CfEM blog: Motivation and Engagement

Blog by Eddie Playfair, Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC), for the Centres for Excellence in Maths (CfEM) programme.

We know that motivation and engagement are major issues for students up to Level 2, who often bring a sense of failure from their previous experience of doing maths and their relative lack of achievement so far. Demotivation and disengagement are therefore major obstacles which need to be addressed rapidly post-16 if we are to get students on the road to success in maths.

This very brief summary is based on the contribution of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) one of the strategic partners in the Centres for Excellence in Maths (CfEM) project. BIT specialises in designing and evaluating evidence-based interventions that reflect an understanding of people’s motivations and experiences.

BIT’s approach to increasing motivation and engagement in students follows the T.E.S.T.S (target, explore, solution, trial and scale) methodology and the initial ‘target, ‘explore’ and ‘solution’ stages are outlined here.

1) Target: identifying the behaviours we are trying to change
The evidence suggests that lack of engagement and motivation manifests itself in
three main ways:

  • Lower attendance in maths classes
  • Lower engagement with classroom activity
  • Reluctance to engage with maths, both in and out of class.

2) Explore: understanding the context and the target group
BIT identified three primary barriers to student’s motivation to engage in post-16 mathematics:

  • Expectancy of success – this is a student’s belief in their ability to succeed in maths Their previous experience of GCSE maths, which resulted in low attainment, can lead to a sense of ‘failure’, contributing to low motivation and reluctance to reengage. This can be reinforced by the cycle of exam entries and being with other students who have ‘failed’ and may also be compounded by ‘maths anxiety’; heightened feelings of fear and apprehension associated with doing maths and taking maths exams. Anxious students tend to avoid participating, causing them to fall behind in their comprehension, which then reinforces their anxiety and reduces their expectation of success. Students’ perceptions of their own ability and expectations of future success need to be challenged to develop their willingness to re-engage. A focus on progress rather than a binary pass or fail, can help to send a more positive signal.
  • Perceived utility value of mathematics – refers to students’ perceptions of the relevance or usefulness of mathematics to their own lives and/or to the pursuit of a current or future goal. Students know that they have to continue studying towards a pass in functional skills or maths GCSE Grade 4 (depending on their previous (attainment), but many don’t know how to work towards this goal. Maths is often seen as being of little personal relevance and may not necessarily sit comfortably alongside their other courses. Generally, motivation can increase when students see the personal relevance of maths to their own lives, either as a ‘gate-keeping’ qualification with ‘exchange-value’ or as a set of skills that has longer term ‘usevalue’. At the moment the utility value of maths seems more associated with exam outcomes (an extrinsic motivation) rather than general proficiency (intrinsic motivation), where students see real value in the subject and the process of learning.
  • Sense of classroom belonging – involves fostering an environment where students feel comfortable to engage in maths. Students’ transition to college brings new challenges and they can feel like they don’t belong or haven’t yet built a new identity as a college student. This can make them feel uncomfortable contributing to classroom discussion and actively engaging in learning.

We should also aim to increase learner autonomy; the extent to which learners perceive that they have some control and responsibility for the direction of their own learning. Students are more likely to actively resist learning if they feel that others are imposing it on them, so a learner centred-approach involving students in directing and planning learning which is tailored to their goals, motivations and interests is more likely to be effective.

The nature and quality of relationships between students and both their teachers and their peers also has an impact on engagement. A learning environment which fosters feelings of community and inclusion will develop mutual respect between students and teachers. Students are more likely to feel safe, capable, accepted and connected to their teacher and their peers if there is a mutually accepted common culture within the class.

3) Solution: interventions which could increase student engagement and

  • Increasing students’ expectation of success by:
    – building motivation through growth mindsets
    – building good study habits by setting achievable goals
    – reducing exam anxiety through expressive writing
    – encouraging students to reinterpret their anxiety as a challenge rather than a
  • Increasing students’ sense of classroom belonging by:
    – reducing their sense of classroom threat through values affirmation
    – increasing their sense of belonging through sharing the experiences of other
    – improving teacher-student relationships.
  • Increasing students’ perceptions of the utility value of mathematics GCSE by:
    – using relatable messages
    – harnessing students’ purpose for learning.

These approaches will inform the planning of the research trials which will be taking place across the CfEM Centres throughout the 2019/2020 academic year.