Here's What Learners Have to Say About Student Engagement

July 12th, 2015 1 Comment Features

student engagement

Considering how obsessed we are with student engagement, you’d think we would have stopped to ask the students themselves what they think of it all. Unfortunately, there is precious little research devoted to student views on engagement. Maybe this has been our first misstep.

Student engagement is about increasing achievement, positive behavior, and a sense of academic belonging. Originally, it was intended to be directed towards students in grade levels 6-12, who are most susceptible to disengagement, rebellion, and drop-out. Now, it applies to all students in a much broader way: it’s about promoting lifelong learning through authentic interest in one’s own education.

The growing concern over engagement stems largely from observations educators have made about the effects of technology on student interests. At younger and younger ages, students are checking out of traditional learning settings and checking in to their phones. Technology provides faster, more varied information transfer than a teacher can provide, and so students are becoming increasingly disinterested in traditional means of instruction.

The current aim of student engagement campaigns is to correct this discrepancy by meeting students halfway. Curricula across the globe are buying into the blended learning approach, in the hopes that student engagement will rise accordingly. And in many, many educational settings, engagement levels are doing just that.

Or are they?

The fact of the matter is, a student who shows up on time , listens respectfully to lectures, and types away at her laptop like there’s no tomorrow might appear fully engaged to outside observers, including teachers, but other measures of student engagement–including the student’s emotional and cognitive involvement with the course material–may tell a different story. And how are we going to know that side of the story unless we ask the true experts–the students themselves?

Students On Student Engagement

Willms & Flanagan (2007) and Dunleavy & Milton (2009) noticed glaring omissions of student voices in the existing research and set out to do something about it.

As Dunleavy & Milton state, “CEA (Canadian Education Association) believes student voices need to be central in shaping how we think about the modern purpose of schooling and learning environments.” Their multi-year, multidimensional action research project collected data from students (and teachers) on many aspects of student engagement in the Canadian school system. They asked students to describe the “ideal” learning environment and also asked them what would help increase their engagement in learning.

Set against various challenges that made them feel frustrated and disengaged, students offered some powerful images of what it would take to keep them fully engaged. In their ideal learning setting, students imagined they would:

  1. Solve real problems
  2. Engage with knowledge that matters
  3. Make a difference in the world
  4. Be respected
  5. See how subjects are interconnected
  6. Learn from and with each other and people in the community
  7. Connect with experts and expertise
  8. Have more opportunities for dialogue and conversation

Williams & Flanagan also sought the student voice and created an anonymous online survey through which students could express their honest opinions on engagement and learning experiences. Called Tell them from me, the survey tool was created in 2004 and continues to be used by school districts across Canada.

Their findings have inspired several other projects across Canada. What did you do in school today? has grown from a network of ten to seventeen school districts across Canada. Administrators, teachers, and students in more than 150 schools are using student surveys to enhance engagement.

But according to a new study from the University of Pittsburgh, seeking student input isn’t simply the “right thing to do”–it’s also the only way, scientifically speaking, to paint a complete picture of engagement.

Not All Engagement Is Created Equal


“Enhancing student engagement has been identified as the key to addressing problems of low achievement, high levels of student misbehavior, alienation, and high dropout rates,” says Ming-Te Wang, assistant professor of psychology in education in the School of Education and of psychology in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences at Pitt, who coauthored the Pitt study. “When we talk about student engagement, we tend to talk only about student behavior. But my coauthor and I feel like that doesn’t tell us the whole story. Emotion and cognition are also very important.”

Wang’s study is among the first attempts by researchers to use data to explore a multidimensional approach to the question of student engagement. In the past, only behavioral measures of student engagement had been evaluated when gauging student engagement.

And, of course, the study’s primary method of research–really, the only possible method of research– is asking the students what they think.

Students who felt that the subject matter being taught and the activities provided by their teachers were meaningful and related to their goals were more emotionally and cognitively engaged than were their peers.

The researchers designed a 100-question survey that includes the evaluation of emotional engagement and cognitive engagement. Sample survey questions that tested emotional engagement across all subject areas asked students to agree or disagree with statements such as “I find schoolwork interesting” and “I feel excited by the work in school.” Sample questions concerning cognitive engagement asked students to provide ratings to questions like “How often do you make academic plans for solving problems?” and “How often do you try to relate what you are studying to other things you know about?”

Using the survey, Wang and his colleagues conducted a two-year longitudinal study, tracking approximately 1,200 Maryland students from seventh through eighth grade. The authors also measured students’ perceptions of their environment by having them answer questions in five areas: school structure support, which gauged the clarity of teacher expectations; provision of choice, which assessed students’ opportunities to make learning-related decisions; teaching for relevance, which evaluated the frequency of activities deemed relevant to students’ personal interests and goals; students’ perceptions of the emotional support offered by teachers; and students’ perceptions of how positive their relationships were with fellow students.

The authors found that students who felt that the subject matter being taught and the activities provided by their teachers were meaningful and related to their goals were more emotionally and cognitively engaged than were their peers.

Wang also found that educational environment can either help or harm engagement. A positive and supportive learning environment is marked, Wang says, by “positive relationships with teachers and peers. Schools must provide opportunities for students to make their own choices. But they also must create a more structured environment so students know what to do, what to expect, from school.”

But here’s where it gets interesting: Depending on the academic level of the student, and the type of engagement involved–behavioral, cognitive, emotional–Wang’s findings pointed to different instructional strategies.

