Finding the Nexus

Many teachers, in fact probably most teachers, are always looking for ways to help students engage with the content being taught. Student engagement is perhaps the holy grail of teaching. Many teacher evaluation systems have it as a standard or indicator, which increases the motivation of teachers to locate that elusive cup. In researching creativity with my master’s partner, Kristy Graber, we came across a nugget that might lead us to the holy land of student engagement.

Rising up straight to the top

It isn’t news to most teachers that when we bring in things that are relevant and of interest to students, they are more likely to engage in the content. This is one reason that I do appreciate NoRedInk‘s attempt to help students find grammar and writing more interesting by having them select things they like out of a wide range of interests when they sign up for the platform and then using those things in the sentences that the students interact with to correct mistakes or find the problem.

Had the guts, got the glory

Research suggests there is a strong connection between intrinsic motivation and creativity. Perhaps the most elusive element of desired intrinsic motivation exists in what Ryan and Deci, key researchers of rewards, termed “the nexus between a person and a task” and the debate among some researchers over whether the intrinsic motivation is due to the task itself being interesting or due to the satisfaction one gain from the task engagement (p. 56). While I am tempted to dive into the rabbit hole presented by this idea, I also understand that for educators, it does not matter as much whether students are motivated because the task is interesting or because they gain satisfaction from the task, as long as one of those is in play. Surveying students periodically over different types of interests can help ensure one of these is in play, as well as stopping to consider what the experience of the activity will be for the student. Author, publisher, and keynote speaker, Dave Burgess, talks about how to create the experience of learning for students in his book, Teach Like A PIRATE. The “hooks” and strategies he discusses and provides are definitely a way to help students reach the nexus when the content being taught is not interesting in its own right.

Went the distance, now I’m not going to stop

According to Frank Smith, we learn what is interesting and what we are able to make sense of (pp. 31, 35). Therefore, the connection between an individual and the task may be the key factor in whether or not something is learned. Pairing an uninteresting task with something that students are already interested in definitely takes us a step closer to helping students reach the nexus between themselves and the task at hand in order to use creative thinking for that task. William James, referred to by many as the father of American Psychology, states, “thus things not interesting in their own right borrow an interest which becomes as real and as strong as that of any natively interesting thing,” (James, p. 47). This, exactly this, is how we increase student engagement, and it starts with building those relationships so that you understand what students do find interesting, and then pair it with content that they do not find interesting.

Just a man and his will to survive

The reason student engagement continues to be an elusive holy grail is that it is constantly evolving and unique to every student. What works well one day may not the next, and what works with one class may be an epic fail with the next class. This is also what makes good teaching an art. My humble advice to educators is to keep trying. Fads come and go, so tap into that popularity by weaving it into your lesson activities while it holds the interest of your students so that they are engaged and have mastered your standards. Music, locations, sports, games, movies, etc. are a more permanent staple of student interest for teachers to draw upon when creating experiences for students too. Once student interest is locked in, we can then encourage creative thinking, which is a valuable skill for students to have. However, creativity depends on the intrinsic motivation we have for the activity or task at hand, so put on your Indiana Jones hat and do everything you can to find and capture that holy grail of student engagement.


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.

James, W. (2001). Talks to teachers on psychology and to students on some of life’s ideals. Dover.

Smith, F. (1998). The book of learning and forgetting. Teachers College Press.

Headings are partial lyrics from the song “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor.

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