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How Do We Know When Students Are Engaged?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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(Updated 11/2013)

Educational author and former teacher, Dr. Michael Schmoker shares in his book, Results Now, a study that found of 1,500 classrooms visited, 85 percent of them had engaged less than 50 percent of the students. In other words, only 15 percent of the classrooms had more than half of the class at least paying attention to the lesson.

So, how do they know if a student is engaged? What do "engaged" students look like? In my many observations, here's some evidence to look for:

Teacher-Directed Learning

You will see students...

  • Paying attention (alert, tracking with their eyes)
  • Taking notes (particularly Cornell)
  • Listening (as opposed to chatting, or sleeping)
  • Asking questions (content related, or in a game, like 21 questions or I-Spy)
  • Responding to questions (whole group, small group, four corners, Socratic Seminar)
  • Following requests (participating, Total Physical Response (TPR), storytelling, Simon Says)
  • Reacting (laughing, crying, shouting, etc.)

Student-Directed Learning

You see students individually or in small groups...

  • Reading critically (with pen in hand)
  • Writing to learn, creating, planning, problem solving, discussing, debating, and asking questions)
  • Performing/presenting, inquiring, exploring, explaining, evaluating, and experimenting)
  • Interacting with other students, gesturing and moving

To boil the descriptions above down and get at the essence of student engagement, whether for teacher-directed learning or student-directed learning, engaged means students are active. Is that surprising? I shouldn't think so. If true learning is to occur, then students have to be at the very least participants in the process, and not merely products.

Activity and Ownership

I believe that the majority of teachers pick up on the audience cues as they direct-teach and can tell if a student is not interested or not engaged. Most teachers act on what they see and adjust their instruction to try to engage all of their students. However, no matter how hard teachers work at making it interesting, a lecture is still a lecture, and having students simply listen is still a passive action. The solution is simple: If a teacher wants to increase student engagement, then the teacher needs to increase student activity -- ask the students to do something with the knowledge and skills they have learned. Break up the lecture with learning activities. Let them practice. Get them moving. Get them talking. Make it so engaging that it will be difficult for students not to participate.

The ultimate engagement is to put the learner in charge of learning. Create a rich learning environment and a motivation to learn, and the students do all the hard work of learning, while the teacher merely facilitates. It sounds so easy.

I do not minimize the hard work involved in creating those rich learning scenarios, custom-made motivators and engaging learning content. And it is a bit risky. Sometimes it works like a charm, and other times it would have been better to assign seat work. But we keep trying, improving, and enhancing until we get it right.

How have you found success in engaging your students?

Best Practices to Engage Students

Comments (28)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


Dr. Cambourne seems to know what he is talking about. As a former Spanish teacher, immersion had a special meaning for me. I viewed my job as creating a learning environment in which students would find it difficult not to learn. My greatest tool was immersion. First of all I spoke the language to the students, in addition to gestures, writing and visual cues to meaning (comprehensible input). Second, the learning space inspired curiosity about Spanish speaking countries, different cultures and customs (the walls were covered in travel posters from Spain, Mexico, Argentina, etc...). Third, learning was participatory- Students were invited to speak, dance, sing, cook, eat, smell, draw, sew, act, present, and teach...all in Spanish.
It was nice to see immersion at the top of Dr. Cambourne's list.

Thanks for sharing.
What is TED?

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Sam Cunnane's picture
Sam Cunnane
Visual Arts teacher

At Fraser High School, in Hamilton NZ, we're trying a subject integration approach to increase our student engagement. Students work on an authentic project (producing a visual culture magazine) where its up to them to write and produce everything themselves, with the teachers (three of us involved) facilitating the process. Your comments about these kinds of approaches being risky, sometimes working like a charm and somtimes seeming like seat work would have been better (or safer at least!) rings true. I blogged aobut this just yesterday!

