Student Engagement in the Online and Offline Classroom

Contributed by:
Jonathan James
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 Tier 1, 2, or 3 Intervention 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.
1. Tiers 1, 2 & 3
Student Engagement
Strategy Brief, April, 2015
Amber Olson & Reece L. Peterson, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
A 2013 poll found that approximately 55% of students across the United States are en-
gaged in their current school, leaving 28% of students who are disengaged, and 17%
who are actively disengaged (Gallup, 2013). Austin and Benard (2007) report that more than
40-60% of low-income, minority, and urban students are chronically disengaged in school. Prior
to dropping out, students report a process of disengagement from school activities and school
demands (Archambault, Janosz, Morizot, & Pagani, 2009). By understanding and promoting stu-
dent engagement, schools can actively work to increase the engagement of their students, and
thus, their school success. Student engagement is necessary for students to gain knowledge and
skills to succeed in post-secondary programs and future careers (Wang & Eccles, 2012a, 2012b).
Understanding student engagement is essential for schools that want to promote positive youth
development (Li & Lerner, 2011).
What is Student Engagement?
Student engagement is a term used to describe an individual’s interest and enthusiasm
for school, which impacts their academic performance and behavior (Gallup, 2013). Student
engagement is a complex term, making it all the more difficult to understand. Student “en-
gagement involves positive student behaviors, such as
attendance, paying attention, and participation in class,
as well as the psychological experience of identification
Tier 1, 2 or 3
with school and feeling that one is cared for, respected,
and part of the school environment” (Anderson, Chris-
tenson, Sinclair, & Lehr, 2004, p.97). It is evident from
this definition that the concept of student engagement
is multidimensional and multifaceted; students vary
in their level of engagement as they progress through
school. Also, students can change within specific as-
pects of engagement (Archambault et al., 2009). For
example, a student may demonstrate high levels of
engagement for reading, but demonstrate low levels of
engagement during math and science classes. Varying
degrees of engagement are evident both within an in-
dividual student and across specific students. The Great
Schools Partnership’s definition of student engagement
provides a thorough description of student engagement:
“In education, student engagement refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, op-
timism, 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
2. Student Engagement 2
students are inquisitive, interested, or inspired,
and that learning tends to suffer when students
are bored, dispassionate, disaffected, or other-
wise “disengaged.” Stronger student engage-
ment or improved student engagement are
common instructional objectives expressed by
educators.” (Student Engagement, 2014, para.
1) interchangeable. Motivation is defined as “a
theoretical construct used to explain the initia-
Due to the complexity of the definition of tion, direction, intensity, and persistence of
student engagement, schools might define or behavior, especially goal-directed behavior”
interpret it differently. From this definition, the (Brophy, 1998, p. 3; See the Motivation Strat-
Great Schools Partnership has provided meth- egy Brief). While both encompass a variety
ods that schools can use to engage students in of student behaviors, motivation is specific to
several ways; we will address these later on in goal-direct behaviors while student engagement
the brief. includes all positive student behaviors as well as
the student’s psychological experience.
Components of Student Engagement
Connectedness. A student’s physical
Archambault and colleagues (2009) identi- experience within their school is an aspect of
fied three distinct categories of student en- engagement and represents a student’s con-
gagement: behavioral engagement, affective nectedness to the external environment of the
engagement, and cognitive engagement. The school or school climate. School climate can
first type of student engagement, behavioral have an impact on how “connected” a student
engagement, includes a student’s compliance feels to their school. The Centers for Disease
to rules and involvement in the classroom and Control and Prevention (2009) identify school
with extracurricular activities. The second type connectedness as “the belief by students that
of student engagement, affective engagement, adults and peers in the school care about their
includes the experience, feelings, attitudes, learning as well as about them as individuals”
and perceptions a student has towards school, (p. 3; See Strategy Brief on School Climate).
specifically the student’s sense of belonging, Therefore, school climate is one avenue through
interest, willingness to learn, and general sense which schools can influence student engage-
of liking school. The third type of engagement, ment.
cognitive engagement, refers to the cogni-
tive functions involved in a student’s learning Continuum of engagement. As discussed
process. Because behaviors, emotions, and previously, student engagement occurs on a
cognitions are all a part of development, it is continuum from disengaged to engaged (Bryson
important to consider all three categories (i.e., & Hand, 2007). Assessing the level of student
behavior engagement, affective engagement, engagement within a school is essential because
cognitive engagement) when implementing a school failure and dropout are often the final
prevention program (Archambault et al., 2009). outcomes for these students (Blondal & Adalb-
A student’s perceptions of the school environ- jarnardottir, 2012). Although students might be
ment influences their motivation for academic disengaged, they might be succeeding academi-
achievement, which can be influenced by all cally. Indicators of disengagement include a
three of these types of engagement (Wang & student’s feelings toward school and behaviors
Peck, 2013). while at school (Blondal & Adalbjarnardottir,
2012). In order to minimize student failure and
Motivation and engagement. It is evident dropout, it is crucial to assess student engage-
that student motivation is intertwined with ment.
