What Is Student Engagement?
I define student engagement as all the positive behaviors students show which indicate full participation in the learning process. When students are engaged, we can hear, see and feel their motivation in completing a task – they take pride in their work and move beyond doing the minimum required. Engaged students demonstrate a feeling of belonging by the way they act, the positive things they say about school and through their passionate involvement in class activities.
That’s why the student engagement element of the Learning Criteria is arguably the most important – because it’s really all about engaging your students. With today’s focus on state assessments, combined with the many distractions affecting young people, it is not surprising that many schools are concerned about an increasing number of disengaged students. This has moved student engagement to the front burner, where it needs to stay if we want all students to achieve the skills and knowledge that will provide them with the basis for success and fulfillment throughout their lives.
Not an Easy Task
Experienced educators know that increasing student engagement is not easy. How many times have teachers – as well as parents and most adults, for that matter – heard students say, “Why do I need to learn this stuff?”
The reality is that students must understand why it is truly important for them to learn a specific topic. Teachers should continually work to provide a relevant contextual base for the knowledge and skills they teach. Education is boring—if not meaningless— when it is reduced to an unending list of content topics where the student quickly learns the facts, takes the test and then forgets it all. Focusing on a narrower list of priority skills and knowledge makes the importance of learning clearer.
Both Teacher and Student Must Engage
It is easy to observe a lack of student engagement: Students are slouched in their chairs, not listening to their teacher and not participating in classroom discussion. Many teachers who see disengaged students lament that they could be better teachers—and show better learning results—if only they had the opportunity to work with a “better” group of students. But classrooms with high levels of student engagement are not simply a result of “student quality.”
Prior experiences, attitudes and perceptions impact how engaged students are in the classroom. But teachers are not limited to poor learning results because students are not engaged. Teachers must begin to reflect on the elements that contribute to student engagement before they begin to deal with poor student performance.
After all, teachers have direct control and can make changes instantaneously in some areas. For other changes to occur, it will take time to develop new skills for both the student and the teacher. What follows are elements that support and encourage student engagement:
- Cultivate one-on-one relationships. The one-on-one relationship between student and teacher is the critical element which can lead to increased student motivation and higher levels of engagement in academic achievement and school life.
- Learn new skills and habits. Teachers can learn new skills and habits that help them to develop, polish and enhance their natural inclination to motivate and engage students.
- Incorporate systematic strategies. Teachers can learn systematic strategies and approaches which make it easier for students to engage. For their part, students also can develop behavioral skills and habits which lead to increased academic achievement and greater involvement in school life.
- Take responsibility for student engagement practices. The teacher’s primary responsibility is to engage students—it is not expecting students to come to class naturally and automatically engaged.
- Promote a schoolwide culture of engagement. The best way to achieve high levels of student engagement is to develop and maintain a schoolwide initiative dedicated to creating a culture of student engagement. This means getting students involved in school activities, while providing a rigorous and relevant education for all students.
- Use professional development to increase student engagement. Staff development, combined with staff ownership and recognition, is a critical part of developing and maintaining a culture of effective student engagement.
Today, all students need high levels of skills and knowledge to succeed in adult life. Schools must develop a culture of engagement that challenges every student to achieve rigorous and relevant standards.