Mary L Carroll's picture
Mary L Carroll
Latin teacher in Southeastern Virginia

I have had some intensive training through the Schlechty Center for Leadership in School Reform. A teacher or administrator can guess a student's level of engagement, but the only way to truly know if a student is engaged is to ask the student. The activities Ben Johnson describes may be signs of engagement or they may not. They are observable on-task behavior. This is not the same as true engagement.

As part of the Schlechty Center training, I have gotten in the habit of asking for students' feedback about lessons in the form of an engagement meter. The meter asks students how easy it was to pay attention to the lesson and how much they've learned from it.

I have had lessons that I thought went quite well from the amount of on-task behavior and from the grades that resulted from students' activity. But the engagement-meter showed students' perceptions were that the lesson was a waste of time. I have adjusted my lessons accordingly.

I am a proponent of active student learning and of hands-on and "minds-on" learning, as Phil Schlecty puts it. But let's remember to avoid assumptions regarding engagement on the students' part.

christina frederick's picture
christina frederick
Special Education Teacher in Central Illinois

I have done exit slips, where students comment on what they learned so that my co-teacher and I know if they learned the concepts that we were asking, but I have to say that I have never heard of asking the students if the lesson was easy/hard to pay attention? To be honest, it shows kids that we realize not everything is great but we really do want to get better. I can think of teachers whom I had through the years whose classes were quite boring. I always thought that they didn't care. If they had us fill this out, I would have felt that they were serious about teaching. This is a great idea and something that can be added to our exit slips. Thanks for sharing! I am going to research the Schlechty Center for Leadership in School Reform, too!

christina frederick's picture
christina frederick
Special Education Teacher in Central Illinois

I teach special education and my role has shifted to co-teaching more than teaching myself. I teach two self-contained classes. As soon as the kids enter my room in 5th hour, I hear "what are we doing today!" They are always every excited. Right now we are reading the novel The Hunger Games. I made a timeline for them that included the dates for which I wanted each chapter read. Each student read ahead. The book was schedule to be done in two weeks but they have all already completed it. That's how I can tell they are engaged.

Vicki Gardner's picture

In another school district we used the model "Working on the Work" by Schlechty and we had various methods of assessing the students level of engagement when they left class. Often kids seem engaged and we think they are, however the activity may not be as engaging as we think it is. Students can describe their level of engagement:

Engaged - High attention and high commitment
Strategic Compliance - High attention but low commitment
Ritual Compliance - Low attention and low commitment
Retreatist - No attention and no commitment
Rebellion - Diverted attention

Some teachers had 5 jars (or cups,bottles) and a bowl of candy kids could eat an M&M (or gum drop) and then on their way out, drop one in the jar that represented how they felt about the work that day and their level of engagement. Several teachers used this as a form of exit card and the kids are usually quite honest about how the activity engaged them.

Just a thought regarding assessing levels of engagement.

Eleni's picture

Very informative post and comments. Thank you. Things are getting more complicated when you want to check engagement in online context. Do students engage with tutorials we make or it is just a click-click race? Or even better do they learn? Any tip is welcome.

Kim's picture
Third Grade teacher

In this video game entertainment society in which we live, it becomes harder and harder to keep students engaged. I have found that the more hands on and the more technology I incorporate into lessons, the more my students are attentive and cooperative. They are very vocal about telling me what they find engaging, and what they don't.

Jackie's picture
math teacher

I like the way you put it as students taking ownership for their learning. I love to let my students have discussions in which they fight for their solution and try to prove each other wrong. Besides discussions, I also have the students put solutions on the board and correct each other's work. This strategy draws the kids into the lesson because they want their answer to be correct and to find an error in their classmates' work. I also agree with you that technology is a tool which draws students into the lesson and keeps their attention. One other idea I use in class is to allow students to make up their own math problem, similar to ones we have done in class. The kids enjoy showing their creativity and creating a problem which I end up using as part of the class. Thank you for your input.

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