Student Engagement

Engage Kids With 7 Times the Effect

The way to engage students is to make sure that they care about the material and know how much you care about them.
August 25, 2014         Updated September 9, 2015
A teacher and student laugh while working at a computer together.
© breity via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In education literature, engagement is a linchpin, 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.” This 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 but 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.”

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Adam Fletcher’s definition is more 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 term hails back to a 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 10 students are engaged. By middle school, the number is six out 10, and then four out of 10 in high school, according to a 2013 Gallup poll. “The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective national failure,” said Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education.

Research-Supported Methods to Engage Students

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

Cooper, an award-winning researcher at Michigan State University, 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—a culture called “academic press” (PDF)—and emphasizes 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 and 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—it was seven times as effective as 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 soar.

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