Engaging Students in Physical Education: Recommendations for Secondary Programs

By Thorp, Jennifer L. | Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators, January-February 2013 | Go to article overview

Engaging Students in Physical Education: Recommendations for Secondary Programs


Thorp, Jennifer L., Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators


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With obesity rates at a record high in the United States, physical educators are trying to find ways to get students actively engaged to promote physically active lifestyles. For some adolescents, required physical education classes are their last structured opportunity to find physical activities they can enjoy throughout adulthood. After high school, most jobs and college programs do not require participation in exercise; therefore, students need to find ways to be active on their own. If students have positive physical education experiences, they are more likely to stay active after they graduate from high school (Azzarito & Solmon, 2006; Lodewyk, Gammage, & Sullivan, 2009). Therefore, motivating students to be active, although challenging, is a common goal for physical educators. The goal of engaging all students is also problematic for physical educators because activity preferences vary widely (Azzarito & Solmon, 2005, 2006, 2009; Ruiz, Graupera, Moreno, & Rico, 2010), and even those preferences are influenced by different environmental factors (Couturier, Chepko, & Coughlin, 2007).

A review of the literature identifies three main factors that influence student motivation to participate in physical education activities: 1) gender, 2) body image, and 3) enjoyment (Azzarito & Solmon, 2005, 2006, 2009; Lodewyk et al., 2009; Smith & St. Pierre, 2009). Males and females are motivated differently because of their activity preferences (Azzarito & Solmon, 2006). Body image refers to how an individual views and what their attitude is toward their own body (Lodewyk et al., 2009). Student motivation increases when they participate in activities they enjoy (Smith & St. Pierre, 2009).

This article begins by discussing these three major influences on secondary students' participation in physical education activities. Next, research-based recommendations are discussed to help teachers engage students in physical education. Finally, innovative ideas are described to create positive learning experiences in which students can be engaged and enjoy a physically active life.

Influence of Gender on Student Motivation

Scholars (Azzarito & Solmon, 2005, 2006, 2009; Couturier et al., 2007; Ruiz et al., 2010) conclude that males and females participate in gender-appropriate activities due to the social construct that constitutes masculine and feminine behaviors and activities. Azzarito and Solmon (2006, 2009) suggest that social influences that reiterate this persona of males and females come from peers, parents, teachers, and media. The majority of males prefer competitive, individual, and/or team activities, such as football and basketball (Azzarito & Solmon, 2006, 2009; Couturier et al., 2007; Ruiz et al., 2010). However, the majority of females prefer activities such as walking and aerobics, and they would rather participate in cooperative sports or fitness activities (Azzarito & Solmon, 2005, 2006, 2009; Couturier et al., 2007; Gibbons, 2009; Ruiz et al., 2010). Due to these gender preferences, motivation may be directly influenced.

Researchers (Azzarito & Solmon, 2005, 2006; Couturier et al., 2007; Ruiz et al., 2010) explain that males and females will increase their motivation and participation when the activities they engage in are gender-preferred. A study of high school students revealed that 62.9% of females choose activities such as aerobics and dance, which is a significant difference compared with 14.5% of males (Couturier et al., 2007). For example, in a single-sex physical education setting, when female students ask the teacher what they are going to be doing in class, if the response is a societal feminine activity such as aerobics, the girls exhibit increased motivation to participate. On the other hand, if the activity is labeled as a masculine activity such as weightlifting, most female students suffer a decrease in motivation.

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