Access our ESSER Federal Funding FAQ — Get Answers Now >>

A Comprehensive Guide to Student Engagement

An educator looks at a book with a group of six middle school students in a library
An educator looks at a book with a group of six middle school students in a library

Regardless of their tenure or the grade level they teach, educators often seek professional development resources on student engagement. As it is critical to student success, teachers need a deeper understanding of the topic. This guide provides answers to some of the most commonly asked questions and frequently researched topics pertaining to student engagement.

What is Student Engagement?

The definition of student engagement is “the level of attention, curiosity, interest, passion, and optimism students experience when learning.” Discerning whether a student is engaged involves more than monitoring their outward behavior, such as how often a student raises their hand to participate in class. Student engagement also includes not-so-tell-tale signs that require understanding all three types of student engagement, including cognitive, emotional, and behavioral engagement.

  • Cognitive Engagement — Cognitive engagement can be measured by identifying the student’s interest in the tasks, their effort and persistence while working on the tasks, and how absorbed they are in it
  • Emotional Engagement — Emotional engagement may be measured by identifying the student’s feelings. Make sure students feel safe with other students and you so that they may express their engagement with the tasks.
  • Behavioral Engagement — Behavioral engagement is the most easily observable form of engagement because students give outward signs that they are engaged, such as class participation.

What Does Student Engagement Look Like?

Teachers may more easily recognize signs of disengagement—often, behaviors written off as simple boredom or run-of-the-mill disinterest are actually symptomatic of significant disengagement. However, it is important to recognize that what the teacher construes as a frown may actually be fervent concentration on the part of the student. Getting to the root of the behavior is key in making distinctions between engaged and disengaged students. Teachers may mistake student compliance for engagement, and, in addition to visual cues, should work to design learning tasks that connect with and have a personal meaning for students.

Engaged Student Behavior

a group of middle school students raise their hand in class


Unengaged Student Behavior

A female high school student daydreams out of a window
  • Present and on time to class every day
  • Submitting assignments on time
  • Active listening (Upright posture, eye contact, nodding, non-verbal confirmations, etc.)
  • Asking pointed questions
  • Diligently taking detailed notes
  • Appropriate dialogue and group problem solving with peers
  • Connecting subject matter to life outside the classroom
  • Frequent absenteeism
  • Failing to submit assignments on time or at all
  • Not listening (Appearing bored, distracted, or disinterested in learning, avoiding eye contact)
  • Not asking questions
  • Not taking notes
  • Not contributing to class discussions or small-group work
  • A lack of interaction or socialization with teachers and peers

Why is Student Engagement Important?

Student engagement is one of the most important predictors of student success both in and outside the classroom. Academic research has found highly engaged students generally achieve better grades and standardized test scores, display stronger information retention and recall, and are more intrinsically motivated to learn.

How Can You Measure Student Engagement?

Research shows that student disengagement correlates with higher school dropout rates, resulting in more schools making student engagement a school improvement goal. The question of how to measure student engagement is also becoming increasingly popular. While there are many instruments to measure engagement, it’s not an exact science.

Generally, instruments are broken out into three types: student self-reported, teacher reported, and observational measures. Student self-reports are surveys asking students to rate their level of engagement. Teacher reports are surveys asking teachers to rate the level of behavioral and emotional engagement of each student. Observational reporting involves a third-party who observes the students in the classroom and may focus on individual students or the entire class.

Regardless of how you measure engagement, it can help track progress or alert teachers when a new strategy and approach may be needed. Teachers can measure engagement by journaling their observations on students’ engagement and polling students through surveys, small focus groups, or casual everyday conversations.

What is the Relationship Between Motivation and Engagement?

The concepts of student engagement and motivation are distinct, yet intricately related, and teachers play a vital role in creating environments that motivate students to want to engage and learn. Motivation can be described as that internal driving force causing a student to take action, while engagement is the observable outcome, behavior, and tangible evidence of that motivation.

There are two main types of motivation that drive students within the classroom: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation, or internal motivation, is a personal passion and desire to learn that comes from within oneself.

Extrinsic motivation results from exterior influences such as rewards or punishment. Prizes and rewards for high performance can be beneficial in motivating students to engage and push themselves. However, if their motivation to engage is just to avoid punishment or disappointment, students may develop a fear of failure and feel discouraged to put forth an effort.

As you observe your students’ motivation, you may find that it takes less effort to engage students with intrinsic motivation, allowing you to spend more time motivating students who are extrinsically motivated. It’s essential for educators to identify what motivates all students and use appropriate strategies to engage them.

How Do You Engage Students with Diverse Learning Needs?

It’s true, students don’t all learn information the same way. A teacher’s versatility to engage students with diverse learning needs—and different ways students best absorb, process, and communicate new information—is an important aspect of increasing engagement across different types of learners.

By recognizing how students learn, teachers can discover and deploy diverse strategies to accommodate all types of learners.

Some strategies for increasing student responses in class might include:

A group of five elementary students watch a science experiment in class

Visual Strategies

  • Using hand signals to respond to questions, polls, and surveys, or to rate a student’s level of confidence on a particular topic or concept is an effective visual strategy.
  • Teaching students basic hand signals for “I agree” or “I want to add more,” for example, can be effective in increasing student engagement.
  • Response boards (chalk boards, white boards, or digital methods) can be a visual way to see students’ responses quickly and efficiently.
Two students watch and listen two a teacher read to the class

Verbal Strategies

  • Groups of various sizes (e.g., think-pair-share partnered responses or group choral responses) can be strategic ways for allowing students to hear from others in the classroom.
  • Response chaining and asking multiple types of questions can involve more students in classwide discussions.
  • Wait time can be effective in encouraging more students to get involved in classroom discussions as it provides an equal amount of think time for all.
A teacher shows a student a beaker during a science experiment

Movement Strategies

  • Vote with your feet, stand and be counted, and four-corners activities can be effective ways to get students up and moving in class while keeping them focused on content.
  • Thoughtful consideration to incorporate movement into transition time can be a way to give students a movement break without disrupting class time.
  • Benefit from physical movement or tactile shared experiences where students are learning by doing something can be effective in engaging a variety of students.