For example, in order to increase behavioral engagement, modification of school structure or the enhancement of teacher–student relations appears to be more effective than fostering relevant academic tasks. To increase cognitive engagement, though, the curriculum should include meaningful topics that reflect students’ personal goals and interests.

As a result, Wang said, teachers must take into account not only individual variation among students, but also the type of engagement in question, in order to fulfill the needs of each student.

“It is critical to keep [this] in mind when studying school engagement, as evidently, not all characteristics of school environment impact the unique types of school engagement in the same manner.”

Wang believes the use of a multidimensional perspective on engagement–thinking of engagement in terms of behavior, cognition, and emotion–will allow educators to gain a better understanding of which diagnosis to make in a particular context.

“Understanding student engagement in school requires an integrative motivational framework that considers the interaction of the psychological and contextual factors in a youth’s life, as well as the developmental needs of the youth as he or she matures within these contexts,” Wang explains. “Most studies of school engagement and achievement in motivational psychology focus on a single theoretical framework rather than taking advantage of the area’s rich theoretical landscape…Through the implementation of multiple motivational theories in the design of this research and in the interpretation of the results, this study provides a much richer picture of the role of school engagement in adolescent development.”

So what are the results, at least in Wang’s study, distributed across the three different types of engagement?

What Students Say About…

In general, the study identified main five factors that contribute to student engagement: clarity of expectation, consistency and predictability of response, emotional support, and sufficient or appropriate support of students’ personal goals and interests (i.e. relevance). One factor that Wang expected to contribute to engagement across the board, but didn’t, is freedom of choice.

Here’s how each factor breaks down according to type of engagement:

Behavioral Engagement

When teachers are clear about their expectations, provide consistent responses, and adjust instructional strategies to the level of the student, they provide structure, which supports greater behavioral participation in academic tasks, and they foster a stronger sense of connectedness to school amongst students. In Wang’s study, students who reported that their teachers provide clear expectations and consistent and contingent responses were also more likely to be willing to participate in academic tasks (behavioral engagement) and to identify in a positive way with their school (emotional engagement).

Emotional Engagement

Students are more likely to be behaviorally and emotionally engaged in school when teachers and peers create a caring and socially supportive environment. These findings add to growing evidence that student perceptions of the nature and quality of the school social environment are as important as the academic environment (e.g. academic tasks and instructional practices) in promoting student engagement.

Students who felt they were receiving emotional support from teachers and peers also reported higher emotional engagement.

In Wang’s study, students who felt they were receiving emotional support from teachers and peers also reported higher emotional engagement. Emotional support also directly correlated with behavioral engagement, suggesting that emotional engagement can lead to behavioral engagement. One interesting thing to note, however, is that according to the results, emotional support only contributed to cognitive engagement if it came from peers (not from teachers).

Cognitive Engagement

The most important contributing factor towards cognitive engagement in this study was how relevant students felt the material was to their personal goals and interests. Their academic motivation fluctuated based on how enjoyable they thought a task would be, how useful it would be for fulfilling short-and-long-term goals, and how well it might meet personal needs and assist the realization of personal identities. According to the study, teaching for relevance also supports behavioral and emotional engagement, but to a far lesser degree.

The other factor that appeared to enhance cognitive engagement was peer emotional support. Wang and his colleagues offer, as a possible explanation, that when students feel peer acceptance for academic achievement, they develop both confidence and competence in discussing points of view and critiquing each other’s work. Teacher emotional support was not associated with cognitive engagement in this study. Finally, only low-achieving students benefitted cognitively from school structure.

Freedom of Choice

What about freedom of choice? Wang and his colleagues predicted, as most of us may well have, that autonomy would enhance all three types of engagement, especially behavioral. What they found was that it only enhanced engagement for a very specific group of students:

“Usually people say, ‘Yes, autonomy is beneficial. We want to provide students with choices in school,’” Wang says. “This is the case for high achievers, but not low achievers. Low achievers want more structure, more guidelines.”

As a possible explanation for this, Wang says that perhaps some students have not developed the required academic ability to effectively harness the opportunities afforded to them when choices are made available. On the other hand, there is evidence that, even for high-achieving students, freedom of choice is only appealing if the available choices complement students’ personal goals and interests.

Greater behavioral engagement is more likely to occur in an environment that responds to differing levels of academic ability with the developmentally appropriate provision of autonomy.

In any case, the take-home message is that greater behavioral engagement is more likely to occur in a school environment that responds to differing levels of academic ability with the developmentally appropriate provision of autonomy. In other words, for choice to have beneficial effects, it needs to be tailored to student academic ability. In fact, according to self-determination theory-based studies, teachers who balance structural support and student autonomy in an effort to maintain an engaging environment are more likely to encounter increased learning motivation in their students.

The moral of the (full) story is that in order to gain any accurate or comprehensive insight into student engagement, we need to begin with the students. Educators may be able to observe certain elements of behavioral engagement–participation, attendance, assignment completion–but it’s much harder to assess the inner workings of a student’s mind, even based on the quality of work they turn in.

So let’s take the scientific community’s lead on this one and, next time a student seems more interested in the gum under his chair than the words coming out of your mouth, pull him aside and ask.


Saga Briggs is Managing Editor of InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or Facebook.

One Response

  1. Grant Jones says:

    Great little article. What are your thoughts on companies such as who provide RPL to people though?

Leave a Reply