Try this … building student engagement to deepen learning

In an online discussion group the other day, one of the participants asked, “Is there hard data to show increased engagement has benefits for student learning?” What a great question! As teachers using Dramatic Inquiry we know what student engagement looks like (‘eyes on stalks’, avid participation in activities, students not wanting to stop for breaks etc etc). And it’s easy to assume that the more engaged students are, the more they will get out of the experience. But what is ‘student engagement’ and what evidence is there that it actually helps students to learn? 

Researchers and commentators agree that student engagement is a lot more than ‘kids having fun’: it involves behavioural, emotional, cognitive, and agentic involvement in the learning experience.1 Two large-scale studies conducted by US polling company Gallup in 20182 and 20193 looked at the impact of student engagement on learning. Their data set was vast, based on millions of surveys. And while these were American students, the findings make compelling reading for teachers in any context. Gallup found that:

  • Just under half the students (47%) reported being engaged with school. 29% said they were not engaged and 24% were found to be ‘actively disengaged’. 
  • ‘Engaged students were 2.5 times more likely to say they were doing well at school and getting excellent grades. They were 4.5 times more likely to be hopeful about the future than their actively disengaged peers’. 4

They also found that:

  • Student engagement and hope were significantly positively related to student academic achievement progress
  • Schools in the top quartile of student engagement had significantly more students exceeding and meeting proficiency requirements than schools in the bottom quartile of engagement.5

Wow – there’s your hard data! If these studies are anything to go by, student engagement is vital not just for achievement, but also for young people having a sense of hope about the future. 

A lot has changed in the four or five years since Gallup did those polls. In today’s post-Covid world, we’re seeing unprecedented levels of disengagement, absenteeism and school avoidance in the UK, New Zealand6 and elsewhere around the world. Of course, the quality of teaching on offer is only part of the solution to this complex issue, but it’s an important factor. If children are interested and enthused about what they are doing in the classroom (and if their families and communities know this) it’s more likely they will keep showing up and wanting to learn. In this context, teachers are asking, ‘how can I build engagement?’ with more urgency than ever.

One of the main objectives of Try This … is to offer practical tools to help teachers set up engaging classroom activities. All the keys have strategies for consciously building participants’ behavioural, emotional, cognitive and agentic involvement, by attracting attention, building interest and motivation, offering opportunities for investment and concern and even building towards obsession.7 And the good news is it seems to be working. Teachers using the keys are reporting back with statements like: “Highly engaging for students”; “hooked immediately”; “lots of discussion and active learning”; “lots of intrigue, building up over 20+ minutes”; “helped students get engaged – very interested in the story after that!”8 It’s rewarding to consider how, sustained over time, this kind of enhanced student engagement could contribute to increased attendance, higher achievement, and more hope for the future.

  1. ↩︎
  2. ↩︎
  3. ↩︎
  4. ↩︎
  5. ↩︎
  6. ↩︎
  7. This is Heathcote’s continuum of engagement. See ‘teaching tools’ For more information see Chapter 5 of Real in all the ways that matter Viv Aitken 2021 (NZCER) ↩︎
  8. See ‘Teacher planning’ page ↩︎

Photograph (c) Steve Beaumont from Beginner’s Guide to Mantle of the Expert (2016)