12 Myths About Student Engagement

February 7th, 2015 No Comments Features


Student engagement is one of the most reliable predictors of gains in learning. We can all agree that students who actively participate in learning are more successful and satisfied with their own educational careers. Still, keeping students engaged is easier said than done. We know it’s important, and we’ve tried our hardest day in and day out to make it happen, but many students still seem disengaged.

That’s why some of the oldest tricks in the book–such as grading participation and holding pop quizzes–need to be reconsidered if we want 21st century learners to stay motivated.

What’s Wrong With the Way We Think About Student Engagement?

Despite increasing interest in student engagement in countries around the world, there is no clear understanding of the construct. In fact, there has been much confusion regarding its definition and measurement.

Lois Harris of the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Development at the University of Auckland says we need to starting thinking about engagement in terms of “schooling versus learning”.

“Teacher actions can influence how students engage [with a course], making it relevant to understand their conceptions of student engagement and how to facilitate it,” she says. “Reviews of existing literature suggested that a distinction between engagement in schooling and engagement in learning might help differentiate between social and academic outcomes.”

In her 2010 experiment, data from 20 Australian teachers were analysed to show how teacher thinking related to this distinction. While some teachers held complex conceptions centred on promoting cognitive engagement and student learning, others aligned with engagement in schooling, focusing on generating participation and emphasising positive student affective experiences.

Harris says we need to make a distinction between student engagement in schooling and engagement in learning based on literature and empirical results. If we don’t, the concept of engagement might never become educationally fruitful.

A 2014 study found that teachers and students actually have more dissimilar than similar perceptions about what engages students. One survey asked students how important nine selected teacher behaviours were in engaging them in learning, while the other asked teachers what priority they put on these behaviours and how important they thought they were to students. The selected questions were drawn from an extensive research literature identifying teacher behaviours that engaged students.

A Danish study from 2012 found similar results. Surveying students and teachers in a Danish vocational education and training institution, researchers discovered that teachers and students held diverging perceptions of student engagement when it came to educational goals and goals related to perceived future work settings. The misrecognition of the students’ perception of engagement had direct negative consequences for student performance and feelings of attachment to their institution.

What Does Student Engagement Really Look Like?

The term “student engagement” has traditionally been used to depict students’ willingness to participate in routine activities, such as attending lectures, submitting required work, and following instructors’ directions.

“[Students] who are engaged show sustained behavioral involvement in learning activities accompanied by a positive emotional tone. They select tasks at the border of their competencies, initiate action when given the opportunity, and exert intense effort and concentration in the implementation of learning tasks; they show generally positive emotions during ongoing action, including enthusiasm, optimism, curiosity, and interest.”

Jim Parsons and Leah Taylor of Arizona State University posit that, while older means of improving student engagement involved reshaping “renegade” students, current work revises institutions to fit student needs.

In 2011, Nick Zepke and Linda Leach of the Department of Educational Studies at Massey University, New Zealand, synthesised 93 research studies from ten countries to develop a conceptual organiser for student engagement. It consisted of four perspectives identified in the research: student motivation; transactions between teachers and students; institutional support; and engagement for active citizenship.

Another study identified five indicators for student engagement in university: the level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, enriching education experiences, and a supportive learning environment. Indicators of the absence of student engagement included unexcused absences, cheating on tests, and damaging property.”

“The opposite of engagement is disaffection. Disaffected [students] are passive, do not try hard, and give up easily in the face of challenges… [they can] be bored, depressed, anxious, or even angry about their presence in [a course]; they can be withdrawn from learning opportunities or even rebellious towards teachers and [peers].”

Several methods have been demonstrated to promote higher levels of student engagement. Instructors can enhance student engagement by encouraging students to become more active participants in their education through setting and achieving goals and by providing collaborative opportunities for educational research, planning, teaching, evaluation, and decision-making. Providing teachers with training on how to promote student autonomy was beneficial in enhancing student engagement by providing students with a more autonomous environment, rather than a controlling environment.

One method that has been gaining popularity in university teaching is the creation or encouragement of learning communities. Learning communities are widely recognized as an effective form of student engagement and consist of groups of students that form with the intention of increasing learning through shared experience. This may consist of curricular communities of students co-enrolled in multiple courses in the same field of study or communities that focus on organized group learning activities. Within learning communities, students are able to interact with peers who share similar interests and stimulate conversation about the topic.

Such conversations are beneficial because they expose the members of the community to new ideas and methods. Students that are a part of such communities are therefore able to generate and construct their knowledge and understanding through inquisitive conversations with peers, as opposed to being given information by the instructor. This type of engagement in the field leads to a deep understanding of the material and gives the student a personal connection to the topic.

Learning communities allow instructors to constantly gather evidence of student learning to inform and improve their professional practice. They use common assessments and make results from those assessments easily accessible and openly shared among members of the team in order to build on individual and team strengths and to identify and address areas of concern. Results are then used to identify students who are experiencing difficulty and need additional time and support for learning as well as students who are highly proficient and require enrichment and extension.

