Interested Students Engage Better in Classes

August 26, 2016

Bad news for students who suffer through boring classes: New research has confirmed that students who are interested in course material are better able to engage in class.

The study, which was led by UT College of Education professor Erika Patall, confirms that interested students tend to work harder, pay more attention, and think more about strategies to remember the material.

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Illustration credit: Geovanni Casillas, The Daily Texan

Although it may seem obvious that student interest leads to greater engagement, Patall said this study was unlike most research on student motivation because the researchers asked students to report levels of interest and engagement daily instead of once or twice over the course of an entire class.

“This particular research was unique in that it allowed us to determine how students’ experiences function on a daily basis,” Patall said.

The study found that as the class progressed, students were less engaged and interested in learning the material and more concerned with studying for a good grade.

The research team surveyed 218 high school students in a variety of science courses. They found that on days when students reported they were interested in the class, they also reported that they were better engaged. Using learning strategies and being more involved in classes positively influences academic achievement, according a study by the University

of Oklahoma.

“If you talk to teachers, they will tell you that one of the things they struggle with most is student motivation,” Patall said. “I could not agree with them more that it is a critical component when it comes to learning.”

The study also found that interest was more beneficial for certain groups, especially black and Hispanic students, who are underrepresented in science, according to Patall.

“One possibility is that it might be especially important for black and Hispanic students who are more likely to perceive inequalities in the benefits of engaging in school,” Patall said. “That is, black and Hispanic students may think school has fewer long-term economic and social benefits like good-paying jobs for individuals in their group. In that context, interest becomes all the more important.”

The study also found that engagement is not the same across genders. Male science students reported that their teachers seemed to support their interest, causing them to be more engaged, while this was not reported by female students. Patall said this finding suggests that one reason female students tend to be less engaged in STEM classes is that they don’t think their teachers are encouraging what interest they have in a class.

College of Education professor Jill Marshall, who studies gender issues in science education, said she isn’t surprised that teacher attention to student interest could affect female students differently.

“I think, for a variety of reasons, that women are sometimes more sensitive to other people’s opinions and their perception of other people’s opinion about them,” Marshall said.
In order to encourage engagement, Patall said, teachers can make activities and concepts relevant to students’ existing interests and create opportunities for students to ask questions and make choices in class.

“We are also now just starting to investigate practices like teachers’ organization and structure in the classroom that support students’ feelings of competence and motivation,” Patall said. “We believe that understanding those practices also will help us to develop the most effective motivation interventions that allow students to succeed.”

Psychology freshman Phuong-Ha Mai said she also thinks that interest in a class can improve engagement and grades.

“If you’re not interested, I feel like you wouldn’t be able to grasp what that professor is trying to teach you as well as a student who was truly interested in that subject,” Mai said. “They’d be more willing to absorb the information.”

Patall said she thinks the results of this study could be applied to other school subjects. She said her research team decided to focus on science because of the growing need to encourage students to pursue STEM careers.

“There is a particular need in our country to encourage students to continue in STEM domains due to growing number of occupations that require that kind of expertise,” Patall said. “Understanding the dynamics of student interest and engagement in science and the ways that it can be supported is particularly critical in the context of what’s going on in the world today.”

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