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Defining and Creating Student Engagement

Engagement. Educators hear the word often. But what does it mean, really? How can teachers measure student engagement? And furthermore, what can they do to fill in the cracks when students disconnect? 

Making Engagement Concrete 

Teachers know their lessons should be engaging, but how do you know if you’ve reached that elusive benchmark? Is it how animated your students look during the lesson? Or how they score on an assessment later? These are factors you can assess after the fact, but there are ways to measure how engaging your lesson will be before you roll them out to your class. According to Edutopia, engaging lessons promote: 

  • Meaning: Students will not put forth effort if they don’t believe a lesson is worth their time. That’s why it’s important to create a sense of relevance and buy-in in any lesson. For example, you can show how the content relates to prior knowledge or how adults or older students use the material your class is about to learn. 
  • Sense of Competence: If students feel like the material is beyond them or they have no chance of success, they’re highly likely to disengage. To ensure students have a sense of competence (i.e., the ability to meet the learning challenge), make sure the lesson: (a) is scaffolded to be slightly above students’ level of proficiency, (b) asks students to demonstrate understanding during the lesson, and (c) provides feedback and models for success. 
  • Autonomy: Adults thrive when they feel a sense of control and direction over their lives. Children are no different, especially in an educational context. So whenever possible, invite students to share their ideas and opinions about a lesson rather than merely giving directions they must follow exactly. In addition, make sure to give students time to understand the lesson for themselves rather than telling them the right answer. 
  • Collaboration: Connecting with others is a powerful way to enhance learning. However, not all collaboration is created equally. To make sure group work leads to true engagement with the material, make sure to model what an effective group looks like, create groups with diverse abilities and perspectives, and encourage accountability through role assignments and individual (as well as group) evaluations. 
  • Positive Student–Teacher Relationships: Students perform best when they feel known and cared for. That’s why it’s essential for teachers to take an interest in students’ social–emotional needs and try to work in time for one-on-one interactions, even if they’re brief. In addition, teachers should strive never to break a promise or give the appearance of favoritism or unfairness, and should speak to students with kindness and enthusiasm. 
  • Mastery: When approaching a lesson, students should ideally not be focused on getting a good grade or comparing their performance with their peers. Instead, a mark of high engagement is when students want to learn the material for the sake of their own learning and growth (i.e., having a mastery orientation toward learning). To de-emphasize grading, make sure to share specific assignment criteria and make final scores private. 

Phillip Schlechty: Testing the Status of Student Engagement 

In this video, Phillip Schlechty discusses a key concept from his book Engaging Students: how to measure whether your students are actually engaged. As you present a lesson, here’s a quick guide to diagnosing your students’ level of engagement

  • Rebellion (diverted attention, no commitment): Most types of rebellion are easy to spot: walking around the classroom, distracting other students, refusing to open a book or pick up a pencil. Others can be harder, such as when students appear to be working on the activity but have actually moved on to reading, drawing, or writing about a topic that’s more interesting to them. 
  • Retreatism (no attention, no commitment): Students who “retreat” might not actively try to sabotage a lesson, but they’re not necessarily learning more than rebellious students. These are students who daydream or stare at you with a blank expression, but they are clearly not truly listening or participating. 
  • Ritual compliance (low attention, no commitment): Some students don’t care about participating in a lesson but also don’t want to get in trouble. These students will do the minimum they need to do to meet the lowest requirements and avoid negative consequences, but they’re not truly engaged. 
  • Strategic compliance (high attention, low commitment): Some students are motivated by rewards such as good grades or praise from teachers, peers, or their parents. These students will be highly attentive and eager to perform well, but they might not have true buy-in or long-term commitment to master what they’re learning. 
  • Engagement (high attention, high commitment): In true engagement, students believe in the inherent value and meaning of what they’re learning. They will persist through difficulties and learn in a way that has a lasting impact on their lives. 

How to Establish and Maintain Student Engagement  

Engagement is an ongoing endeavor, and no one method will work for every student, every time, and in every learning environment. However, here are some tried-and-true strategies from Classcraft to keep in mind when you’re planning your next lesson: 

Tap into students’ interests. Have you ever shown a TikTok video in class? Or quoted a Marvel movie? Or played a song that’s topping the charts right now? Connecting to students’ interests or prior knowledge can be a memorable way to begin a lesson because it captures their attention and motivates them to learn more. 

Make material current. Math has existed as an academic endeavor since the sixth century, but you can make it feel like a hot topic when you ask students to calculate the incline or square footage of the city’s new bridge. Or you can spice up your discussion of censorship and rhetoric by talking about the ethics of Twitter, Facebook, Apple, and Google removing users from their platforms. 

Give students official roles in the classroom. Nothing increases ownership and engagement like feeling like you belong and have something to contribute. You can awaken this sense of responsibility in your students by giving them rotating jobs in the classroom, or by assigning specific roles during group work. 

Lean on technology. The pandemic might have us all hoping we never use a computer for class again. But if you’re not too burnt out on technology, you might consider taking advantage of digital museum tours, educational games, or smartboards and tablets to get your students pumped about participating. 

Have fun. Gamification and unconventional learning experiences can go a long way. A quick game or icebreaker question, or a nature walk or lesson out on the grass can help make your content more memorable. 

Stay engaged yourself. Remember why you got into teaching? Because you’re passionate about learning! You love your subject and can’t wait to share it with others! An enthusiastic attitude is infectious, and though it’s impossible to “feel it” every day, when you connect with the material, your students will sense it.  

More Classroom Engagement Strategies 

For more strategies on how to keep your students engaged in person or online, check out these professional development courses from Advancement Courses: 

  • Creating a Highly Engaging Lesson Plan: Learn to develop and execute highly engaging lesson plans in any grade level and subject content area, with strategies and tools to understand signs of student engagement, analyze highly engaging lessons, and create specific activities to engage all types of learners. Addresses issues such as learning styles, differentiation, and assessment. 
  • Engaging Students in Online Learning: Meet a variety of learning needs and engage even the most reluctant learners with these fun online learning techniques. Learn how to make videos, use online activities, and scaffold learning to create a strong classroom community. 
  • Motivating Unmotivated Students (Research and Practice): Nothing is worse than preparing an excellent lesson only to be met with a brick wall of unmotivated students. This course explores the major theories of motivation and gives you strategies to help students develop a motivated mindset toward learning. 
  • The Growth Mindset: Fostering Resilience and a Love of Learning: Mindset is a buzzword in today’s educational landscape, but it often addresses only students’ mindsets, not educators’. In this course, you’ll explore your internalized beliefs about learning and your students’ abilities, and you’ll learn how to structure your classroom around a culture of perseverance and opportunity. 

Advancement Courses offers more than 280 online, self-paced PD courses covering both foundational topics and emerging trends in K–12 education. Courses are available for both graduate and continuing education credit for your salary advancement or recertification needs. 

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