Learning community programs also improve students’ interpersonal dialogue, collaboration, and experiential learning within the context of diversity, these programs address a decreasing sense of community and connection and allow students to relate their college-level learning to larger personal and global questions.

The J. Erik Jonsson Community program (3 years old-5th grade) in Dallas, TX has a simple formula for success: “Powerful Pedagogy + trusting relationships = student engagement” (Journal of Staff Development, 2008). The majority of research is done is early education, but this sentiment rings equally true in higher education. Accomplishing that end is nearly impossible in introductory, general education courses with enrolments reaching up to 300 students, but relationship-building is a skill that is under-appreciated in the “college experience”. In Australia many institutions offer an integrated program developed by Hands On Learning Australia, which provides a type of micro-climate for students experiencing disengagement to develop trusting relationships in the context of practical, construction based tasks.

With all this in mind, take a look at the following commonly held beliefs about student engagement and consider whether they help or hinder it.

1. Engagement in schooling is the same as engagement in learning.

This is a misconception that many of us have without knowing it. Everyone is engaged in learning; it’s part of being human. But not everyone is engaged in schooling. And unfortunately, the latter can seriously detract from the former. Students who dislike their course work or institution will tend to dislike the learning they are being asked to do. If we keep in mind that environment and engagement are inextricably intertwined, we’ll start to see “student engagement” as a context-dependent quality rather than some ideal state of being that only we, as teachers, can magically and permanently affect with an exciting lesson plan.

2. Participation should be graded.

Most teachers, especially at the tertiary level, assign about 10% of a student’s overall grade to participation. This does not bring shy students out of their shells; it makes them ask one question a week–to which they probably already know the answer–so that you know their name. The only way these students will open up is if you provide them with a learning environment that offers respect and eliminates judgment.

3. Personal relevance is just a cute theory.

Personal relevance is one of the most powerful tools in the pedagogical toolbox. Provide culturally relevant texts to students of a particular background, and they’ll enjoy reading more.

4. Pop quizzes motivate studying.

Ditch the fear factor. Pop quizzes may temporarily make students more aware of what they’re learning–the names of characters in a book, the process of solving an equation–but they don’t motivate students to study harder or more frequently. There’s nothing wrong with telling students you are going to quiz them every Friday. If anything, planned, regular quizzing increases memory retention and makes students better test-takers.

5. Group projects enhance learning.

Group projects are tricky: they enhance engagement, but they don’t necessarily enhance learning. In many cases students don’t actually learn more when they’re working with others, especially when given a specific role. It may be worth letting students choose whether to work with a group or work alone.

6. Group discussions increase participation.

Sure, group discussions are more interactive than lectures, but they don’t excite students any more than lectures do. I’d argue that there’s greater potential for engagement in a course of 100 than in a group of five that’s been shoved off to the side, expected to discuss a topic “amongst themselves.” In a small group, students are aware it’s just an exercise. In a large group, students respect each other for having the courage to pipe up. Every action seems more significant, and there’s a sense of being a part of the whole. If the sole voice that represents the whole settles on a weak point, others are more likely to pipe up and correct it.

7. If no one responds to your questions, no one is interested.

It can be a real let down when the discussion you planned for lecture don’t go the way you hoped. Everyone seems asleep; no one’s volunteering their opinion. But don’t write your lecture off immediately. Try a warm-up exercise, crack a joke, help students feel more comfortable. They may be interested but need a little prompting.

8. Course size has an inverse affect on student engagement.

The latest research says students in small courses or at small institutions aren’t necessarily more engaged than students at large institutions.

“Despite the many studies that show positive effects, research has yet to come up with a consistent, integrated explanation for the gains attributable to reduced [course] size,” says Jeremy Finn of the University at Buffalo, the statistician who advised a study published in the journal Review of Educational Research.

9. If their performance suffers, they aren’t interested.

Surely, sometimes this is the case. But don’t assume it’s always the case. More often than you think, students want to do well but don’t fully understand the expectations and standards you require when it comes to assignments.

10. Disengagement signifies disinterest.

Okay, sometimes it does, but not always. Research on self-efficacy has shown us that a lack of belief in one’s academic ability can be enough to disengage a student. The student may be interested in the subject, but without that basic level of academic self-confidence, she’s going to check out pretty quickly.

11. Incorporating the interests of 30+ individuals into your course material is impossible.

Pass out a survey at the beginning of the course and find out what your students want to get out of it. Change your lessons accordingly. Pass out another survey part-way through the course. Change your lessons again. The more flexible you can be, the better.

12. Learning necessitates engagement.

The brain learns plenty when it isn’t “engaged.” From body language and facial expressions to cultural cues and social etiquette, the majority of what we pick up on a daily basis is below the threshold of our consciousness. So why the obsession with capturing attention, piquing interest, assuming that students must love a subject to death in order to gain something from it? We need to take a step back and ask ourselves whether it really makes sense to be measuring engagement over learning.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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