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Factors That Influence Student Learning

This is an excerpt from Lesson Planning for High School Physical Education With Web Resource by Lynn Couturier MacDonald, Robert Doan, and Stevie Chepko.

Many factors influence student learning and the subsequent development of physical literacy, including elements such as student engagement, motor skills competency, gender differences, and instructional environment (SHAPE America, 2014). Student engagement refers to the level of personal involvement in the learning activity; in other words, the degree to which a student is engrossed physically, cognitively, and/or socially in the learning experience. A passive bystander in a soccer game is not necessarily "engaged," even though that student might technically be "participating" in the activity. The list that follows summarizes what researchers have determined will affect student engagement in any subject area. For more detail about each point, please review the studies under each topic area in the topic-area resources listed in the back of the book.


Students are more likely to engage in an activity if

  • they believe that they have the skills to succeed in the activity,
  • the learning activity is interesting, and
  • the learning experience provides a socially supportive and inclusive climate.


Having the Skills to Succeed in an Activity

Skill competency and perceived competency are both critical for student engagement and learning. When students believe that they have the skills to participate successfully in an activity, they approach it with more interest and confidence, and they are more willing to put effort into the task. When students do not believe they have the skills to participate successfully in an activity, they are less willing to put themselves at risk of possible negative social comparisons with their peers and, accordingly, are less likely to engage in the activity (Garn, Cothran, & Jenkins, 2011; Ommundsen, 2006). Those social comparisons often occur in activities in which students perform individually while other students observe (e.g., batting in softball) or in competitive games.


Skill competency and perceived competency are just as important for students to continue participating in a physical activity and in fitness as they are for students to engage initially. Researchers have found that kindergarten children who are proficient in motor skills are more physically active than those children who are not as proficient (Kambas et al., 2012), that skillful children are more likely to be fit and physically active as adolescents than are less-skilled children (Barnett et al., 2008a; Barnett et al., 2008b), and that a positive relationship exists between motor skill competence and health-related fitness in young adults (Stodden, Langendorfer, & Robertson, 2009). In other studies, skillful middle school students were found to be more active and more effective during game play than less-skilled students (Bernstein, Phillips, & Silverman, 2011). The less-skilled students often were excluded from game play, resulting in their developing negative attitudes toward it. In general, game play led to fewer skill practice opportunities, lower levels of perceived competence, and a lack of engagement for less-skilled students. Similarly, high school students who lack skill are more likely than those with skill to disengage from physical activity and, thereby, avoid possible embarrassment or social comparisons (Garn, Ware, & Solmon, 2011; Portman, 2003). Stodden et al. (2008) hypothesized that as children mature, the relationship between motor competence and physical activity strengthens. In that model, those who are not skillful are less likely than skillful peers to participate and, therefore, they become less fit, leading to a "negative spiral of disengagement" (p. 296).


The development of competence, then, is a key strategy for promoting long-term physical activity and fitness. Indeed, "SHAPE America considers the development of motor skill competence to be the highest priority in the Grade-Level Outcomes" (SHAPE America, 2014, p. 9). The fundamental movement patterns form the foundation for physical activity, and those skills require instruction and practice from qualified teachers and coaches (Strong et al., 2005, p. 736). As a physical education teacher, you play a critical role in ensuring that all your students develop motor skill competence through the progressive and sequential development of learning experiences and high-quality lesson plans.


Offering Learning Activities That Are Interesting

Students’ interest in any particular activity is influenced by their individual interests, situational interest, choice, and challenge. Individual interest is a relatively stable construct and depends on each student’s personal characteristics and experiences. Situational interest is more variable and is influenced by the learning environment. As a teacher, you can increase students’ situational interest by manipulating the level of cognitive demand or challenge (Chen & Darst, 2001; Smith & St. Pierre, 2009) and by providing choices to students. It’s essential, then, to design learning experiences that require exploration, problem solving, and/or higher levels of thinking (e.g., applying skills to a new situation, synthesizing knowledge from different areas) in order to increase the likelihood that the activities you present to your students will interest them and engage them in learning. If your lesson activities are too basic or are mindlessly repetitive, students will be bored and will check out mentally. An activity has to contain enough challenge to hold your students’ attention and motivate them to apply effort to the practice tasks.


Providing choice in the instructional experiences is essential to attracting and maintaining student interest, as well as appealing to students’ sense of autonomy (Bryan et al., 2013; Ntoumanis et al., 2004). Allowing students to make some choices leads them to invest a bit of themselves in the task at hand. This can be as simple as allowing students to pick their own partners or pieces of equipment. You also can offer students more complex choices, such as choosing between modified game play and additional practice tasks, or selecting a practice task from several of varying difficulty (differentiated instruction). A well-planned elective program could offer high school students choices of different activities. In each case, careful planning is necessary in order to offer meaningful instructional choices to students.


Providing a Socially Supportive and Inclusive Instructional Climate

Most students prefer to engage in physical education when the instructional environment is inclusive and feels supportive (relatedness) (Zhang et al., 2011). To be inclusive, the learning environment should offer learning experiences that are welcoming to students of all ability levels (differentiated instruction) and that accommodate a variety of student interests. Often - especially for less-skilled students - a curriculum that is oriented toward competitive team sports does not feel inclusive or supportive. A competitive instructional environment allows highly skilled students to dominate, reducing practice opportunities for other students and increasing their chances of being embarrassed (Bernstein, Phillips, & Silverman, 2011; Hill & Hannon, 2008). Less-skilled students prefer cooperative and noncompetitive activities that allow them to participate on more even footing.


Beginning with adolescence, gender preferences become an important consideration for inclusiveness. Substantial evidence suggests that adolescent girls are dissatisfied with the traditional physical education curriculum. With the exception of those who are highly skilled, most adolescent girls prefer activities such as dance, fitness, and cooperative activities to traditional team sports (Grieser et al., 2006; Hannon & Ratcliffe, 2005). In addition, girls are more likely than boys to perceive the physical education environment as a barrier to participation, indicating that sweating as well as showering and changing clothes in a locker room discourage their involvement in class (Couturier, Chepko, & Coughlin, 2007; Xu & Liu, 2013). Given that girls’ physical activity levels are lower than boys’ in general, and that those activity levels drop off further in adolescence, teachers must attend to gender differences and preferences in planning learning experiences for their students. The curriculum that you design must have the potential to engage all students, regardless of skill level, gender, or personal interest.


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Lesson Planning for High School Physical Education With Web Resource

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