Wayne’s world: engaging slackers

Wayne is disappointed in his students’ lack of deep engagement with the work in his class.  He has observed two broad groups of students in his classes.  The first of these shows classic signs of disaffection or the opposite of engagement (Skinner & Belmont, 1993).  They don’t want to be in his class, may be withdrawn and/or openly rebellious and feel depressed or anxious about having to be there (Skinner & Belmont, 1993).  The second group of students is superficially engaged, only wanting to know the “correct answers.”  Their primary concern is obtaining a good mark in his class and scoring well on end of school exams to aid entry to the nearby university. Their motivation for learning has an “external perceived locus of causality” (Ryan & Deci, 2000a, p. 59), i.e. their motivation for learning has not been internalized or assimilated with their own personal values and interests.

Self-determination theory, or SDT, originated as an empirical model of motivation (Ryan & Deci, 1985).  It postulates that there are three primary psychological needs that, when satisfied, tend to facilitate higher levels of motivation.  These needs are competence, autonomy and relatedness.  Competence refers to a students’ perceived ability to understand and achieve a goal.  Autonomy is the opportunity for self-direction and self-determination.  Relatedness refers to feelings of personal social connection in relation to the internalization of values and regulations (Ryan & Deci, 2000b).

Beyond a simple dichotomy of amotivation vs. motivation or even a trichotomy of amotivation, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, SDT proposes that there is an effective continuum of extrinsic motivation, along a scale of autonomy (Deci & Ryan, 2000b).  Higher levels of motivation and engagement are associated with a higher degree of internalization of the reasons, values and importance of a topic.  At one extreme, extrinsic motivation shares many of the characteristics of intrinsic motivation, namely volition and value, but remains extrinsic because the motivation is seen to come from a separable outcome (not from simple enjoyment of a task as with intrinsic motivation) (Deci & Ryan, 2000b).  At the other end of the spectrum, motivation is a result of external demands or rewards and is controlling.

Higher degrees of internalization of motivation and values have been associated with a myriad of beneficial outcomes, not least of which (and perhaps the most important for Wayne’s students) is a lower incidence of drug and alcohol abuse (Knee & Neighbours, 2002).  Other outcomes include greater engagement (Reeve et. al., 2004), higher performance at school (Miserandino, 1996) and on standardized tests (Skinner, Wellborn & Connell, 1990).

As an educator, the most important point for Wayne is to discover practical tools and ideas as to how to facilitate motivation in his students.  Wayne can support autonomy by providing choice to his students, encouraging self-starting, minimizing controlling behaviours and by clarifying the relevance of learning outcomes for his students (Assor, Kaplan & Roth, 2002).  Assor, Kaplan and Roth (2002) found that the best teaching behaviour for predicting student engagement is fostering relevance.  That is to say, the single most important thing Wayne can attempt to do is to help students understand the contribution that their schoolwork has to the realisation of their personal goals and interests.  Helping students understand the relevance of his classwork is intertwined with nurturing relatedness.  To be able to effectively promote relevance, Wayne needs to get to know his students personally to understand what they value and are interested in (Reeve, 2002).  If he is able to demonstrate that he cares about his students, they will be more likely to value his input and give his enthusiasm for the subject more weight.  Finally, Wayne can support competence by providing structure for his class (not to be confused with attempting to control them and take away their autonomy).  He can do this by making his expectations for the class and their learning outcomes clear, providing learning tasks that challenge his students but for which success is attainable, and by providing relevant and timely feedback on assessment (Reeve, 2002).


Assor, A; Kaplan, H & Roth, G (2002) “Choice is good, but relevance is excellent: autonomy-enhancing and suppressing teacher behaviours predicting students’ engagement in schoolwork,” British Journal of Educational Psychology, 72:261-278

Deci, E, & Ryan, R (1985) Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behaviour, New York: Plenum

Deci, E & Ryan, R (2000a) “Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: classic definitions and new directions,” Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25: 54-67

Deci, E & Ryan, R (2000b) “Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being,” American Psychologist, 55(1): 68-78

Knee, C & Neighbors, C (2002) “Self-determination, perception of peer pressure, and drinking among college students,” Journal of applied social psychology, 32(3):522-543

Miserandino, M (1996) “Children who do well in school: Individual differences in perceived competence and autonomy in above-average children,” Journal of Educational Psychology, 88:203-214.

