Student engagement is one of those educational buzzwords that seems to have been around forever.  Okay, slight exaggeration. The term can be traced back to educational reformer and philosopher John Dewey and the late 1800’s. 

Although there’s a consensus that student engagement is vital to the educational process, how to create engaged students is less clear. 

So, let’s take a deep dive into student engagement, its role in the learning process, and how to ensure you create truly engaged students. 

What is Student Engagement?

According to The Glossary of Education Reform, student engagement “refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education.” 

Yet, it’s not just about students. The glossary adds that, “student engagement may also refer to the ways in which school leaders, educators, and other adults might “engage” students more fully in the governance and decision-making processes.” 

The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) adds more elements to the list, citing that “student engagement is best understood as a relationship between the student and the following elements of the learning environment: The school community, The adults at school, The student’s peers, The instruction, and The curriculum.” 

According to the NAIS, student engagement involves three dimensions:

  • Behavioral engagement: focusing on participation in academic, social, and co-curricular activities 
  • Emotional engagement: focusing on the extent and nature of positive and negative reactions to teachers, classmates, academics, and school 
  • Cognitive engagement: focusing on students’ level of investment in learning.

These wide-ranging definitions that involve multiple components are part of the reason why the topic has been discussed and written about so extensively. However, it’s the benefits of student engagement that keep it top of mind with educators.

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Why Increase Student Engagement or Why Does Student Engagement Matter?

The goal of education can be boiled down to one mission: foster learning and growth in students in order to prepare them to lead productive and meaningful lives. This simple statement is, of course, challenging and extremely difficult to execute. 

Studies show that student engagement is a necessary ingredient to fulfill the educational mission. 

A 2018 Gallup Study entitled, ‘School Engagement Is More Than Just Talk’, found that “Engaged students are 2.5 times more likely to say that they get excellent grades and do well in school, and they are 4.5 times more likely to be hopeful about the future than their actively disengaged peers.”

Another Gallup study found that, “Student engagement significantly positively affects student growth.” 

Compared to schools with low student engagement, those with high student engagement were better preparing students for the future. 

Consider these findings:

  • 36% higher rate of students achieving the satisfactory requirement for postsecondary readiness in math.
  • 65% higher rate of students achieving the satisfactory requirement for postsecondary readiness in writing.
  • 129% higher rate of students exceeding progress in all subjects. 

Beyond the academic benefits, there are also advantages related to increased attendance and improvement in behavior. 

However, recent polls show that many students are disengaged.  According to the 2018 Gallup Poll, nearly half of students (47%) are engaged, while 29% are not engaged and 24% are actively disengaged. 

The poll also found that students become less engaged as they advance through the education system.

How to Measure Student Engagement

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Just as student engagement is hard to define, it’s hard to measure as well. Before it can be measured, clarification on what an engaged student does is in order.

One answer comes from educator and author, Ben Johnson, who notes that engaged students are active and do the following: pay attention, take notes, listen, ask questions, respond to questions, participate, and react. 

Former classroom teacher and Principal Peter DeWitt cautions in an EdWeek article that some may see a quiet classroom with students listening and view it as engagement. He distinguishes between compliance and authentic engagement.

“Authentic engagement means that students do more than just answer a question during a session of “sit and get,” says DeWitt. “It means that they have dialogue with us and ask questions at the same time they’re engaging in giving us an answer. It means that students are talking as much as we are.”

To formally measure student engagement, students can be surveyed. According to PhysPort, which is part of the American Association of Physics Teachers, surveying university students in the middle of the semester is ideal. 

Outside observations by administrators can also prove helpful since the classroom teacher will naturally be biased. The observation can also include interviewing students and asking direct questions to determine if students are engaged.

How to to Increase Student Engagement

So, what can teachers do to foster student engagement? What are some strategies to increase student engagement?

Nurture Relationships

According to DeWitt, the type of engagement that he describes begins with forming caring relationships. 

“When students form close and caring relationships with their teachers, they are fulfilling their developmental need for a connection with others and a sense of belonging in society,” he says.

Note, these relationships are possible and necessary whether a class is meeting virtually or in person. They are also relevant regardless of the age of the students.

Connections between students and teachers inspire students and create a positive environment. In this sort of environment, students are motivated and encouraged to participate and grow. And in this writer’s teaching experience, the relationship between a teacher starts with knowing a student’s name and recognizing a student is more than just a body in a classroom.

The power of teacher-student relationships and meaningful engagement becomes more evident if you review the ING Foundation Survey. The survey found that 98% of respondents believe a good teacher can change the course of a student’s life. And 88% of respondents said that “they had a teacher growing up who had a ‘significant, positive impact’ on their life.”

Create Meaningful Work 

Even the best teacher-student relationship is dependent on the actual work in the classroom.  If a student is not reasonably challenged by the work in the classroom or does not find it stimulating, the student will not be engaged.

According to Edutopia, in order for classroom lessons and activities to garner engagement, students need to view them as meaningful. “Research has shown that if students do not consider a learning activity worthy of their time and effort, they might not engage in a satisfactory way, or may even disengage entirely in response.”

The article offers a few tips for making a lesson meaningful including connecting it “with students’ previous knowledge and experiences, highlighting the value of an assigned activity in personally relevant ways…” and modeling “why an individual activity is worth pursuing, and when and how it is used in real life.”

Another way to make meaningful work is to personalize it. When curriculum is personalized, students can more easily recognize the benefits. Personalization can also relate to the pace of learning. The right pace for each student will keep them more engaged as they won’t be frustrated, overwhelmed, or bored. Technology can play a helpful role in personalizing learning.

Foster Autonomy

We all long for personal freedom and autonomy and children are no different. This longing extends to the classroom and satisfying it leads to an increase in student engagement. 

Autonomy, as defined by the ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is, “the amount of power students have to determine what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.”  Research shows that when students are given choice, they experience an increase in intrinsic motivation. Effort, performance and learning all grow with choices.

The benefits cited above occur when a teacher, “creates choices that are robust enough for students to feel that their decision has an impact on their learning,” 

When students are empowered to make choices in the classroom and school setting, it fosters a sense of ownership over their learning. Because students have made choices and their voice is heard, the responsibility shifts to them. It is through each student’s effort and determination that progress will occur, which demands that they be engaged.

Increase Self-Efficacy and Competency

Everyone faces challenges. Sometimes, challenges can lead to growth, and other times they can overwhelm. As teachers, we want to challenge our students in positive and productive ways to help them learn and grow. Creating a challenging classroom environment also enhances student engagement.

According to the ASCD, “Competence, or self-efficacy, occurs when a student has the necessary skills to complete the assigned task successfully. Competent learners have developed the ability to accurately assess their current capabilities and the belief that they can expand them through work and study.”

According to Edutopia, “Researchers have found that effectively performing an activity can positively impact subsequent engagement.” 

Teachers can put this into practice by ensuring lessons are just beyond students’ current knowledge level. Going too far, too fast will encourage students to disengage. After all, if students determine the work is beyond them, they feel a sense of hopelessness and frustration. 

However, when teachers check in regularly, give clear feedback, and genuinely accept and answer questions, students are set up to engage and grow.

When students are engaged, they are motivated. and learning happens more easily. Being in a school building and classroom where students are engaged is inspiring for both the students and educators. Therefore, it is imperative for educators to do everything they can to foster student engagement.

ABOUT LARRY

Larry is an experienced educator having taught at both the K-12 and post high school level. Outside of the classroom, Larry is a freelance writer whose writing focuses on edtech and general education topics.