Student Engagement Definition (2023)

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.

In many contexts, however, student engagement may also refer to the ways in which school leaders, educators, and other adults might “engage” students more fully in the governance and decision-making processes in school, in the design of programs and learning opportunities, or in the civic life of their community. For example, many schools survey students to determine their views on any number of issues, and then use the survey findingsto modify policies or programs in ways that honor or respond tostudent perspectives and concerns. Students may also create their own questions, survey their peers, and then present the results to school leaders or the school board to advocate for changes in programs or policies. Someschools have createdalternative forms of student governance, “student advisory committees,” student appointments totheschool board, and other formal and informal ways for students to contribute to the governance of a school or advise superintendents, principals, and local policy makers. These broader forms of “student engagement” cantake a wide variety of forms—far too many to extensively catalog here. Yet afew illustrative examples include school-supportedvolunteer programs and community-service requirements (engaging students in public service and learningthrough public service), student organizing (engaging students in advocacy, community organizing, and constructive protest), and any number of potential student-led groups, forums, presentations, and events (engaging students in communityleadership,public speaking, and other activities that contribute to “positive youth development“). For a related discussion, see student voice.

In education, the term student engagement has grown in popularity in recent decades, most likely resulting from an increased understanding of the role that certain intellectual, emotional, behavioral, physical, and social factors play in the learning process and social development. For example, a wide variety of research studies on learning have revealed connections between so-called “non-cognitive factors” or “non-cognitive skills” (e.g., motivation, interest, curiosity, responsibility, determination, perseverance, attitude, work habits, self-regulation, social skills, etc.) and “cognitive” learning results (e.g., improved academic performance, test scores, information recall, skill acquisition, etc.). The concept of student engagement typically arises when educators discuss or prioritize educational strategies and teaching techniques that address the developmental, intellectual, emotional, behavioral, physical, and social factors that either enhance or undermine learning for students.

It should be noted that educators may hold different views on student engagement, and it may be defined or interpreted differently from place to place. For example, in one school observable behaviorssuch as attending class, listening attentively, participating in discussions, turning in work on time, and following rules and directionsmay be perceived as forms of “engagement,” while in another school the concept of “engagement” may be largely understood in terms of internal states such as enthusiasm, curiosity, optimism, motivation, or interest.

While the concept of student engagement seems straightforward, it can take fairly complex forms in practice. The following examples illustrate a few ways in which student engagement may be discussed or addressed in schools:

  • Intellectual engagement: To increase student engagement in a course or subject, teachers may create lessons, assignments, or projects that appeal to student interests or that stimulate their curiosity. For example, teachers may give students more choice over the topics they are asked to write about (so students can choose a topic that specifically interests them) or they may let students choose the way they will investigate a topic or demonstrate what they have learned (some students may choose to write a paper, others may produce short video or audio documentary, and still others may create a multimedia presentation). Teachers may also introduce a unit of study with a problem or question that students need to solve. For example, students might be asked to investigate the causes of a local environmental problem, determine the species of an unknown animal from a few short descriptions of its physical characteristics and behaviors, or build a robot that can accomplish a specific task. In these cases, sparking student curiosity can increase “engagement” in the learning process. For related discussions, see authentic learning, community-based learning, differentiation, personalized learning, project-based learning, andrelevance.
  • Emotional engagement: Educators may use a wide variety of strategies to promote positive emotions in students that will facilitate the learning process, minimize negative behaviors, or keep students from dropping out. For example, classrooms and other learning environments may be redesigned to make them more conducive to learning, teachers may make a point of monitoring student moods and asking them how they are feeling, or school programs may provide counseling, peer mentoring, or other services that generally seek to give students the support they need to succeed academically and feel positive, optimistic, or excited about school and learning. Strategies such as advisories, for example, are intended to build stronger relationships between students and adults in a school. The basic theory is that students will be more likely to succeed if at least one adult in the school is meeting with a student regularly, inquiring about academic and non-academic issues, giving her advice, and taking an interest in her out-of-school life, personal passions, future aspirations, and distinct learning challenges and needs.
  • Behavioral engagement: Teachers may establish classroom routines, use consistent cues, or assign students roles that foster behaviors more conducive to learning. For example, elementary school teachers may use cues or gestures that help young students refocus on a lesson if they get distracted or boisterous. The teacher may clap three times or raise a hand, for example, which signals to students that it’s time to stop talking, return to their seats, or begin a new activity. Teachers may also establish consistent routines that help students stay on task or remain engaged during a class. For example, the class may regularly break up into small groups or move their seats into a circle for a group discussion, or the teacher may ask students on a rotating basis to lead certain activities. By introducing variation into a classroom routine, teachers can reduce the monotony and potential disengagement that may occur when students sit in the same seat, doing similar tasks, for extended periods of time. Research on brain-based learning has also provided evidence that variation, novelty, and physical activity can stimulate and improve learning. For a related discussion, see classroom management.
  • Physical engagement: Teachers may use physical activities or routines to stimulate learning or interest. For example, “kinesthetic learning” refers to the use of physical motions and activities during the learning process. Instead of asking students to answer questions aloud, a teacher might ask students to walk up to the chalkboard and answer the question verbally while also writing the answer on the board (in this case, the theory is that students are more likely to remember information when they are using multiple parts of the brain at the same time—i.e., the various parts dedicated to speaking, writing, physical activity, etc.). Teachers may also introduce short periods of physical activity or quick exercises, particularly during the elementary years, to reduce antsy, fidgety, or distracted behaviors. In addition, more schools throughout the United States are addressing the physical needs of students by, for example, offering all students free breakfasts (because disengagement in learning and poor academic performance have been linked to hunger and malnutrition) or starting school later at a later time (because adolescent sleep patterns and needs differ from those of adults, and adolescents may be better able to learn later in the morning).
  • Social engagement: Teachers may use a variety of strategies to stimulate engagement through social interactions. For example, students may be paired or grouped to work collaboratively on projects, or teachers may create academic contests that students compete in—e.g., a friendly competition in which teams of students build robots to complete a specific task in the shortest amount of time. Academic and co-curricular activities such as debate teams, robotics clubs, and science fairs also bring together learning experiences and social interactions. In addition, strategies such as demonstrations of learning or capstone projects may require students to give public presentations of their work, often to panels of experts from the local community, while strategies such as community-based learning or service learning (learning through volunteerism) can introduce civic and social issues into the learning process. In these cases, learning about societal problems, or participating actively in social causes, can improve engagement.
  • Cultural engagement: Schools may take active steps to make students from diverse cultural backgrounds—particularly recently arrived immigrant or refugee students and their families—feel welcomed, accepted, safe, and valued. For example, administrators, teachers, and school staff may provide special orientation sessions for their new-American populations or offer translation services and informational materials translated into multiple languages. Students, families, and local cultural leaders from diverse backgrounds may be asked to speak about their experiences to students and school staff, and teachers may intentionally modify lessons to incorporate the history, literature, arts, and perspectives of the student ethnicities and nationalities represented in their classes. School activities may also incorporate multicultural songs, dances, and performances, while posters, flags, and other educational materials featured throughout the school may reflect the cultural diversity of the students and school community. The general goal of such strategies would be to reduce the feelings of confusion, alienation, disconnection, or exclusion that some students and families may experience, and thereby increase their engagement in academics and school activities. For related discussions, see dual-language education, English-language learner,multicultural education, and voice.
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