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Creating a Community of Engaged Learners

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August 24th, 2017

Since the 1980s, much has been written about student engagement and how to improve it. While various psychological theories contribute to the overall picture of what makes students interested in learning, little has been done to organize the research into a coherent model that students, parents, and educators can use to improve academic outcomes.

School districts across the country have identified the existence of gaps, inconsistencies, lack of utility, overlaps and frustrations with insufficient data, unwieldy administrative procedures and the overwhelming task of helping students gain an intrinsic love of learning.

Recent studies on student engagement link important contexts—home, school, peers, community—to self-perception and performance. The extent to which a student is engaged is a robust predictor of his or her ability to learn, get good grades and test scores, retain information and, ultimately, graduate.

 The 2016 Gallup Student Poll surveyed 900,000 public school students in grades 5-12 in 48 states. The U.S. overall scorecard shows that disengagement generally increases over time, so that by grade 12 about two-thirds of all students are either not engaged or actively disengaged.

The increasing levels of disengagement pose a serious problem for adolescents as they enter adulthood. Disengaged students are four and a half times less likely to be hopeful about the future, and they are twice as likely to avoid going to college.

According to education researcher Douglas Reeves, disengaged students struggle with feelings of disrespect and disempowerment, impeding their success in both the classroom and the wider world.

The good news is that engagement is a malleable state, which can be shaped by schools, parents and other concerned adults. One powerful example is the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) project, which embedded social services into the community to dramatically reverse the effects of poverty on academic and psychosocial development.

While most educators don’t have access to the dedicated resources of programs like HCZ, teachers should never underestimate their personal power to make a difference in the life of a disengaged student.

The first step is to understand the attributes of engaged students. Focusing solely on grades and attendance ignores the foundation of hope and resilience that engaged students share. These personal qualities contribute to an optimistic mindset, which is associated with feelings of competence, respect, efficacy, and choice: the recipe for a lifetime of personal growth.

In 2016, when developmental psychologist Maria Konnikova published the results of a 32-year longitudinal study on resilience, researchers have understood its critical role in student success. The study showed the positive effects of being able to view setbacks as growth opportunities, maintain optimism in the face of adversity and create a caring community.

Since that time, Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein have done considerable research into identifying the mindset of resilient students and effective educators. A 2015 study by Hendrie Weisinger and J.P. Pawli-Fry concluded that a student’s degree of resilience and hope is a better predictor of academic outcome than IQ. Influencing the adoption of optimistic mindsets may go a long way toward improving academic outcomes.

Thus, it’s important for all teachers to resist the tendency to view student disengagement as a sign of failure. Instead, teachers should look at disengagement as a “diagnostic tool,” an indication that students need more warmth, structure and a sense of community. Teachers should do their best to model respectfulness, share their own experiences with success and failure, and help students view failures as opportunities to learn, grow and cope.

Would you like to learn practical tips on how to reach disengaged learners? We recently hosted a webinar that you can replay here.


Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.

Ready to discover your one-stop shop for your district’s educational needs? Let’s talk.

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