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Student engagement

Outram School students.

Beginning a teacher inquiry is about observation of your students and reflection on the effect your practice is having on their learning. A lack of engagement can be one of the first signs that a student in your class is not going to experience success with their learning – and may be a strong signal that something in the way you are teaching is not working for that student, or group of students.  There is increasing evidence that using digital technologies in line with students’ individual needs and interest will help improve achievement and engagement across a range of contexts. 

Engagement can be loosely divided into three types:

  • Cognitive engagement, where students are engaged with the processes and progressions of their learning
  • Behavioural engagement, where students show they they are ready and willing to learn
  • Emotional engagement, where students feel secure in their relationships with their teachers, classmates and the school. This can be particularly important for Māori and Pasifika students.

Sometimes levels of engagement are well hidden by students.  Those who choose to quietly not participate, for instance, or who manage to just scrape by, can fly under a teacher's radar very easily. Sometimes the behaviours can be more overt, but are looked at as symptomatic of a number of other options, such as behavioural issues.

When children come home talking excitedly about the latest issues they are grappling with in class, this shows that something important has kindled their desire to know more. When students want to bring resources from home that contribute to the class study, do extra at home for the sheer pleasure of it, offer to lead a group of peers, start contributing in unexpected ways, make suggestions to the class on how to improve something or want to stay in when the bell goes because what they are learning is just so absorbing, then we know that students are taking learning to heart. We know that they are curious and inspired.

Connecting Curriculum, Linking Learning, 2013

Factors influencing student engagement

A range of factors impact on how well students relate to and are engaged by what they are learning at school. These include the:

  • nature of relationship with the teacher and other students in the class
  • perceived relevance of the learning material
  • level of knowledge and skills that students bring into each learning situation
  • intrinsic interest of the subject or activity to a particular student
  • extent to which there is variety in the teaching approaches
  • nature and extent of teacher feedback on students’ progress
  • extent to which students are able to take responsibility for their own learning.

Assessing student engagement

The following questions can be used to prompt thinking, discussion, and inquiry in your school.

  • What should engagement in learning look like? Is this the same or different for all learning areas?
  • What does disengagement look like? Is this the same or different for all learning areas?

Are students in our school:

  • persistent in their work, despite challenges and obstacles?
  • motivated to finish their work and feel accomplished when they do?
  • able to verbalise that they feel valued and understood in the classroom?
  • given the opportunity to have input into the classroom programme and planning?
  • always interested in their learning and want to find out more?
  • offered tasks and topics that are relevant and meaningful, and relate to their own lives?
  • aware of the purpose and expected outcomes of the learning tasks that we set?
  • receiving quality feedback and feed-forward?

Two New Zealand standardised tests have been developed to assess levels of student engagement.

Me and my school
A unique research-based student engagement survey designed for New Zealand students one for students in Years 7 to 10, and a junior version for Years 4 to 6. Me and my school offers a snapshot of the learning culture in your school, standardised data to track progress over time and a nationally referenced gender, ethnicity, and year level comparison. 

SATIS - Student Attitude Information System
Assesses factors that affect learning progress, including: attitude to the school, teachers, subjects, peer pressure, traumatic events, bullying, drugs, parental support and the home environment for year 7–10 students.

Engage Me or Enrage Me: What Today’s Learners Demand
Marc Prensky argues provocatively that the current, wired, technology-savvy generation of students are engaged everywhere in their lives except at school. “And here it is so boring that the kids, used to this other life, just can’t stand it”.

Stories to inspire change

Dr Penny Bishop: Disengaged learners
Dr Penny Bishop was keynote speaker at the 2010 NZAIMS conference. Here she talks about effective strategies for engaging middle schooling students and disengaged learners.

Putting students first
To improve student engagement and achievement at Taihape Area School the staff have put students first; structuring their school curriculum around the students' aspirations, interests, and preferred ways of learning.

Putting students first in English at Albany Senior High School
Hamish Chalmers, from Albany Senior High School, provides examples of how his students are at the forefront when designing English courses. He says the important thing to remember is that it is all about the students' own learning, their engagement, and therefore their ownership of that learning.

Where to next?

Now that you have identified what engagement looks like in your classroom, how do you put new strategies in place to engage and support them?

That’s all about taking the information you have gathered here, and evaluating it to change your practice.

Updated on: 19 Dec 2017