Research Behind Summit Learning: Student Motivation and Ownership of Learning

This is one of a four-part series on the research that supports and drives the Summit Learning program. The series focuses on Data-Driven Differentiation, Feedback, Student Motivation, and Mentoring.

Teachers are always looking for strategies to motivate students and keep them engaged. Research suggests—and classroom experience confirms—the importance of learning environments that promote student motivation. 

In addition to facilitating authentic learning opportunities, teachers must consider a variety of approaches to drive student motivation, persistence, effort, and ownership of learning. Fostering student engagement ultimately translates to deeper understanding of the content, genuine interest in the learning process, and more positive associations with school for students.

The Educational Psychology Review’s research on student motivation — When Choice Motivates and When It Does Not — proposes that “choice can be motivating when the options meet the students’ need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.” Educators Idit Katz and Avi Assor performed a thorough review of student choice research, which includes conflicting evidence of whether choice is ultimately beneficial for students or actually demotivating in some cases. 

Katz and Assor then developed a conceptual framework to clearly explain the critical factors and considerations for what type of choices bolster student motivation and engagement. When choices met these criteria, they found that students faced “enhanced motivation, learning, and well-being.” 

To achieve the goal of motivating (vs. demotivating) choices, this framework highlights how educators must consider a number of factors, including:

  • Ensuring the options are linked to students’ interests and goals (which connects to autonomy),
  • Ensuring there aren’t too many choices and/or too complex choices so students aren’t overwhelmed or confused (which links to competence), and 
  • Ensuring that the choices align with students’ individual cultures, backgrounds, and values (which links to relatedness).

Choice—with the goal of student motivation and ownership—appears within the Summit Learning platform tools and in some of the teacher/classroom strategies we encourage educators to embrace as part of our program model. 

Our platform incorporates this research-based framework by supporting student goal-setting and autonomy to make certain decisions about how they approach learning. As part of the self-directed learning cycle, students set goals and articulate concrete plans for how best to learn in order to achieve their goals. This—in addition to the work by teachers to ensure connections are drawn between content, projects, and real life—helps students “understand the value or relevance of the task in which they are engaged.”  

By seeing a clear connection between their articulated goals and the strategies/resources they are leveraging to achieve their goals, students build a sense of ownership and motivation for the learning process. Katz and Assor’s research revealed that “clarification of relevance to students’ goals predicts positive affect and engagement better than the amount of choice given to students.” 

By coaching students to select resources and learning strategies that align with their learning goals, the Summit Learning platform supports students with choice that motivates.

Figure 6: Student Year Page

In Figure 6, you can see how students have access to their overall progress within the Summit Learning platform. This includes more detailed information about mastery progress within each focus area.

Students then set goals that align with their progress, overall learning objectives, and/or areas of challenge (see Figure 7 below). This helps students focus their efforts during self-directed learning time. Additionally, it empowers students to make choices about how to spend their time (known as “action choices”), which the researchers point out “have a stronger impact on the sense of psychological freedom and volition than do option choices.” Students receive support from their teachers in learning a number of different skills for internalizing information—various note-taking techniques, peer support, building awareness of different learning strategies, and more. 

Figure 7: Student Week Page

In Figure 7, you can see how students are prompted to make a plan for how they will achieve the goals they set for themselves by using some of the strategies their teachers showed them. 

These aspects of the platform align with the research, which states that “theories and research on the concept of autonomy support suggest that students’ sense of autonomy increases when teachers … offer choice by allowing students to participate in task and goal selection and to choose their work methods.”

Figure 8: Focus Area Resources

In Figure 8, we see how students are empowered to make choices about what type of educational resources they need to use to reach their goals. This comes after they’ve defined their goals and articulated their plans for how to achieve them. 

By letting students choose what they need to access to build toward their mastery of a focus area, it ties into the research’s position that “offering choice is not in itself motivating.” In Figure 8, for example, some students may choose to watch a video, whereas others might opt to complete readings first. Choice as a tool for student motivation and engagement must align with a framework that considers “students’ needs, interests, goals, abilities, and cultural background.” 

The Summit Learning program’s tools and classroom strategies aim to promote student interest, buy-in, and autonomy. This ultimately leads to more sustained engagement and deeper, longer-lasting learning.

About the author

Summit Learning
Summit Learning is a research–based approach to education designed to drive student engagement, meaningful learning, and strong student–teacher relationships that prepare students for life after graduation. Created by teachers with experience in diverse classrooms, Summit Learning is grounded in decades of research about how children learn. With Summit Learning, students gain mastery of core subjects like math, history, English, and science, while also carefully developing the skills and habits of lifelong learners. Summit Learning is independently led and operated by the nonprofit, Gradient Learning.