It is important for teachers to get to know their students well enough to recognize what strategies will be most effective at increasing their levels of engagement. Teachers should take time to prepare to use a variety of strategies to address those needs throughout each unit and lesson.

How Do You Engage Students with Learning Disabilities?

Approximately 15% of all public school learners receive assistance and special services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but learning disabilities don’t reflect an individual’s intelligence level. While it presents a different challenge for teachers, students with learning disabilities can succeed and thrive academically.

It’s essential to be able to identify and understand different types of disabilities to engage and teach students with learning disabilities. The most common learning disabilities and common obstacles to student engagement include the following:

  • Reading Disabilities — Many students with learning disabilities struggle with reading. Reading disabilities such as dyslexia make it difficult for students to decode words accurately or grasp their meaning. To keep them engaged and not getting discouraged, they may require teachers’ help with rhyming, sounding words out, or recognizing the auditory sounds associated with certain letters.
  • Writing Disabilities — Also called dysgraphia, students with writing disabilities struggle with spelling, poor handwriting, and overall trouble getting their thoughts down on paper. As much of modern learning requires written assignments and composition, struggling students often fall behind and become disengaged or disinterested in the writing process. Teaching strategies and additional emphasis on composing complete, grammatically correct sentences are typically required for students experiencing writing disabilities.
  • Math Disabilities — Dyscalculia affects an individual’s ability to comprehend mathematical facts and figures. When affected students need additional math help as early as learning to count, they go on to struggle to understand various numerical concepts. In Gallup research, math was the subject that saw the most drastic differences in achievement between engaged and disengaged students.

How Do You Increase Student Engagement in Online Learning?

While some schools had expanded personal-device programs and some prior experience with virtual learning, the COVID-19 pandemic made remote learning a necessity for all. As districts and teachers continue to refine and improve the practice, e-learning remains common in most schools. While it helps overcome severe weather, building issues, or other obstacles, many teachers continue to experience difficulties addressing the importance of student engagement in online learning sessions.

Innovations in the tools and technologies used continue to affect and improve possibilities for engagement within virtual learning. With the right strategies in place, teachers can extend the collaborative, active, and engaged nature of the classroom setting into an online learning community.

How can you improve student engagement in online learning?

Be prepared—and always have a backup plan. Many online learning tools are user-friendly, with easy-to-follow introductions. Be prepared for online learning days by following best practices.

Create visually stimulating materials. Slideshows, videos, graphs, charts, 3D models, and interactive elements will keep students more engaged and receptive to digesting new concepts.

Experiment with messaging. What works in one class may not work in another. Try various communication outlets to find which are easiest for you and your students.

Establish an online learning community. An online community can extend time and space for collaborative discussion and provide additional motivation, recognition, and accountability opportunities.

Routinely search for new student engagement strategies. As you observe student engagement and teaching strategies in the classroom, be responsive and open to adjusting your approaches to online learning.

What Strategies Will You Implement to Improve Student Engagement?

Teachers know all too well that student engagement can be challenging to attain. The best learning occurs when methods and materials combine to create classroom experiences that spark imagination, motivation, and curiosity. Try some of the following to increase student engagement.

  • Start with a warm-up activity, icebreaker, or brief conversation to build rapport, create a relaxed environment, help students ease into class time, and get engaged in a fun way from the beginning.
  • Break up lessons into more-digestible chunks by asking plenty of back-and-forth questions while allowing students to ask any questions they have.
  • Incorporate academic games into your lessons. Whether you quiz them in a round of classroom Jeopardy!, Which One Doesn’t Belong, or use an online platform, games are inherently engaging and bring a sense of fun and intrigue to your classroom.
  • Make smart use of smart tech. Children enjoy experimenting and learning with apps, games, and devices such as SMART Boards or personal tablets. Shy or quiet students may not want to speak up often during class but prefer engaging through a live online Q&A response software, for example.
  • Give students choices and let them make decisions that impact their learning experience. Whether it’s the next topic they will learn or how they will present what they’ve learned, taking ownership engages them.

How Does Avanti Address Student Engagement?

Avanti allows teachers the privilege of autonomy in their professional development, propelling their growth through online and on-demand learning anytime, anywhere, at their own pace. Avanti’s network of active, practicing teachers have field-tested, refined, and perfected proven strategies relevant to educators’ biggest classroom challenges—including student engagement.

Student engagement is a core content pillar within the vast Avanti resource library. Members can filter video resources by grade level audience or search for the subjects most relevant to them. The highlights of an affordable Avanti membership include the following:

  • Easy-to-use online platform with easy-to-implement strategies
  • Hundreds of brief, on-demand, and experience-based videos dedicated to student engagement strategies
  • Accompanying implementation guides and downloadable resources
  • Community collaboration and personal reflection features
  • Monthly livestream speaker sessions and collaborative discussions
  • Teacher training time may apply toward continuing education credits for state licensing requirements (Note: Confirm with your local district office)

How Avanti Strengthens Engagement

Icon of a web page window

Easy-to-use online platform

Icon of a video clapper

Hundreds of on-demand videos

Icon of a clipboard with a checklist

Implementation guides and downloadable resources

Icon of three figures with a light bulb idea above

Community collaboration and personal reflection features

Icon of a computer screen with a live figure on screen

Monthly livestream speaker sessions

Icon of a set of books with a graduation cap on top

Continuing education credits