Engagement: The emotional side of learning

This highlights the emotional side of learning: it is impactful, lasting and it’s important.  The key is to understand how to harness this emotion to trigger engagement with learning.

Student Interest and Engagement

This understanding is what Ella Kahu, Karen Nelson and Catherine Picton have successfully described with their paper Student interest as a key driver of engagement for first year students. It’s significant because with emotional engagement comes increased behavioural and cognitive engagement.  They provide a framework and a language for understanding why students come to and engage with learning. They start by defining two broad domains.

Firstly, a student’s Individual Interest is derived from their personal goals which affects their choice of course.  This interest could stem from either:

  1. A passion for the topic
  2. A pivotal personal experience and/or
  3. A talent

Secondly, Situational Interest speaks to how a student’s experience of the subject aligns with a their individual interest.  The key message (p.60) of Situational Interest (motivation) is it can be deliberately triggered by teaching and content design.  It consists of four facets:

  1. Self-efficacy: self-doubt in achieving a task hampers engagement in both the task itself and the subject.
  2. Emotion:
    • Boredom: any perception of irrelevance creates a sense of boredom and disengagement results (e.g. “You don’t need to know this for the exam”).
    • Anxiety: there’s a ‘goldilocks’ zone of productive anxiety – too hard (students switch off); too easy (students switch over).
  3. Belonging: a student should feel like they are ‘in the right course’ aligning with their Individual Interest, thus triggering deeper engagement.
  4. Wellbeing: Stress and ill-health affects individual wellbeing.  It affects each of the other factors, affecting the emotional capacity to engage in learning.

Image: Conceptual framework of student engagement

So what about the implications of this framework?  When designing learning a learning experience it’s easy to to get caught up in the presentation, the explanation, the exploring, the testing of an idea. What’s not so easy is to think how students will engage with the subject.  What could these “Pathways to engagement” look like?


With this framework, it’s easy to think of some practical responses for subject design and delivery:

Individual Interest

  1. A passion for the topic:
    • You passion for your subject is infectious.  It also signals the importance of ideas not just for the exam but for the direct learning ability benefits. Videos that show your enthusiasm/passion.  The frequency you engage with discussions and ideas with your students (eg forums).
  2. A pivotal personal experience:
    • Draw out student experience and knowledge by asking them: “how would you teach this? (YouTube / 5 min)”
    • Share your own professional pivotable experiences that illustrate the learning task.
  3. A talent:
    • Interpret how the skills they are learning into direct translate into professional abilities.

Situational Interest

  1. Self-efficacy:
    • Understanding assessments are key anxiety moments – reassure students they have understood the task correctly by providing short videos to contextualise and explain them.
    • Seek informal feedback on different learning tasks: what worked, what didn’t and what was confusing to improve student self-efficacy next time.
    • Build support resources that can be reused in repeated subject instances.
  2. Emotion:
    • Boredom:
      – Be careful of unintentionally devaluing your own subject’s topics with comments like “It’s not assessable”.
      – All learning tasks should be relevant – professional application, attitudinal, skill, understanding and/or assessable.
      – Use engaging activities and a variety of instruction methods.
      – Keep topics concrete and relatable to student experience so concepts are taught – not just theories.
  • Anxiety:
    – Task workloads need to be balanced and achievable.  Time spent on Readings need to be estimated and justified.
    – An early small stakes assessment provides feedback on a student’s initial engagement with the subject, reducing anxiety.
    – Ensure students are set up for success with all the relevant instructions, expectations, technical support, academic support resources clearly spelt out.


Kahu et al summarise it best:

Learning is perceived as relevant when there is alignment in the educational interface between the student’s goals and emerging professional identity, and the task or content. …when students believe what they are doing is important, to their studies and future profession, they are more engaged in class.”


“Based on these findings, it would be difficult to overstate the importance of interest in influencing a student’s engagement with their studies and subsequent learning and success. But the analysis highlights that the student’s individual interest is not enough – the university and staff need to provide a supportive environment where that interest can flourish.”


Kahu, E., Nelson, K., & Picton, C. (2017a). Student interest as a key driver of engagement for first year students. Student Success, 8(2), 55-66. doi: 10.5204/ssj.v8i2.379

Kahu, E., & Nelson, K. (2017b). Student engagement in the educational interface: Understanding the mechanisms of student success. Higher Education Research & Development. Advance online publication. 1-14. doi: 10.1080/07294360.2017.1344197.

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