5 things that are motivating students even more than good grades

Engagement is rebounding as most students have spent most of this school year learning in-person

Student engagement has not, as most educators know, been a highlight of online and remote learning over the past two years. While teachers have made tremendous achievements during the pandemic, none will look back fondly on students’ blank Zoom screens or the struggle to get kids to remember to turn in online assignments.

But motivation is now rebounding as most students have spent most of this school year learning in-person, albeit wearing masks and under other restrictions. Also, teachers say, students are now moving past some of the challenges of having been shifted from middle school to high school while they were home for 18 months.

“Now that we’re back in-person every day, I’ve noticed that kids want to be in school learning, they don’t like virtual school,” said Jimmy Pineda, a high school PE teacher in New Jersey. “And little by little, I’m seeing it come back to normal—kids are engaged, they’re communicating and they’re participating.”

As Pineda and his fellow teachers across the country work to re-engage and re-inspire students, they may want to focus on outcomes beyond good grades, according to a new “State of Engagement” report by the ed-tech provider GoGuardian.

“The goals a teacher expresses for a particular lesson or other learning experience have a huge impact on how engaged students will be,” says Mariana Aguilar, GoGuardian’s senior director of education.

The survey of 2,000 educators examined about 20 “outcomes,” or what teachers tell students they will gain from a lesson or project. The outcomes ranged from academic growth to closing the achievement gap to college readiness. None of those, however, made the following top five:

  1. Creativity and self-expression
  2. Academic engagement
  3. Curiosity and lifelong learning
  4. Critical thinking
  5. Social-emotional well-being (tied with conceptual understanding).

“College readiness and academic performance seems to be ethos for Generation Z but this next generation, Generation Alpha, they want to express themselves as individuals,” Aguilar says. ” When teachers emphasize creativity and self-expression, it has the strongest impact on engagement.”

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In the survey, 85% of teachers said creativity and self-expression were key to motivating their students. When it comes to No. 2, 83% listed academic engagement, defined as a student’s behavioral, emotional, and cognitive investments in learning and mastering skills.

Farther down the list, research shows that a focus on curiosity leads students to find learning opportunities outside of school while critical thinking encourages learners to be skeptical, patient with complex problems, and seek further evidence to support (or disprove) claims.

The report also asked teachers to list the most important instructional practices for engaging students. Building strong teacher-student relationships came out on top followed by making course content relevant, communicating expectations clearly, practicing hands-on learning and encouraging student participation.

The teachers surveyed said they worked on developing relationships from the very beginning of this mostly in-person school year by interacting with students in small groups and performing daily social-emotional wellness check-ins.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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