Engagement is a crucial part of learning, but ensuring students are actively engaged is more complex than whether a student is paying attention or not. As technology has made its way into the classroom many educators describe how attentive students are when on devices, but a quiet, outwardly behaved student is not the same thing as one that is truly engaged. The kind of engagement that leads to learning is three dimensional.
Too often educators look at engagement as a “yes or no” question: students are either engaged or they’re not. “That is absolutely not an appropriate way to view it,” said John Almarode, associate professor at James Madison University and co-director of the school's Center for STEM Education and Outreach. “It is not a one-dimensional concept.”
When Almarode visits classrooms he looks for behavioral, emotional and cognitive engagement at play together. He points out that on-task behavior is not a strong measure of learning. More than that, a student might behave, but be miserable. “Everything we know about the neuroscience of learning is that emotion drives cognition,” he said. But even if a student is behaving and feels good about it, if he or she isn’t actively making meaning out of the information, then active engagement still hasn’t been reached.
When Almarode visits classrooms he looks for eight different qualities that indicate students are engaged.
- Does the activity, strategy, task, or idea allow for the student to personalize his or her response? Can they bring their life experiences into the activity and make it their own?
- Are there clear and modeled expectations?
- Is there a sense of audience above and beyond the teacher and the test? Does the activity have value to someone else?
- Is there social interaction? Do students have an opportunity to talk about the learning and interact?
- Is there a culture of emotional safety? Are mistakes valued because they are an opportunity to learn?
- Do students have opportunities to choose within the activity?
- Is it an authentic activity? This doesn’t mean it always must connect directly to the student’s world, but it should connect to reality.
- Is the task new and novel? If kids are bored, it’s hard to see engagement
It’s undoubtedly hard to get all eight measures of engagement into every classroom activity, but research by John Antonetti shows that at least three can make a big difference for how much kids learn. “In classrooms where you had at least three characteristics in each assignment students demonstrated sustained cognitive engagement between 84 and 86 percent of the time,” Almarode said. When only two characteristics were present students were only cognitively engaged about 16 percent of the time, and that number dropped to less than four percent when only one characteristic was present.