George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

How Do We Know When Students Are Engaged?

Blogger Ben Johnson defines student engagement and describes what it looks like in the classroom.

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?

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latusuli1's picture

I certainly agree with Dr Ben Johnson, that in order to get students engaged in Learning is simply by getting them to be "ACTIVE" or Pro-active in the classroom. Ultimately you as the teacher must set up the Custom-made motivators to get students to be active during your instruction! A lecture can only go so far as being passive! I love how Dr Johnson continues to reiterate that if you want student engagement you must increase it by bringing the class together to do an activity, you as the teacher are in control, and you can make it HARD for them where they have to participate! In terms of my own future classroom, drawing from this article, i also believe that the student and the teacher and vice versa must come to one way street where they are on the same boat. A two way engagement is what they say in the classroom,..but in these days it is more of a 3 way engagement you have the student, teacher and peers..!

Becky Fisher's picture
Becky Fisher
Education Consultant

I always try and break up classes into "mini-sessions" that are interrupted by physical movements. We would sit and learn a new musical concept for about 5-10 minutes, and then stand up and play a quick 2 minute game or sing a quick song and dance. I know that does not seem feasible in non-music classes, but breaking up lessons to check for engagement and reenergize student learning is a great way to keep students paying attention. The time in between gives students time to synthesize and process what they just learned. If students are fading, as in looking around the room or whispering during a long listening session, I try and break it up with a more interactive activity.

Great post - This is so important to look for in the classroom and make sure all students are engaged and excited about learning!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I was at a conference a few years back at which I heard Charlotte Danielson say that "the learner does the learning." It seems so simple, but how often do we see teachers working themselves to the point of exhaustion while students coast through the day in the most passive mode possible? I always tell my participants that they know their doing it right when the students drag out of school exhausted and the teachers have enough energy to go to the gym!

You're correct also that it's not easy to plan lessons that keep students hard at work. The energy spent in planning, however, returns exponentially when one moves from the role of "primary deliverer of all instructional services" to "facilitator and coach." My book, Facilitating Authentic Learning, is designed to be a how-to resource on planning and running engaging classrooms.

Trina B.'s picture
Trina B.
Second grade

good article. I spend a lot of time looking for ways to make my lessons more engaging. Last week I did a simple activity with my second graders. We had been learning about the h blends. We went on a word hunt. I gave them 5 minutes to look for as many h blend words they could in the book of their choice. Then they wrote those words on the correct posters (featuring a h blend each) that were hung around the room. Afterwards, we took a gallery walk. Each team was assigned a poster to read over and highlight any words they felt did not belong or put a question mark near words they had questions about. After two minutes, they rotated to another poster. I love how engaged and quiet my students were, the questions they raised about words such as school (on ch poster), and how they analyzed the work of a previous team (some had highlighted words that truly belonged) They were so engaged they didn't even pay attention to the other classes were getting ready for lunch! We were 5 minutes late the day but well worth it!

Michelle's picture
3rd Grade Teacher

The comment: 'Students are the ones that learn, not teachers' is so simply, yet powerful! As teachers it is our responsibility to provide the students with what they need to learn - whether that be providing engaging activities that mimic the amount of engagement the students have while playing video games or not. With that being said, we are working with a whole new breed of learners that rely on high-impact learning. This is quiet different from how many teachers were taught themselves. This is where the teachers become the learners in working to provide this type of learning arena.

Julie C.'s picture

Keeping students engaged is especially a challenge with first-graders. By nature they have shorter attention spans than older students. There is a huge difference in that ability between even first and second grades. A lot of development takes place in between that time. As I saw in this piece, I do tell my children often, the importance of their learning in the larger context of life, however, again, developmentally, first-graders might feel the gravity with what I am saying, but can not really understand the impact of the greater picture. Definitely keeping students actively engaged, especially when they are working with peers, is very helpful. However, this needs to be modeled very explicitly and practiced and scaffolded a lot so that their peer interaction is effective. As well, I agree that when you can find authentic ways to connect learning to their own lives, something relatable for their ages and experiences, students are much more engaged. Too, when they know that they have a real audience, the purpose becomes more important to them. Without directly telling them that it is important, it is imparted on them because they know someone will likely be listening (if oral) or reading (if written), or viewing (if a piece of work is produced). It is so true that it is not an easy task to keep students engaged. The statistics that told that only 15% of classrooms have 50% of students engaged is disheartening, but it is a reality and we need keep taking risks, keep trying to engage our students so that their learning will be optimal. You definitely can get a feel as a teacher as to whether students are involved. Just as the article pointed out: students will be tracking with their eyes, trying to make sense out of what you are saying with rich responses, actively writing or reacting. I definitely know my students who tend to be engaged and those who aren't and I know the variable is me and what I do to get them actively engaged support active engagement and learning.

Brandi S's picture

One thing that I took away from the article is that to increase student engagement then you must increase student activity. This technique is something I feel is important not only to enhance student engagement but to also make them accountable for their learning. Student activities provide students with the opportunity to make learning their own. One way I like to get students involved is through centers. They are required to visit each center and work with a variety of types of tools and activities.

StoneCentral29's picture

What if there is no formula for engagement? That is one of the things that bothers me about Charlotte Danielson's program. The rubric seems to suggest that through use of formulaic thinking we can engage all students. Perhaps I am not right, but I have been subjected to her rubric for the past 3 years (with great success) but it feels hollow to me. It feels like one big box step dance, and it feels like some of my students are getting lost in the shuffle. I don't believe that any aspect of education should be considered "One Size Fits All". This certainly doesn't work with clothing, and it doesn't work with students either. Sure, it can work with most students and the teacher can feel successful - but what about the few who do things differently? What if you have a class full of students who do things differently? What if not following the formula produces better results? What if we really got to personally know our students, and then designed our instruction around those we are hoping to help learn? Rubrics are wonderful, but they are guides. I wish I could feel free to practice, yes I said practice. My doctor has a practice, and I go to him when I am sick. If I went to him with a sore throat and he put a cast on my arm, I would likely consider him crazy or at very least a poor doctor. If I asked him why and he said "Well, the book (or rubric) said that everyone that is your age needs an arm cast - well hopefully you get the idea. That would just be asinine! Yet, sometimes it feels like that is what we are doing to Education. I went to college and completed two degrees in Education. Every year I take classes to stay on top of the trends and improve my "practice" and it seems like every year I am forced to spoon feed my students what they don't need - all the while knowing what they do need, and being too afraid to go against the rubric and give it to them. What if we started trusting teachers again? What if when we did that we revolutionized learning in all the right ways? What if we listened to our students, asked them what would help them engage, and then tried it? What if it worked?

Kathryn Roe's picture
Kathryn Roe
Professor of Education, William Penn University

While I heartily agree that "she who does the most work, does the most learning", teachers must direct that. When observing teachers, or when working with pre-service teachers' lesson planning, I've noticed something that makes a difference. Does the material/activity give the most bang for the buck? What I mean is this: We often select activities or materials where few students are directly engaged, or ones where the student is focused on something other than the concept we are trying to teach. An example of the latter is the math worksheet where there are (for the sake of argument) several pumpkins at the bottom with numerals. The student is supposed to color, cut out, and paste the appropriate pumpkin to answer the math problem. When doing this, most students will be focused on coloring, cutting, and pasting, not on addition or subtraction. An example of the former would be playing some classroom games. We divide the class into teams, and the first person in the line is the one who is supposed to answer a question or do something. Too often, those two first people in the lines are engaged, but the majority of the other students are not while they are waiting their turn. We need to select materials and activities with care.

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