How Do We Engineer Engaging Learning and Assessment Tasks?

positive diverse people making faces at camera

This is the second part of a two-part blog series on engaging learning and assessment content.  In part one, I explained why engaging learning and assessment content is important for the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the NAEP Technology and Engineering Literacy Framework, and the 2025 NAEP Mathematics and Reading Frameworks. In this blog, I will demonstrate how to consistently engineer (i.e., apply learning science to solve problems in assessment and instruction) engaging learning and assessment content.

I will expand on the model from part one, shown in Figure 1 below, illustrating how deep learning results from interesting, appropriately challenging activities that motivate students to invest the effort required for high quality student engagement. First, I am going to explore the kinds of feelings that inspire stronger motivation—value (e.g., situational and personal interest), competence, belonging, and autonomy. Second, I will explore the features of activities that tend to generate those feelings in students. Though I talk about student feelings and activity features separately, we have to remember engagement is created at the intersection of the student and the task. Motivation is a function of the characteristics of the person and the characteristics of the activities—the assessment tasks and learning experiences.

Figure 1. How deep learning results from interesting, appropriately challenging activities that motivate students to invest the effort required for high quality student engagement.

What Kind of Feelings Inspire Stronger Motivation?

As I explained in the first blog, students must be sufficiently motivated to engage and invest the effort to learn or demonstrate the connection of new ideas to old and the application of practices, concepts, and specific disciplinary ideas in the contexts of real-world problems—deep learning. What kinds of feelings inspire this level of motivation? Learning scientists have been studying this problem for years. Drawing on the four-phase model of interest development, game design, and especially the chapter on motivation and cognitive engagement in learning environments from the Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, I identify four categories of feelings that evidence says lead to stronger motivation—feelings of value, competence, belonging, and autonomy.

Figure 2. The kinds of feelings that inspire strong motivation.

Value

Value refers to how important you feel the topic or subject matter of the assessment tasks or learning experiences is to you.  Feelings of value can be divided into intrinsic, instrumental, and attainment.

Intrinsic value comes from interest in the activity, topic or subject matter and getting joy from it. Intrinsic value is divided into situational interest and personal interest. Situational interest is an easily influenced feeling of positive emotion and heightened concentration that arises spontaneously in response to specific features of the assessment tasks or learning experiences. Situational interest may last only briefly. 

In contrast, personal interest is a more enduring feeling that develops over time from life experiences and individual preferences. Personal interest is a stable feeling of interest or joy toward an activity, topic or subject matter and willingness to re-engage in learning in that domain over time. Situational interest may evolve into personal interest if situational interest in a topic or subject matter is created repeatedly.

The second kind of value students may place on a topic or subject matter is instrumental value. Instrumental value comes from students’ perceptions of how tasks are related to future goals and everyday life.

The third kind of value students may place on a topic or subject matter is attainment value. Attainment value is how important you feel accomplishing the task is for you as it relates to your identity and ideals or your competence in a given domain. Students feel the topic or subject matter is valuable because they are associated with the students’ perceptions of who they are. 

Competence

The second category of feelings that lead to stronger motivation is feelings of competence or efficacy. Feelings of competence involve students’ perceptions of their ability to succeed on an assessment task or in a learning experience. Students who feel they have the ability to succeed on an assessment task or in a learning experience are going to be more motivated to invest the effort required for high quality student engagement.

Belonging

The third category of feelings that lead to stronger motivation is feelings of belonging or relatedness. Students have stronger feelings of belonging, and will be more motivated, if they feel more satisfied or positive about the nature of the collaboration and interactions with peers and teachers.

Autonomy

Finally, the fourth category of feelings that lead to stronger motivation is feelings of autonomy or agency. Students have stronger feelings of autonomy if they perceive they are self-governed rather than controlled by external forces.  Students feel like the directors of their own lives and they are living according to their own interests and values. Unfortunately, the administration conditions of assessments and the social arrangement of classrooms tend to be directive rather than encouraging independence.

What Kind of Features Generate Motivation?

Now that we have explored the kinds of feelings that lead to stronger motivation, the next question is, “What are the features of assessment tasks and learning experiences that we can apply to generate feelings of value, competence, belonging, and autonomy in students?” We don’t have to look far to answer that question. The answer is found in the same research literature we reviewed to identify the kinds of feelings that inspire engagement. In this section, I describe features of assessment tasks and learning experiences that we can apply for feelings of value and autonomy.

Value

In the last section, I divided feelings of value into intrinsic, instrumental, and attainment. I further divided intrinsic value into situational interest and personal interest. Different features of assessment tasks and learning experiences tend generate different kinds of feelings of value.

For example, different features of assessment tasks and learning experiences tend generate situational interest and personal interest in students. Features that generate situational interest are sometimes called “catch and hold.” Examples include using puzzles and games, hands-on activities, favorite food, colorful pictures, and the use of students’ names. Surprising results from a science laboratory experiment, like making naked eggs, can generate situational interest for students. Assessment tasks and learning experiences that capitalize on students’ feelings of personal interest include contexts that are matched to out-of-school activities the student has enjoyed for a long time. 

Remember, instrumental value comes from students’ perceptions of how tasks are related to future goals and everyday life. Under CCSS and NGSS, assessment tasks and learning experiences attempt to generate feelings of instrumental value in students by working on questions and using practices similar to scientists or mathematicians. The use of authentic or “real world” topics can generate feelings of instrumental value in students. Researchers have found that students consider some questions more “real world” than others. Questions focused on ecology, such as “What is the quality of air in my community?” were considered more relevant than questions focused on physical science, such as “How do we build big things?” Of course, as sociocultural theory tells us, the cultural background of students and school settings affects students’ perceptions of instrumental value.

How do we find out what out-of-school activities students enjoy, what future goals students have, or identity of themselves students hold? Maybe the best way is to just ask students. For example, Renninger and Hidi asked students to rate their level of interest (“How much do you like [topic]?”) in nine different areas (sports, music, movies, TV, games, art, computers, food, and stores) on a 4-point scale (1 _ It’s boring, 2 _ It’s okay, 3 _ I like it, 4 _ It’s my favorite thing). This approach has been used in hundreds of schools by Carnegie Learning to personalize problems to student interests such as sports and music. 

Autonomy

Feelings of autonomy or agency tend to be generated when students are self-governed rather than controlled by external forces.  Feelings of autonomy are encouraged through assessment tasks and learning experiences that offer students opportunity for choices and for playing a significant role in directing their own activity. For example, students experience a greater sense of control when teachers explain the link between the task and the learning goals. 

Unfortunately, features assessments and instruction are often structured in ways that undermine students’ feelings of autonomy. For example, disrupting students’ natural rhythm of learning (not letting them work at their preferred pace), using directive tones, and asking controlling questions.

What Kind of Feelings Inspire Stronger Motivation?

I hope this blog, and the blog I published last week, have given you a better understanding of why engaging learning and assessment content is important and how to engineer engaging learning and assessment content.  Next week, I plan to illustrate in a blog the application of the features of assessment tasks that generate feelings of value, competence, belonging, and autonomy in students. I will present two versions of the same NGSS-aligned, phenomenon-driven science task. The first version will lack most of the features of assessment tasks that inspire engagement. The second version will be packed with just those features I discussed in today’s blog. Please look for this next blog!

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