engagement; however, these terms are not
3. Student Engagement 3
Parent engagement. Another component of tion, and academic resilience (Jimerson, Cam-
student engagement is parent involvement, or pos, & Greif, 2003; Sinclair, Christenson, Lehr,
parent engagement. Parent involvement is de- & Anderson, 2003). Student engagement was
fined as “parents and families working together assessed using self-report measures. Students
to improve the development of children and reported their own level of engagement in the
adolescents” (Strait & Rivera, 2013, p. 5). Parent classroom using a five-item measure. This mea-
involvement increases academic and behavioral sure was designed to assess the individual’s be-
performance of students, thus, increasing stu- havioral and emotional engagement. A consid-
dent engagement (Henderson & Mapp, 2002; erable amount of research has concluded that
Jeynes, 2003; see the Strategy Brief, Parent and student engagement is one of the key contribu-
Family Involvement). tors to academic success (Fredricks, Blumenfeld,
& Paris, 2004; Skinner et al., 2008).
What Do We Know About Student One way schools can proactively work to in-
Engagement? crease student engagement is to increase teach-
er support and engagement in their respective
It is evident that the term student engage- classrooms. Research conducted by Bryson and
ment has many aspects and meanings. This is a Hand (2007) found that students are more likely
broad topic and makes identifying appropriate to engage in school if their teachers engage with
research articles difficult. When using PsycINFO them and the materials being taught. Teachers
database to search “student engagement,” who are engaged are those who show enthu-
approximately 5,000 articles were found and siasm, are concerned with students’ success,
about 3,000 of them were research-based ar- and provide academic support for students
ticles. Similar results were found when student (Bryson & Hand, 2007). Teachers can show their
engagement was searched in the Academic concern for students by establishing positive
Search Premier database. Additionally, many relationships with them. These relationships can
studies focused on other strategies such as positively affect student engagement (Anderson
parent involvement, school climate, and motiva- et al., 2004). Kamenetz (2014) explained this
tion, which may also be pertinent to the larger saying, teachers “working conditions are our
topic of school engagement. As a result the students’ learning conditions” (p. 2). A Gallup
number of studies which may pertain to student study found that principals who facilitate col-
engagement may be very large. A brief sum- laboration within the school increase teacher
mary of a few studies are provided here. engagement, thus, increasing student engage-
ment (Kamenetz, 2014).
Students who are engaged in school achieve
greater academic success (Skinner et al., 2008). Another important benefit of student en-
Student engagement not only predicts grades, gagement is that students who are engaged in
achievement test scores, and learning; it also school are less likely to fall victim to potential
predicts attendance, retention, school comple- adolescent troubles. For example, O’Farrell and
4. Student Engagement 4
Morrison (2003) have suggested that student expectations and support, as well as factors
engagement protects against behaviors that associated with the school such as climate. The
are not a part of the school environment, such Regional Education Laboratory (2011) released a
as substance abuse, risky sexual behaviors, and report that provides schools with a comprehen-
delinquency. Other research has shown that sive list of instruments that can be used to as-
students’ sense of belonging at school, which sess student engagement for upper elementary
can come as a result of facilitating student through high school aged students. This report
engagement in school activities, gatherings, and summarizes the literature pertaining to assess-
access to adults and other students, influences ing student engagement, as well as a description
students’ psychological and academic results in of each instrument including what is measured,
a positive way (Kortering & Braziel, 2008). the purpose, appropriate use, and psychometric
properties. Student self-report, teacher report,
and observational measures are included in this
Why Is Student Engagement list of instruments as well.
Instruments are used to assess student
The process of this psychosocial disengage- engagement, but different instruments target
ment starts early and is driven by the interac- different aspects of engagement. It is important
tion between the student and the environment to know what the instrument is measuring in
(Archambault et al., 2009). Transitional periods order to understand the extent to which that
(e.g., transition from middle school to high instrument measures the multidimensional
school) are considered to be critical periods for nature of student engagement (i.e., emotional,
increased disengagement and dropout (Stout behavioral, and cognitive engagement). Several
& Christenson, 2009). Some populations are at purposes or uses of these instruments include:
increased risk for disengagement during and (a) research on motivational and cognitive
beyond the transitional period. Based on early theories of learning; (b) research on disengage-
correlational studies, some of these “at-risk” ment and dropping out; (c) evaluation of school
factors include: minorities, males, students of reform efforts and interventions; (d) monitor-
single parent homes, students with low grades ing of engagement at the classroom, school, or
or test scores, students with disciplinary prob- district level; (e) diagnosis and monitoring at
lems or absenteeism, and students in highly the student level; and (f) needs assessment of
populated schools (Jordon, Lara, & McPartland, students’ developmental assets. Each instru-
1999; Reschly & Christenson, 2006; Rumberger, ment includes a description of its purpose to en-
2004). Balfanz, Herzog, and Mac Iver (2007) sure its appropriate use. Schools can use these
found that 60% of students who dropped out twenty-one instruments to assess the engage-
of high school could have been predicted with ment of their students.
early warning signs at the middle school level.
