Motivation and Engagement (In a Nutshell)

Note: The “one page” overviews I’m writing for each section of my dissertation seem to be just the right size for blog posts, so here is the one on motivation and engagement. I’ll post a link to the full version as soon as I’ve had another day to work on it. Meanwhile, how’d I do? Anything critical missing?

One of the fundamental properties of an effective constructivist learning environment is that it engages and motivates students.

Engaging and motivating students has been a primary concern of the constructivist movement since long before computers and video games. Now, though, modern complex video games offer a new multi-modal medium for engaging students and a wide variety of new strategies for motivating their participation.

For more than a century, traditional classroom lessons – including lectures, reading, and written assignments – have often failed to effectively or reliably engage and motivate students. In recent decades, video games (and other interactive media) may have exacerbated this problem, as students, particularly gamers, are now coming to school with higher expectations of engagement and interaction.

However, there is little doubt that modern video games are deeply motivating and engaging to many of the same students that struggle to pay attention in school – despite the fact that games continuously and consistently challenge students, often to the brink of frustration. It has been clear for some time that these games are fun not in spite of being hard, but precisely because they are hard. Massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs), in particular, often require players to perform repetitive tasks that seem suspiciously like work, and yet these games are among the most compellingly immersive experiences available.

Traditionally, constructivists have found a great deal of value in children’s play, and consider it an important element of education. Constructivists, of course, look at play not so much as something that students do, but rather as a state of mind. These perspectives are shared by modern video game scholars.

Despite advocating for the value of fun and play in education, the constructivist perspective does not recommend an environment free of structure. In contrast, the hope is to harness the strategies of motivation and engagement responsible for the incidental learning that takes place in many good games and put these strategies to use for the purposes of intentional learning in formal educational environments.

Video game scholars caution, though, that not all games (or specific strategies for motivating and engaging students) will appeal to all students, even those that consider themselves gamers. Also, it is not surprising that video games are not a terribly effective instructional medium for students that consider themselves non-gamers. Of course, many of the strategies for motivating and engaging students are not necessarily unique to the video game format, and can be implemented in more traditional educational contexts.