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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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In education literature, "engagement" is a linchpin word, routinely cited as essential. Yet many experts offhandedly provide vague definitions of the term, or skip defining it altogether. So what exactly is engagement?

It depends on whom you ask. In a survey of education majors, Shari Steadman and I found that preservice teachers often confuse compliance with engagement -- essentially flattening the meaning of the term. Wrote one education major, "Engagement is an agreement between student[s] and teachers to be there and present during class." Such a quotidian explanation implies that merely breathing and looking at instructors constitutes student engagement. In contrast, Ruth Schoenbach and Cynthia Greenleaf elevate the term with a more robust definition:

By adding the word "engaged," we mean to distinguish between the skilled by rote and unsophisticated kind of academic literacy that many "successful" students master, and the more analytic, critical, and discipline specific ways of making meaning emblematic of engaged learners.

Adam Fletcher’s definition is succinct: "Students are engaged when they are attracted to their work, persist despite challenges and obstacles, and take visible delight in accomplishing their work."

The origins of the term hail back to its mid-17th century association with fencers. Imagine competitors facing off with their foils, all senses focused on the micro-adjustments of their opponent's blade as well as their own physical, emotional, and intellectual potential. When fencers lunge, circle, and feint, this fierce ballet is called engagement.

Benefits of Engagement

According to multiple research studies, engaged students . . .

  • Experience improved academic achievement and satisfaction
  • Are more likely to persist through academic struggles
  • Earn higher standardized test scores
  • Have better social skills
  • Are less likely to drop out of school

In contrast, disengagement . . .

  • Lowers cognitive performance
  • Increases disruptive behaviors
  • Causes academic avoidance behaviors
  • Exacerbates learning, behavior, and emotional problems
  • Increases absenteeism and dropout rates

Disengagement isn't merely the plight of a few outlier students in your classroom. In the early grades, eight out of ten students are engaged. By middle school, the number is six out ten, then four out of ten in high school, according to a 2013 Gallop Poll.

"The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective national failure," asserts Brandon Busteed, the executive director of Gallup Education.

Research-Supported Methods to Engage Students

From The Highly Engaged Classroom (PDF) to School Engagement, Disengagement, Learning Supports, & School Climate (PDF) to Strengthening Student Engagement, all the books and articles that have been written on the subject of increasing student engagement could fill a gluttonous orca. But Kristy Cooper's insanely rigorous mixed methods study, Eliciting Engagement in the High School Classroom: A Mixed-Methods Examination of Teaching Practices, published in the April 2014 American Educational Research Journal, does an exceptional job of showing what works.

Cooper, an award-winning researcher at Michigan State University with an MA and Ed.D from Harvard, examined the impact of three well-supported strategies that teachers employ to increase student engagement. As you read each summary below, try to guess which practice had the greatest impact.

Engagement Method #1: Lively Teaching

This method involves group work, games, and projects. Think social and fun. The emphasis is on the students constructing knowledge, not on the teacher delivering content.

Engagement Method #2: Academic Rigor

The instructor creates cognitively demanding tasks and environments (called academic press [PDF]), emphasizing that students will need to work hard. The teacher also shows passionate investment in the content.

Engagement Method #3: Connective Instruction

The teacher helps students make personal connections to the class, content, and learning. The power of connective instruction comes from the instructor helping students see the curriculum as critical to their current lives, their future, and their culture. Additionally, six instructor behaviors play into creating high-quality relationships where, according to Andrew Martin, students "actually internalize the beliefs valued by significant others."

  1. Promoting relevance: relating content to students' lives
  2. Conveying care: understanding learners' perspectives
  3. Showing concern for students' well-being: demonstrating knowledge of students' lives
  4. Providing affirmation: telling students they are capable of doing well; using praise, written feedback, and opportunities for success
  5. Relating to students through humor: showing that you enjoy working with young people (not as a class, as individuals)
  6. Enabling self-expression: connecting learning and identity by encouraging students' expression of ideas, values, and conceptions of self

Although lively teaching and academic rigor independently and collectively increase engagement, the single biggest effect, according to Cooper's study, resulted from connective instruction of a magnitude seven times that of the other two well-established practices. Why? Because of kids' desperate longing for high-quality relationships. When a teacher fulfills that desire, students' achievement behaviors (PDF) and intellectual functioning soars.

For all teachers, regardless of subject or grade level, intensive effort to connect with learners is a nonnegotiable prerequisite for engagement.

Tell us how you engage students.

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Getting (and Keeping) Students Engaged
Create experiences so students invest in their learning.

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Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Hi Todd,
Great article and I couldn't agree more with some of the points that you raise. Something that I always find valuable when engaging with students is the idea of publishing their work to the world; that is, giving them a broader audience than just me, their teacher.

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Ellie Cowen's picture
Ellie Cowen
Educator and math specialist

Great article! I'm glad you point out the distinction between engagement and compliance. Under the heading of "Lively Teaching," there's some cool research out there on the value of "confusion." I know teachers who set aside a chunk of time each day for their students to attempt challenging problems without any scaffolding.

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