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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

Jennifer Holcombe's picture
Jennifer Holcombe
After School care at the Austin Discovery School (Challenge School)

If what I am doing is relevant to their curiosity, creativity, intelligence, emotional spirit and to their psychology... They talk, share and engage themselves in the conversation/activity.*

Jody Watson's picture
Jody Watson
Inclusive Technology Battle River School Division #31

I think that there has to also be a noise factor. I have so many 'outsiders' come into my classroom and say what an unruly bunch, they are so noisy and I keep telling them to listen to the noise. If I can hear words about the topic that we are covering that isn't noise that is learning.

Sue Boudreau's picture
Sue Boudreau
Seventh Grade science teacher from Orinda, California

Engagement, flow, kids talking to each other about science because they want to. Best part of my job when it sometimes happens. Some things that seem to help:
- Listen/watch first. No taking notes or filling in a worksheet. Just enjoy it. Then tell your neighbor one thing you got from it. Then write a few notes.
- Stuff that's funny and links their lives to the concepts to be learned.
- Being intrigued, interested and well-informed on what I'm teaching, including the history and personalities involved: Better stories that way.
- Instead of doing it all myself, having students take on as many tasks and demos as possible.
- Co-constructing concepts with magnetic cards - Concept ConstruXions rocks (at
- Responding via whiteboards shared between two. (Ridiculous how much they love this AND a great way to get a beat on where they are. See post on kids concepts of atoms at
- Changing the class arrangement frequently, and during lessons too, so they get up and move a bit.
- Individual relationships.

Hudson Don's picture
Hudson Don
Prematurely retired high school English teacher because of blindness (legal

For me, after a few years of teaching, the clues were pretty obvious. When my students lost track of time, or didn't care about time as in how much time it was taking to do whatever project they we working. This is especially true of writing. One of the great feelings I got as a teacher was when the class ended and the kids moaned that they."weren't finished writing yet and could they stay awhile longer so they don't lose their grove."

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


When students forget there is a clock in the room and are actively working there is an electricity in the air. It is exuberating. You mentioned they were writing-- what was the project/topic that made them so interested?

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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


I found that when I was "intrigued" about something, that "intrigue" tended to rub off on my students. First they wanted to know why I was so interested, and when they found out, they were also interested. There is a lesson here. If you as the teacher are not interested in something, guaranteed the students won't be. If you think something is cool, most likely your students in general will too (my students never got into my jokes though- I suppose they matured beyond my version of fifth grade humor).

Thanks for sharing your great ideas.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

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


This is a great topic. I am so frustrated with teachers clamping down on students for making noise in the classroom. We want them making noise, the more noise the better as long as it is about learning. Yes, there are times to be quiet, but learning is a loud, messy business when students are excited, enthusiastic and engaged. Way to go!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

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