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What Engagement Really Means

student engagement

Are you with me?

Teachers ask this question a lot, either aloud or in our heads. The truth is, it can be really hard to tell whether students are engaged with class content in a meaningful way. Sure, the kid in front might be nodding his head with enthusiasm, but what will happen if we respond to that appearance of interest by asking him to share his thoughts? Odds are, the nodding indicates the opposite of what we think. Rather than signifying understanding, it’s an old trick we all use, one that is designed to make someone seem attentive when really, they’re a thousand miles away. Regardless of whether or not teachers have visible evidence that students are involved in their studies to the point that they derive significant benefit from being in class, it is possible to learn how to recognize and categorize levels of student interest to bring forth a more profound degree of student engagement.

Polite Interest

The lowest level of student engagement is compliance. Kids who fit this description know that they should be cooperative in class, but that might be as far as they’re willing to go. They will remain awake, do as they are told, and speak when spoken to. The problem is, students in this category are on autopilot to the extent that their understanding of what is happening with course content might be superficial at best. To that end, the best possible strategy that moves compliant students into a more meaningful level of engagement is for the teacher to gather information by collecting student voice.

Instead of asking questions and waiting for volunteers, or assuming that students are comprehending everything teachers say, it might be more useful to pause and hear from from
everyone in the room. Perhaps we give students an opportunity to show what they’ve learned. For example, asking everyone in the room to paraphrase a learning concept and put it on the board or in a shared online space is one way to reveal both comprehension and misconceptions. A similar strategy is to ask students to stand up, find a partner across the room, and summarize a key idea before being given the opportunity to share their conversation with the whole group. When teachers take the time to ensure that students are “with” them in the learning process, the level of engagement moves past compliance and into authenticity.

Extrinsic Rewards

One level up in their engagement are students who are strongly driven by the external motivational structures that most schools follow, such as grading and reporting. When assignments are graded, these individuals perform well by applying a much higher degree of effort and are rewarded with favorable results. However, when faced with assessments that are meant to provide data but that are ungraded, such as baseline or formative measures, this group of students may disengage as they conclude there is nothing in it for them. So, how to change that perception?

The process of helping students to understand the benefits of classroom activities that do not have more instantaneous benefits is complex, and messaging is key. When teachers know why learning is important toward a specific goal, they can share with students how all class work plays into overall concept attainment. Perhaps an exit ticket might not be graded, but if a teacher writes comments on student work and discusses the results (either with individuals or the class as a whole) in relation to how their work currently supports success on future assessments, that will gradually move extrinsically motivated students toward the habit of valuing work that doesn’t come with more immediate gratification.

True Investment

The level of engagement that most teachers hope their students aspire to is built around developing a genuine interest in course content. Students in this category value learning over grades, and they also tend to exhibit more divergent thinking or methods that are less cookie-cutter, thanks to their inner drive superseding a desire to people-please. When students have a keen sense of purpose coming from within, the best thing teachers can do is nurture it. One effective approach to maintaining that interest is to give students choices wherever possible. Suppose the class is studying a period in history and there is an opportunity for students to select a cultural or social norm from that era and dig more deeply into the details. Letting kids select what to study is a motivating move, and it helps to maintain any avid interest that students hold for the work they do. Furthermore, when students are involved in how they display their knowledge with a selection of possible modalities (visual, written, via slides, etc.), they remain invested in class activities and processes.

It can be so hard to determine whether the kids who appear to be engaged are actually getting anything out of their classes, especially when reading minds is not yet a skill most teachers have acquired. However, uncovering student thinking with some skillful maneuvers is almost as good as developing psychic powers, and it provides the additional advantage of further building meaningful relationships with students who understand that their teachers truly care about whether they learn on a deeper level, and not just on the surface.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and Lead Like a Teacher. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS