Written by Valerie Coffey on March 14, 2019
It is 2019, and the stakes for educator and student success have never been higher. Administrators and teachers are looking at many ways to improve student outcomes and increase achievement. One methodology that gets a lot of lip-service is student engagement. And it is this educator’s opinion that student engagement is not just a method, but actually the answer to student success.
What Does Student Engagement Look Like?
I remember a specific moment that really showed me the importance of students becoming active partners in their own learning. I was teaching an elementary technology encore class, and we used a web-based product in which students completed activities to show grade level standards and skills competency. I remember a sixth grade student coming in and asking if we’d use the program that day. I indicated we would. He said, “Good! I am working on positive and negative integers, and I don’t get it. Will you come sit with me and help me figure it out?” I was happy to.
We spent a few minutes talking about where his confusion was, and I brought up an interactive website to help him visualize the concepts we were discussing. A girl next to him said, “I am stuck on that, too. Can you move your chair between us?” I did. We worked through the interactive tool and discussed what we were doing until they told me they were comfortable trying it alone. I checked back on them later, and they were both so proud to tell me they’d achieved their goal for the day and had showed mastery of the concept. To me, it was teaching at its highest level: the students were telling me what they needed and how I could help.
Student Engagement vs. Student Participation
Student engagement often gets confused with student participation. There is a difference. Students can be attentive, answering questions, and active—but, still not engaged in their own learning. And while active participation is good, I believe students truly want to be engaged and active decision-makers in their own learning journey. Students want to know where they are going, provide input in creating the plan to get there, and be able to track their own progress on the journey.
The question is: how do we get from random engaged moments to a structured plan that ensures our students stay engaged?
How Do You Engage Students?
There is an abundance of research and articles available about what students need to truly engage. Much of it can be synthesized down to these 7 areas:
1. An environment that is physically and psychologically safe.
The building and classroom both need to be positive spaces to ensure students feel welcome, comfortable, and that they belong. Policies, procedures, and norms need to ensure that adults and students treat each other with respect, civility, and caring.
2. Positive and caring relationships with teachers, administrators, and classmates.
Students need to know that they matter and that others care about them, both as learners and as individuals. Adults who take the time to get to know their students’ interests, concerns, and dreams will help lay a foundation of trust that allows the student to be vulnerable and take risks in his or her learning.
3. A belief that they can learn–and to have that belief validated by others.
Students need to believe that they can learn and that others believe in them, too. Carol Dweck has dedicated much of her career to helping us understand how to foster a growth mindset in students. Angela Lee Duckworth has helped us understand the value of grit. Students need educators who encourage them and allow them to take risks and keep trying and support them along the way.
4. Teaching that is interesting and fosters natural curiosity.
No one enjoys endless slide decks or lectures that drone on and on. Students need instruction that is delivered in an interesting and creative manner. There are a variety of techniques for this, and many teachers are masters at drawing their students in and fanning the sparks of interest into flames of learning. Check out the sources at the bottom for a few resources and ideas.
5. A connection of content to real life.
Often, students don’t engage because they don’t understand why what they are learning matters. Great teachers guide students to understand not only the “what” they are learning, but also the “why.” Applying concepts to real world scenarios and problems that students can relate to personally and connecting concepts to students’ dreams and aspirations help them engage at a deeper level of advanced critical thinking and problem-solving. Doing so also helps students engage as lifelong learners long after they graduate.
6. Options in how they learn and how they demonstrate their learning.
Students are much more motivated and engaged when they can choose to learn independently or collaboratively—and when they can tie what they are learning to their own interests and learning styles. Teachers must provide a specific rubric of what competency and success will look like, but allow students freedom in the methodology of how to show their learning. The results may be a written paper, a video, or even a piece of art. And while it may not be possible to allow this freedom for all assignments, providing it along with a variety of other methods keeps learning interesting.
Students are also more likely to engage and take risks if they also know that they have multiple opportunities to master a concept. Allowing students to retake all or portions of a test, when needed, can help students to persevere in their learning, even if it doesn’t come easily the first time. As Ken O’Connor has taught us: if we are skydiving, do we really care whether it took the parachute packers one time or multiple times to get it right, as long as they have shown mastery before packing our parachute?
7. Data and timely feedback to inform next steps.
Students actually love having data and feedback. Watch any child play a video game and you will see how they use the feedback and data to adjust their efforts and try again. Teachers who understand this engage their students with their own data to help them understand what they know, where they still need to work, and determine their next steps in learning. These teachers also provide feedback on misconceptions and use these moments to intervene quickly and reteach to help students be successful.
This video is a great example of a teacher using Illuminate DnA to quickly engage her fourth grade students after an assessment. Notice how she provides data, corrects misconceptions, and helps them apply their learning to future needs–all within about three minutes. Although it’s not shown on the video, she also provides small group intervention sessions and other ways to support individual learning needs. Her daily approach in engaging her students with their data and providing ongoing and timely feedback and support resulted in her students going from 44% to 70% proficient on the state assessment in just one year.
While engaging students in their learning is not always hard, it may require a change of practice and some extra time planning for instruction and assessment. The results will be well worth any extra we give, as we watch our students engage, embrace learning, and succeed.
Ferlazzo, L. (2017) Student Engagement: Key to Personalized Learning. Retrieved from the ASCD website:
DeWitt, P. (2016) Student Engagement: Is It Authentic of Compliant? Retrieved from the EdWeek website: https://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/finding_common_ground/2016/04/student_engagement_is_it_authentic_or_compliant.html
Marzano, R.J. (2013) Art and Science of Teaching / Ask Yourself: Are Students Engaged? Retrieved from the ASCD website:
Novak, K. (2018) Road Tested / Learning Should Be a Conversation with Students http://www.ascd.org/publications/newsletters/education-update/dec18/vol60/num12/Learning-Should-Be-a-Conversation-with-Students.aspx
Strong, R., Silver, H. R., and Robinson, A. (1995) Strengthening Student Engagement: What Do Students Want. Retrieved from the ASCD website: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept95/vol53/num01/Strengthening-Student-Engagement@-What-Do-Students-Want.aspx
Student Engagement (2016). Retrieved from the Glossary of Education Reform website: https://www.edglossary.org/student-engagement/
Voke, H. (2002) Motivating Students to Learn. Retrieved from the ASCD website: http://www.ascd.org/publications/newsletters/policy-priorities/feb02/num28/Motivating-Students-to-Learn.aspx
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