Episode 35 Using Authenticity to Build Student Engagement and Motivation

In this episode, Dan interviews Kelly Pfeiffer from Dubbo Distance Education to get advice on remote learning given the current climate around the globe with schools being closed, or needing to close in response to COVID-19.

Creative Commons License
Using Authenticity to Build Student Engagement and Motivation is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Watch the episode below

Show Notes

Hi everyone and welcome again to the effective teaching podcast. I’m Dan Jackson and I am very grateful that you are giving me your time to listen to this episode. Recently I changed my podcast structure. I have removed my intro and outro based on some feedback I received and I hope it has improved your listening experience. If so, let me know.

I have also decided that I am going to trial recording my episodes as video as well as audio. So if you would like to see me talking away to the computer, please go to teacherspd.net/35 and you can watch this episode as well. I would love to know if this is helpful for you. So please just leave me a comment on the page to let me know.


Today I want to talk to you about building authenticity into student learning, which is a great way to increase student motivation and engagement with the learning, which we all know will help students be successful and lead them towards becoming lifelong learners.

I thought we should start by just talking a bit about the importance of motivation and engagement. 


1 thing that often gets overlooked in research are things that can have a negative impact on student learning. And the number 1 negative influence that can be modified according to research released in 2017 by Hattie is boredom. Hattie’s famous effect size for boredom is negative 0.49. To put this into perspective the hinge point for a teaching strategy being positive is 0.4 so to be negative 0.49 means students are unlearning information.

Now I know there are some who have criticised Hattie’s methods, but I think that he hit the nail on the head with this one. We have all seen students in our own or in another teacher’s classroom who is bored and therefore does not engage with anything that is happening. The famous clip from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off comes to mind here. “Anyone?”

For me student motivation and engagement is the opposite of this. The more a student is motivated and engaged with the learning I think, the larger their learning will be. And one of the best ways to increase this is by building in authenticity to the learning.

PBL Unit

Now, recently, I have been working hard on creating a couple of Project-based learning units for my school. I have been doing lots of reading and collaborating with others and I’m thankful to Kelly Pfeiffer who has shared many conversations with me over the last few weeks. If you don’t know who Kelly is, she is from Dubbo Distance Ed and was part of the team that put together the Dark Skies Project for Stage 3 students across the whole of NSW, and is an avid PBL teacher.

Focus on something current

As I have been creating these units I have been thinking a lot about how to really ramp up the authenticity of the learning. So, to start with these units focus on the current Coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping around the world and across our country and state. It is already a very current issue for our students and so having our project and our learning focus on this should result in greater engagement and motivation from them. So, this was the start, you know, to use a topic that is current and applicable to our students. This of course could apply to anything you are teaching. Find a way to connect what you are teaching to current events that are relevant to your students. 

A simple example is to get students to apply their Math skills to the real world. From as basic as calculating the perimeter of the school grounds to measuring the distance and angle of a javelin through to then work out the average speed it travelled or the force that was applied to it based on its weight.

Another example, would be to allow students to select the book they will be reading in English. And really for any subject, if you allow students some choice you are increasing the authenticity of the learning because they will normally choose something that aligns with their interests.

Connect with the Community

Coming back to my PBL unit on Coronavirus, the next thing I looked for were ways that I could engage the community. Now, my school is very unique in the sense that normally our students spend 1 day per week on work placement, classes will go together with their teacher to primary schools and run sports clinics, and these are done on behalf or our formal school partners who are all major sporting bodies, such as the Sydney Kings and the Western Sydeny Wanderers. So, given the school already has this connection I am looking to pull upon these throughout my unit. I am asking some of our partners to speak at the launch and to check in with students at the halfway point as well as have them participate in the final showcase at the end. I am encouraging our students to apply their project to individuals they know personally or to community groups to which they are connected, such as their work placement or a religious group. This will involve students connecting with their supervisors and asking them questions and possibly even presenting their final project to them.

Other ways to engage students with their communities could be to connect with local businesses or sports clubs. Create a community garden on the school premises, have students prepare and perform for a local retirement community or have your students start up and run their own pizza restaurant at the school. There are so many ways to build these connections and they can range from involving student parents, or the wider school community to presenting information to a public audience involving professionals or creating something that impacts the world. And these days with technology and the internet finding a public audience is easier than ever. I often hear, for example, of students or classes that reach out to the author of the book they are reading to ask her questions and learn more about the creative process.

I know some of you at this point will be thinking that whoever you contact is busy and doesn’t have the time for this, but you will never know if you don’t try. You could even start with a simply letter to your local member about an issue relating to your school to help develop students’ ability to write persuasively.

So if you are looking to improve student learning and perhaps increase their motivation and engagement, building authenticity into what you are doing is a great way to start. Take a moment to brainstorm some ideas now. 

Some Random Ideas

As I am making this episode most schools are working remotely. Try and capitalise on this. Have students do tasks in their home, or connect with someone using all the online products that are now freely available to schools. Here are a few ideas that i have just come up with:

  • Students could build a birdhouse for s specific bird that they see near their house
  • Students could organise a virtual concert and put on acoustic performances online
  • Students could keep a journal relating to the impact of the coronavirus on themselves and others they know
  • Students could put together spoken word performances relating to a topic they are passionate about and share them on social media
  • Students could write letters of encouragement and thankfulness to loved ones
  • Students could inquire into how to promote social health and action it
  • Students could conduct interviews with people who have been negatively or positively affected by coronavirus and collate them into a reflective booklet, report or documentary
  • Students could compare the current coronavirus pandemic with those from the past, such as the plague.
  • Students could connect with people from other countries to have online Google meetings to develop their spoken language. For example, have regular calls with a student in Japan to practice their Japanese and allow the student in Japan to develop their English.

There are so many ways to embed authenticity into student learning. So, take a moment and list some of your own idea. I would love for you to share them at teacherspd.net/35. And remember learning is NOT about preparing our students for an exam, no matter how important you may think that exam is. Learning is a life skill and it needs to be applied to life.

Well, thanks for listening. I hope that you got something out of today’s episode. If you would like to grab the transcript for this episode or have a look at what I am making for my school’s COVID-19 PBL Unit, jump on the web and visit teacherspd.net/35 I would love to share it with you. You can also leave a comment for me there especially if you have watched the video or enjoyed not having to listen to the old 10 second intros and outros.

Finally, if you enjoyed this episode or have been listening to the podcast for a while, I would really appreciate it if you could leave a review. It helps others to find the podcast so that they also can benefit from what is happening on the show.

Well, until next time. Keep safe and take a walk in your garden or local green setting, it’s amazing what some green time can do for the soul.

Talk to you soon. 

Subscribe below to get your PBL resources