Published on 2012/02/10
Teach Learners To Engage With Learning
As students become more motivated, their desire to learn increases and a lifelong learner blooms. Photo by Roy Niswanger.

Recently a colleague presented an opportunity for discussion. He asked, what is the biggest obstacle to getting students engaged with their own learning? My comments incorporate my personal roles as an educator in higher education and an administrator overseeing workforce development where adult learners complete profession specific training to remain licensed or certified. I approach curriculum development believing that most adult learners want to grow cognitively, hoping to receive/retain knowledge from the learning experience that she or he can use after classroom learning concludes. I propose that system mandates which drive the learning process have made it difficult for learners to learn and for teachers to teach, creating a hurdle to learning and engaging. To understand the challenges, I sought to review systems theory frameworks from the perspective of motivating learners to learn, even when system processes may appear dysfunctional because the operational focus may be on concerns other than the learner and learning outcomes.

Alfred Kuhn (1974) explained that the “culture of a system drives relationships between two or more components in a system (p.23)”; von Bertalanffy (1968) explained similarly that a system is a “complex of interacting elements” (p.55). I believe that we might define culture within the higher education framework by accreditation standards, recruitment, student retention, identifying ways to keep education affordable for all learners, keeping curriculum offerings current with the occupational market, changing student population demographics. These elements remain primary foci and simultaneously may create distractions to ensuring the learning/teaching process remains effective, consistent and quality. Structural resilience depends on a system way of thinking meaning, “behavior of the whole is understood only through the interrelation of the individual parts, not merely through the presence of the parts” (Galbraith, 2001, p.4). Is the system making it easier for learners not to have to learn?

I believe that most adult learners who agree that these concerns are critical also acknowledge that the system has no room for learner concerns making motivation and engaging in learning challenging. Correspondingly, I detect issues surfacing from the system culture that could control the effectiveness of the learning process and possibly impede motivation to becoming engaged in learning.

When educators ignore an adult learner with poorly developed learning skills by enforcing grading criteria in the name of student retention and positive evaluations from students instead of scholarship, we may be sacrificing quality in the learning process. We may be deceiving learners by not being honest with them and by not helping them to address deficits in learning skills. Educators are overwhelmed. System processes neglect learners’ needs and learners are not being motivated to engage in such a way that learning will occur and scholarship will result. Learners and educators must and are capable of initiating change.

Becoming engaged in your own learning means challenging yourself by limiting or reversing any limitations, personal and systemic, which encumber self-motivation. I challenge adult learners and educators to consider discussions from Wlodkowski (1999) and Jarvis (2004).

Wlodkowski (1999) explained, “Motivation improves learning, mediates learning and is a consequence of learning” (p. 5). This means that people’s desire to learn when what they are learning becomes the impetus to learn more. Additionally, “learning is especially motivated when there is disharmony between an individual’s experience and his perception of the world” (Jarvis, 2004, p.244). A high grade should not drive the desire to learn. I do not minimize the significance of achieving high grades. To the contrary, I believe the need to learn along with the benefits from enhanced cognition that fills in gaps of knowledge and achieving higher grades that reinforce scholarship must drive the desire to learn. Sacrificing scholarship by compromising institutional standards for scholarship neither promotes nor improves learning; it does not encourage learners to engage in their learning or to make scholarship a standard.

Some learners may come by their attitudes not to engage naturally. Motivation to engage in learning is an activity with shared responsibilities. Learning requires self-motivation to engage and teaching requires motivation to stimulate learners to want to engage, lessons that encourage the learner to self-assess and that assists learners in redefining their role as a learner in the learning process. Gagnè (1977) explained, “The task of the instructional designer is one of identifying the motives of students, and of channeling them into activities that accomplish educational goals: incentive, task, and achievement motivation” (p. 287).

Learners must be taught how to engage in the learning process, not all learners have the technique; not all learning institutions address it.


Gagnè, R. (1977). The conditions of learning. Third Edition. New York. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Galbraith, P. (2001). Systems thinking: A lens and scalpel for organizational learning. ERIC Document #ED453186.

Jarvis, P. (2004). Adult education & lifelong learning. Third Edition. New York. Routledge-Falmer.

Kuhn, A. (1974). The logic of social systems: A unified, deductive, system-based approach to social science. CA. Jossey-Bass.

Von Bertalanffy, L. (1969). General system theory: Foundations, development, applications. New York. Braziller, Inc.

Wlodkowski, R.J. (1999). Enhancing adult motivation to learn: A comprehensive guide to teaching all adults. Revised Edition. San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass.

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Readers Comments

Rebecca Cruser 2012/02/10 at 11:46 am

It’s self-feeding: the more you learn, the more you enjoy learning, the more you continue to learn!

The vital part is making sure that first step, “the more you learn”, is focused on learning things that the student actually wants to learn.

Unless you’re engaging students-especially adult students-with information they’re interested in and information that they want, they won’t engage.

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