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Golden Rules for Engaging Students in Learning Activities

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When we think of student engagement in learning activities, it is often convenient to understand engagement with an activity as being represented by good behavior (i.e. behavioral engagement), positive feelings (i.e. emotional engagement), and, above all, student thinking (i.e. cognitive engagement) (Fredricks, 2014). This is because students may be behaviorally and/or emotionally invested in a given activity without actually exerting the necessary mental effort to understand and master the knowledge, craft, or skill that the activity promotes.

In light of this, research suggests that considering the following interrelated elements when designing and implementing learning activities may help increase student engagement behaviorally, emotionally, and cognitively, thereby positively affecting student learning and achievement.

1. Make It Meaningful

In aiming for full engagement, it is essential that students perceive activities as being 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 (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004). To ensure that activities are personally meaningful, we can, for example, connect them with students' previous knowledge and experiences, highlighting the value of an assigned activity in personally relevant ways. Also, adult or expert modeling can help to demonstrate why an individual activity is worth pursuing, and when and how it is used in real life.

2. Foster a Sense of Competence

The notion of competence may be understood as a student's ongoing personal evaluation of whether he or she can succeed in a learning activity or challenge. (Can I do this?) Researchers have found that effectively performing an activity can positively impact subsequent engagement (Schunk & Mullen, 2012). To strengthen students' sense of competence in learning activities, the assigned activities could:

  • Be only slightly beyond students' current levels of proficiency
  • Make students demonstrate understanding throughout the activity
  • Show peer coping models (i.e. students who struggle but eventually succeed at the activity) and peer mastery models (i.e. students who try and succeed at the activity)
  • Include feedback that helps students to make progress

3. Provide Autonomy Support

We may understand autonomy support as nurturing the students' sense of control over their behaviors and goals. When teachers relinquish control (without losing power) to the students, rather than promoting compliance with directives and commands, student engagement levels are likely to increase as a result (Reeve, Jang, Carrell, Jeon, & Barch, 2004). Autonomy support can be implemented by:

  • Welcoming students' opinions and ideas into the flow of the activity
  • Using informational, non-controlling language with students
  • Giving students the time they need to understand and absorb an activity by themselves

4. Embrace Collaborative Learning

Collaborative learning is another powerful facilitator of engagement in learning activities. When students work effectively with others, their engagement may be amplified as a result (Wentzel, 2009), mostly due to experiencing a sense of connection to others during the activities (Deci & Ryan, 2000). To make group work more productive, strategies can be implemented to ensure that students know how to communicate and behave in that setting. Teacher modeling is one effective method (i.e. the teacher shows how collaboration is done), while avoiding homogeneous groups and grouping by ability, fostering individual accountability by assigning different roles, and evaluating both the student and the group performance also support collaborative learning.

5. Establish Positive Teacher-Student Relationships

High-quality teacher-student relationships are another critical factor in determining student engagement, especially in the case of difficult students and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (Fredricks, 2014). 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 (Scales, 1991). Teacher-student relationships can be facilitated by:

  • Caring about students' social and emotional needs
  • Displaying positive attitudes and enthusiasm
  • Increasing one-on-one time with students
  • Treating students fairly
  • Avoiding deception or promise-breaking

6. Promote Mastery Orientations

Finally, students' perspective of learning activities also determines their level of engagement. When students pursue an activity because they want to learn and understand (i.e. mastery orientations), rather than merely obtain a good grade, look smart, please their parents, or outperform peers (i.e. performance orientations), their engagement is more likely to be full and thorough (Anderman & Patrick, 2012). To encourage this mastery orientation mindset, consider various approaches, such as framing success in terms of learning (e.g. criterion-referenced) rather than performing (e.g. obtaining a good grade). You can also place the emphasis on individual progress by reducing social comparison (e.g. making grades private) and recognizing student improvement and effort.

Do you generally consider any of the above facilitators of engagement when designing and implementing learning activities? If so, which ones? If not, which are new to you?


