solve the problem, question, or situation embedded in the input stoiy, to activate an existing stoiy, to make connections between the input stoiy and the existing stoiy, to employ higher order cognitive and metacognitive processes, including rapid cognition strategies, to reflect about the learning process, and, more important, to want to change the existing stoiy (cognitive structure) as a consequence of having experienced this whole process. Motivation is what keeps Erm working hard on the case despite her boss’s objections, and the powerful defendant’s obstacles, and their even more powerful lawyers’ deceitful strategies.

There are two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. Intrinsic motivation, also referred to as engagement, is the genuine desire to do something because you like it, because you see a meaningful connection to your life and personal goals or to a larger purpose. In ¿<7 Bourn (Pinoteau, 1980), 13-year-old Vic walks the extra mile to attend la bourn (the party). Extrinsic motivation is doing something because you have to, because you fear the consequences for not doing it, or because you want to obtain something in exchange for doing it (Quintana, 2017).

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