How to Determine if Student Engagement is Leading to Learning

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Excerpted from the book, "UnCommon Learning: Creating Schools That Work for Kids," by Eric Sheninger, published by Corwin, 2015

Engagement Does Not Always Equate to Learning

No matter where I am, whether it is a physical location or virtual, I am always hearing conversations about how technology can be used to engage students effectively. This is extremely important as the majority of students spend six to eight hours a day in schools where they are completely disengaged. I for one can’t blame today’s learner for being bored in school when I all have to do is observe my own son at home playing Minecraft to see firsthand his high level of engagement. His Minecraft experiences provide meaning and relevance in an environment that is intellectually stimulating but, more importantly, fun. Schools and educators would be wise to take cues from the real world and make concerted efforts to integrate technology with the purpose to increase student engagement. Engagement, after all, is the impetus for learning in my opinion.

Hidden Curriculum (2014) provides the following definition of engagement:

In education, student engagement refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education. Generally speaking, the concept of "student engagement" is predicated on the belief that learning improves when students are inquisitive, interested, or inspired, and that learning tends to suffer when students are bored, dispassionate, disaffected, or otherwise "disengaged." Stronger student engagement or improved student engagement are common instructional objectives expressed by educators.

The last line in this description elicits a great deal of concern for me. With or without technology, there always seems to be a great deal of emphasis on student engagement, but the fact of the matter is that engagement does not necessarily equate to learning. I have observed numerous lessons where students were obviously engaged through the integration of technology, but there was no clear indication that students were learning. Having fun, collaborating, communicating, and being creative are all very important elements that should be embedded elements of pedagogically sound lessons, but we must not lose sight of the importance of the connection to, and evidence of, learning. Thus, students can walk away from a lesson or activity having been very engaged but with very little in the form of new knowledge construction, conceptual mastery, or evidence of applied skills. When speaking at events I often ask leaders and teachers how they measure the impact of technology on learning. More often than not I receive blank stares or an open admission that they have no idea. The allure of engagement can be blinding as well as misleading.

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It is so important to look beyond mere student engagement when it comes to technology. If the emphasis is on digital learning, we must not get caught up in the bells and whistles or smoke and mirrors that are commonly associated with the digital aspect alone. Engagement should always translate into deeper learning opportunities where technology provides students the means to think critically and solve problems while demonstrating what they know and can do in a variety of ways. Technology should be implemented to increase engagement, but that engagement must lead to support, enhancement, or an increase in student learning. It should not be used as a digital pacifier or gimmick to get students to be active participants in class. With technology there should be a focus on active learning where students are doing.

Here are some questions that will assist in determining if engagement is leading to actual learning:

• Is the technology being integrated in a purposeful way, grounded in sound pedagogy?
• What are the learning objectives or outcomes?
• Are students demonstrating the construction of new knowledge? Are they creating a learning product or artifact?
• How are students applying essential skills they have acquired to demonstrate conceptual mastery?
• What assessments (formative or summative) are being used to determine standard attainment?
• How are students being provided feedback about their progress toward the specific learning objectives or outcomes?
• Is there alignment to current observation or evaluation tools?

Engagement, relevance, and fun are great, but make sure there is observable evidence that students are learning when integrating technology.

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Excerpted from the book, "UnCommon Learning: Creating Schools That Work for Kids" by Eric Sheninger, published by Corwin, 2015. He is a Senior Fellow and Thought Leader on Digital Leadership with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE). Prior to this he was the award-winning principal at New Milford High School.  You can follow him on Twitter at @E_Sheninger.

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