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Andrew_Weiler's picture
Passionate about leading people to be the great language learners they all once were

I agree with you Nicholas,

The process of engagement is an intensely personal one so to predict what one person will do or not do in any situation is perilous. Having said that my experiences in teaching language classes over many decades to peoples from all over the world, is that there are broad principles that one can apply to any cohort of students or individuals, from any background, to maximise the chances of the kind of engagement both of us are talking about actually happening..

In this space we can only look superficially at this issue. However I believe it is important to work towards establishing and agreeing on the principles and practices that work for the 80%. Then for the other 20% we seek to better understand what is getting in their or our way so we can work towards getting them to achieve the same.

The problem so far is that there may be some brand acceptance of the need for engagement..even that is doubtful I fear! ..but little agreement on what that actually means or entails. I believe there is a lot to be gained by working on the latter so that more teachers will use engagement as a touchstone not just a airy fairy principle they read or heard about.

Really appreciate you bringing up this topic and writing as you did about it!

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

Very consistent with Dan Pink's three elements of an intrinsically motivating environment (autonomy, mastery, and purpose)! Like adding the notion of collaboration as well.

I believe that educators must facilitate the following skills: effective learning, effective problem solving, communicating, and working in teams. I believe this effort must have equal priority with facilitating the learning of core knowledge aligned with standards.

Shafattack's picture

Allowing ownership of the development and growth of coursework for the pupils allows me to facilitate rather than teach and this is more powerful. When striving to achieve small goals that they are invested in through personal contributions suddenly the work becomes valuable to them and it's a beautiful thing to watch. I become the listening post and point of validation instead of the font of all knowledge. This is a trait that hopefully moves into their work life and the cooperation, passion and tenacity fosteted in the classroom will be a more valuable gift they take away from school than just a qualification.

Arfang's picture

I agree with you Sumanth. Collaborative learning is an effective way of building learning communities. In collaborative learning classrooms, students, as group members, commit to a mutual and shared effort to achieve a common goal (Kirschner, 2009). The problem is, very often, students are put in groups and given tasks without any preparation. Students should be to be taught the skills they need to work as a team. Explicit teaching and practice of the social skills is paramount to learning as a group. Also, collaborative learning enables shy and struggling learners to test their ideas with the group before confidently sharing them with the whole class. The group represent a first audience and offers immediate feedback.

UKMarkWilliam's picture

Integrated learning may be the most important thing to engage students in learning activities. Interesting videos, online platforms to connect with their teachers and classmates can also improve the engagement of the students. When students will learn some new concepts, come and share their ideas with others will grow their interest as well as improve their power of thinking, develops different ways of thought processes.

Andrew_Weiler's picture
Passionate about leading people to be the great language learners they all once were

These are useful. I believe there is one key element omitted...that may in fact be subsumed in the others,,,but it needs to stand on its own as it is so critical. And that is what is presented needs to be not too hard and not too easy for the students to be able to master. Too hard and they will give up after a period of frustration and too easy they will just be bored and give it away.
This way learners engage because they feel they can "do it". Here is where mastery plays an important when that is achieved confidence grows. When these three factors are in alignment engagement will continue. More on this at

kschuelke's picture

I tested that out a few years ago, and did find it to be true.
E-learning must meet the same criteria as other types of learning in order to be effective.

kschuelke's picture

You are correct, and I believe that's why the article specified: "To strengthen students' sense of competence in learning activities, the assigned activities could:

Be only slightly beyond students' current levels of proficiency"

Bruce Greene's picture
Bruce Greene
Teacher/Mentor/Field Supervisor Portland, Oregon

Comprehensive piece that could be strengthened by citing some specific examples of these strategies. It's one thing to suggest teachers model an activity (really love this) but it's much more effective to incorporate it into the piece so that teachers with less experience can see how others actually do it. Models of student work on same or similar activities are often strong motivators for students beginning something for the first time.

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