Although certain risk factors can give schools Engagement places a heavy emphasis on
an idea of the particular needs of students, the personal desire to learn. Self-determination
path to school dropout is not entirely clear or theory (SDT), in which the overall goal is to
predictable. engage the student in educational activities
(Hardre & Reeve, 2003), is one way to ana-
lyze and measure engagement. The Academic
How Can Schools Assess Student Self-Regulation Questionnaire (ASRQ) identifies
Engagement? the student’s motivation for going to school by
pinpointing items related to intrinsic reasons
Measuring engagement can be difficult (i.e., “Because I enjoy the experience”, “Because
since it is made up of multiple factors which can it’s interesting”), identified regulation/extrin-
include intrinsic and extrinsic student moti- sic reasons (“Because I see the importance of
vation, relationships, family and community learning”, “Because I really appreciate and un-
5. Student Engagement 5
derstand the usefulness of school”), and lack of and topics.
self-determined motivation (“Because, basically, • Teachers value and use collaborative learn-
I have to—it’s required, “I wouldn’t go if I had a ing methods.
choice”; Hardre & Reeve, 2003). Studies on the • Teachers use technology as a tool to in-
SDT state that teachers who provide students crease learning opportunities and depth of
with interesting activities and autonomy in the study.
classroom help nurture motivation and a de- • Teachers employ multiple learning methods
sire to complete school rather than to drop out and texts.
(Appleton et al., 2008; Hardre & Reeve, 2003). • Teachers develop lessons and assignments
When controlling for SES and student achieve- that incorporate both challenge and suc-
ment, Alivernini and Lucidi (2011) found that cess.
self-determined motivation had significant ef- • Teachers differentiate and scaffold learning.
fects on dropping out of school. • Teachers create authentic assessments and
offer timely and frequent feedback.
Teacher Practices That Foster • Teachers develop a culture of inquiry within
the classroom.
There are likely a variety of practices that Programs That Facilitate Student
educators can implement to support student Engagement
engagement. Lent has suggested these as ex-
amples (2014): In addition to individual educators, schools
must create environments in which the stu-
• Teachers create opportunities for active dents feel safe, respected, and have a sense of
rather than passive learning. belonging (Austin & Benard, 2007). All students
• Teachers encourage autonomy and further fall somewhere on the continuum of engage-
independence through choice. ment; therefore, all students can be influenced
• Teachers create relevance in assignments by student engagement programs put in place
to increase relationships at school, while also
increasing their sense of belonging, accountabil-
ity, motivation, efficacy, optimism, and effort.
These programs ultimately maximize student
engagement from early on through the comple-
tion of school in hopes of decreasing disengage-
ment and dropout. There are a variety programs
which might be implemented by schools either
for all students, or specifically for at-risk stu-
dents, as a way to increase student engage-
ment by increasing motivation, relationships at
school, effort, and participation. Although these
programs may indicate that increasing student
engagement is a goal, they often address a vari-
ety of more specific topics including attendance,
behavioral problems, early adult responsibili-
ties, lack, of effort, and others. These are typi-
cally school programs which include multiple
strategies, and in some cases they include com-
munity services and programs coordinating with
school services. A few representative examples
6. Student Engagement 6
Examples of Programs Which May Facilitate Student Engagement
• Check & Connect;
• Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program;
• Families & School Together
• The Incredible Years;
• Multidimensional Family Therapy
• Nurse-Family Partnership;
• Prevention Programs;
• Program Archive on Sexuality, Health and Adolescence (PASHA)
• Quantum Opportunities;
• Skills, Opportunities, and Recognition (SOAR);
• Teen Outreach Program;
of these types of programs are provided in the Christenson, 2009). Increasing teacher engage-
graphic above with a web link for additional ment and support has been identified as a key
information. way to increase student engagement (Bryson &
Hand, 2007). Various instruments can be used
Conclusion to assess the levels of student engagement
within schools, and a variety of programs can be
Although it is a broad term which includes implemented to increase student engagement
many potential components, student engage- (Regional Educational Laboratory, 2011). Schools
ment is a critical component to both academic that understand student engagement can ac-
and behavioral success. Various research studies tively work to improve student success in school
have linked positive student engagement to an by increasing student engagement.
increase in school success, a decrease in ado-
lescent troubles, and a decrease in dropout risk
(Skinner et al., 2008; Fredricks, Blumenfeld, &
Paris, 2004; O’Farrell & Morrison, 2003; Stout &
7. Student Engagement 7
See Related Briefs:
See the briefs: Parent and Family Involvement; Motivation; and School Climate
Recommended Citation:
Olson, A. L., & Peterson, R. L. (2015, April). Student Engagement, Strategy Brief. Lincoln, NE: Student
Engagement Project, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the Nebraska Department of Education.
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© 2015 Reece L. Peterson, Barkley Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, NE 68583-0732; [email protected].
Supported by Nebraska Department of Education Project 94-2810-248-1B1-13 (USDE Grant #HO27A110079).
Contents do not necessarily represent the policy of NDE or USDE, and no endorsement should be assumed.
Permission to duplicate is granted for non-commercial use by school personnel working in school settings.