Reeve, R (2002) “Self-determination theory applied to educational settings,” in Deci, E & Ryan, R (Eds), Handbook of self-determination research, 183-203, Rochester: University of Rochester Press

Reeve, R; Jang, H; Carrell, D; Jeon, S & Barch, J (2004) “Enhancing Students’ Engagement by Increasing Teachers’ Autonomy Support” Motivation and Emotion, 28(2):147-169

Skinner, E & Belmont, M (1993) “Motivation in the classroom: reciprocal effects of teacher behaviour and student engagement across the school year,” Journal of Educational Psychology, 85(4):571-581

Skinner, E; Wellborn, J & Connell, J (1990) “What it takes to do well in school and whether I’ve got it: a process model of perceived control and children’s engagement and achievement in school,” Journal of Educational Psychology, 82(1):22-32

EdFounds Scenario: Jane

Jane’s experience as a new teacher in a rural/remote community raises a number of complex issues that may be better understood within the context of the history and philosophy of education.

There is a notable gap between the educational outcomes in rural/remote communities and those in urban centres, evidenced by regional differences in completion and retention rates as well as participation in tertiary education (HREOC, 2000).  Challenges remain to providing the kind of basic education to young people in these communities that would fulfil Australia’s basic obligations under human rights treaties and Australian law (HREOC, 2000).  Rural/remote schools often lack sufficient resources in terms of quality teachers and educational infrastructure and the relatively low number of schools over expansive areas of the Australian outback create accessibility issues for many students.  These issues are amplified further in very remote indigenous communities, where the classroom instruction is rarely in the native language of the students and the curriculum is often not accepted as relevant and/or culturally appropriate (HREOC, 2000).

In addition, historical injustices in the treatment of indigenous communities are a significant issue in remote Australia.  It is important for educators to be mindful of this and to remember the significant role that education had, both directly and indirectly in instituting the policies of the government which attempted to “eliminate the half-caste population through a process of biological assimilation.” (Austin, 2000, p. 61)  Some of the hostility towards the school from the community mentioned in the scenario may derive in part from the legacy of Australian settler-colonialism.

Another contextual element for Jane to acknowledge in this situation is that the priorities and values she grew up with are probably very different to those of the community in which she now works.  A constructivist viewpoint (more specifically, the idea of “anchored instruction” (Duffy, 1996)) argues that learning is “anchored” in a community context.  Jane is from a privileged background with well-educated professional parents.  She had access to good quality education and her parents most likely saw social and economic value in her academic pursuits, expecting her to attend university and enter a profession.  It is important to recognize that her students may not attach the same importance to some aspects of the education that she is helping to provide.  In a rural/remote setting the connections between a high quality education and economic success and better employment opportunities may not be as apparent to students and their families.  Subjects of more obvious and immediate relevance within these communities (e.g. vocational courses) are often unavailable or delivered in a culturally inappropriate manner (HREOC, 2000).

Jane is in a complex and difficult situation where, as a talented new teacher in a remote community, she aspires to be an integral part of the solution to closing the gap in educational outcomes for her rural/remote community, but may find herself perceived as a symbol for current and historical injustices in the provision of education for these communities – in that she is a representative for the school, and comes to the community as an outsider from a privileged urban background.  While Jane has little control over the availability of educational resources in terms of infrastructure and funding, she can play a role in the creation of a more relevant educational experience for the young people in her community.  As a first step in improving this situation, she could attempt to find ways to participate in the local community in meaningful ways.  Following this, she could work to develop a dialogue with the community and encourage its involvement in and support of the school.  McConaghy (2002) argues that the involving the wider community is fundamental to developing positive rural school/community relationships and hence to bettering educational outcomes in these settings.


Austin, T., 2000, “Genocide and schooling in Capricornia: Educating the stolen generation,” History of Education Review, 29 (2), pp. 47-66

Churchill, R. … [et al.], 2011, Teaching: Making a Difference, John Wiley and Sons, Milton

Duffy, T. and Cunningham, D., 1996, “Constructivism: Implications for the design and delivery of instruction,” Handbook of research for educational communications and technology, 171 (4), pp. 170-198

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 2000, Emerging Themes: National Inquiry into Rural & Remote Education, www.hreoc.gov.au/pdf/human_rights/emerging_themes.pdf — accessed 11 Feb 2011

McConaghy, C.,  2002, Situated pedagogies. Researching quality teaching and learning for rural NSW schools. Occasional Paper, UNE and NSW Department of Education and Training, Armidale