For the past several decades, student engagement has been an increasingly popular subject of research in higher education. A raft of studies, surveys and op-eds have put engagement at the center of the national narrative around student success—and at the top of the priority list for institutions seeking to support an increasingly diverse generation of learners. All that research suggests that increasing engagement plays a significant role in boosting academic outcomes, including retention, persistence and ultimately college completion.
The conversation around engagement has become even more critical in in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, as institutions navigate a rapid shift to remote learning. A body of research indicates that an approach to engagement, which prioritizes frequent interaction between students and instructors, as well as among students themselves, is a critically important part of online instruction. By the very nature of the model, students enrolled in online programs have “fewer opportunities to be engaged with the institution,” meaning that frequent communication with faculty and peers (both synchronous and asynchronous) is particularly critical to maintain engagement online. Some colleges and universities learned this lesson the hard way this past spring, as the pandemic forced a shift to online learning for which many institutions were unprepared.
And as institutions grapple with the increasing likelihood of partially (if not fully) online instruction this fall, it’s clear that the typical, synchronous forms of engagement will not suffice. That’s particularly true for students who are low-income or otherwise lack access to the resources needed for success in higher education. Students with lower-bandwidth internet connections, for instance, may not be able to access reliable videoconferencing. Those who are balancing work and family commitments in addition to their studies may not have the time or resources to connect directly with faculty or peers on a regular basis.
But if online instructional efforts are to succeed in the age of COVID-19, it may not be enough to focus only on engagement. That’s because the concept of “engagement” in higher education often refers to a process that is faculty-led. And effective online instruction will depend on not just encouraging instructors, but also inspiring students. Simply put, in order to chart a path to effective remote learning this fall (and beyond), institutions must prioritize motivation, not just engagement.
What’s the difference between motivation and engagement? It is a small and nuanced one—but critical to understand. Engagement typically refers to the act of doing something—such as participating in an online class discussion or responding to a professor’s question—without considering the underlying reason. Motivation, on the other hand, is the student’s own intrinsic desire to act—for instance, to get involved in discussion because of their desire to contribute substantively to the conversation and learn from their peers.
For one of us, a chemist, the distinction became clear when students kept being resistant to “active learning” activities, like chemistry games, in the classroom. Those sorts of activities may seem “engaging,” but they’re not based on actually asking students what they like and what they think. As a result, they’re solving the wrong problem—getting students out of book learning, but not actually getting them interested in the material.
For the other of us, a political scientist, the power of motivation is evident in the way that current events intersect with students’ lives. Asking students “Why should you care about this?” has proved a critically important part of keeping them motivated to participate in class and persist in their education. Just as importantly, our experiences as instructors and administrators have taught us that more motivated students lead to more inspired and engaged faculty—creating a feedback loop that makes the classroom experience all the more effective over time.
Real, intrinsic motivation is also critical for institutional success beyond just students’ academic outcomes. More motivated students are more likely to persist in their education, even when unexpected roadblocks get in their way. The financial health and stability of many institutions will depend on sparking the motivation that inspires students to continue their studies even during a time of unprecedented complexity and turmoil.
When the difference between the two is illuminated, it seems fairly clear that motivation, not engagement, should be the ultimate aim of instruction. But it’s equally clear that motivation is a harder outcome to reach even in the best of times. Measuring and incentivizing motivation is almost impossible—because, as soon as you create any kind of external reward, it becomes engagement. Real motivation depends on isolating external incentives and focusing on sparking students’ innate curiosity. Is it possible to prioritize such an approach at a time when many institutions are scrambling to develop online programs that are just good enough, much less exemplary?
Fortunately, there’s some reason for optimism about that question. A range of emerging technologies, including AI and machine learning, are playing a role in helping instructors and support staff foster more intrinsic motivation even in online settings. Some evidence suggests that behavioral nudging with tools like AI chatbots can motivate students to complete critical tasks that lead to improved retention and completion. Similarly, inquiry-based discussion platforms like Packback have proven effective at cultivating students’ internal curiosity and sparking motivation. In the words of Charles Goodnight, a biology professor at the University of Vermont, such platforms have shown promise in creating “engaging communities in remote classes—by encouraging students to go beyond lecture and lead the class in directions that interest them the most.”
For instructors across a variety of disciplines, these new tools are playing a crucial role in facilitating more effective, motivating discussions in the age of COVID-19. Packback’s technology, for instance, quantifies the open-endedness of questions and the depth of a student’s writing, assigning a “curiosity score” and providing immediate feedback that facilitates better discussion posts. Faculty members often report that this approach to feedback unlocks students’ internal motivation in ways that are impossible through traditional discussion boards. As one faculty member at Texas Tech noted, “I feel like students are excited to participate in discussions, and it’s not just busy work for them anymore.”
The nature of asynchronous discussion, coupled with this level of detailed feedback, also encourages more thoughtful participation for students who may not have thrived in an in-person setting. “Packback discussions can be superior to in-class discussions because all students participate,” said one instructor at Monroe Community College in New York. “Packback provides students, who may be hesitant to speak in class, a platform where they can have time to formulate and express their ideas.”
Forthcoming research also supports these anecdotes: A soon-to-be-released study by Packback conducted in partnership with 10 higher education institutions finds a number of advantages to using Packback compared to traditional LMS discussion boards, including higher levels of course satisfaction, better-organized writing in discussion posts and, in many cases, improved course outcomes (students are more likely to earn A’s and B’s, and less likely to earn D’s and F’s).
The realities of the pandemic have accelerated changes that are both promising and challenging in higher education. For many institutions, the crisis has exposed just how difficult it is to inspire students online. But during turbulent times, it’s all the more important to aim high, which is why it will be critical for colleges and universities to make motivation their north star in the months to come.
Richard Pattenaude is chancellor emeritus at the UMaine System. KarenAnn Caldwell is assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Connecticut. Packback is a NEBHE sponsor.