Identifying and Improving Classroom Engagement: What to Look For

Studies have shown that engaged students perform better academically than their under-engaged peers. Keeping students engaged while teaching is important in making sure students are learning concepts and understanding the material being taught. For teachers, it’s a difficult task to accomplish. Some students are easier to engage while others take more effort and attention. When thinking of student engagement, most teachers and educators focus on student participation or the time they spend on a task. However, a high percentage of student participation does not always mean a high level of student engagement. A student can be mentally and emotionally disengaged and still be on task. So, how do we know when students are engaged? And how do we engage the unengaged?

Though engagement involves many facets, most scholars and educators agree that three areas of engagement are all linked to motivation, a student’s underlying reason for a given behavior. These are behavioral, emotional, and cognitive engagement.

Behavioral engagement refers to the level that a student participates in the academic, social, or extracurricular activities. This is an outward form of engagement and most often referred to when discussing engagement among school officials and teachers. Outward signs can include participating in discussions, asking questions, and even general attentiveness to the teacher and lesson. This form of engagement is considered crucial to achieving positive academic outcomes and preventing dropping out.

Emotional engagement refers to the extent of positive and negative reactions to teachers, classmates, academics, or school and is often conceptualized as identification with the school: a feeling of belonging, being important or valued by the school, and appreciation of school-related success. This form of engagement is affected by how students view the school, their teachers, their peers, and even how they view themselves. It affects willingness to work, how students respond to the teacher requests and assigned work, and how they get along with their peers.

Cognitive engagement refers to the students’ level of investment in their own learning such as being thoughtful, strategic, and willing to exert effort to comprehend and master complex ideas and difficult skills. This means students are thinking and actively learning on their own. They seek to understand and are willing to exert the effort needed to understand learning material.

To improve student engagement, look for ways to offer students choices, listen to their opinions, and explain the relevance of their work for their own life and goals. According to International Handbook of Emotions in Education by Reinhard Pekrun and Lisa Linnenbrink-Garcia and published by Rutledge in 2014 teachers who support student freedom “treat students with respect, seek out and value their views, encourage them to work on issues that are important to them, and provide explanations for why activities that are not intrinsically fun are crucial to learning.”

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