Sep 30

What is Student Engagement and Why is it Important?

As teachers, we tend to focus a lot on student engagement. How can we keep students engaged in the classroom and virtual learning environments? How can we measure student engagement? The word “engagement” is used frequently but is often defined in broad, vague terms. To help students thrive, we need a deep understanding of what student engagement is and why it matters. 

What is Student Engagement?

Student engagement is defined as the level of attention, curiosity, interest, passion, and optimism students experience when learning. 

Engagement is closely related to the psychological theory of flow state developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is characterized by energized focus, enjoyment, and persistence in pursuing a challenging but not impossible activity. 

What does student engagement look like? It depends on the student. You might think you can tell whether a student is engaged or not by how often they raise their hand in class. The truth is engagement is more nuanced than that. Engagement is usually identified through observation and self-reporting by students. 

  • Observable signs of engagement among students include:
  • Active listening (eye contact, nodding, upright posture)
  • Asking questions
  • Taking notes
  • Dialogue with peers
  • Group problem solving
  • Connecting subject matter to life outside of the classroom
  • Participation in extracurricular activities

These visual and behavioral cues signal that students are actively engaged at school. Engagement can also be self-reported through student surveys. 

Types of Student Engagement

Student engagement encompasses more than just outward behaviors. There are three forms of student engagement: behavioral, emotional, and cognitive. 

  • Behavioral – Behavioral engagement refers to students’ class participation; paying attention and taking notes, asking and answering questions; working with peers during group activities, solving problems, and other active learning behaviors. These are the outward, observable signs that a student is engaged. 
  • Emotional – Emotional engagement refers to the emotions and attitudes students experience relative to their educational experiences. Positive and negative emotional reactions to teachers, peers, and school in general are types of emotional engagement. Whether they are happy or sad, frustrated or excited, bored or anxious, emotional engagement is affected by how students relate to their teachers and peers. It’s helpful for teachers to identify if students feel accepted or isolated, safe or unsafe, etc. 
  • Cognitive – Cognitive engagement refers to how interested a student is in the educational content—whether they find the material stimulating or relevant, the level of intellectual challenge, and how invested they are in their learning. Cognitive engagement is tied to self-regulation and motivation and the extent to which students take ownership of their learning. 

What is Student Engagement in Online Learning?

The COVID-19 pandemic brought on a host of new complicating issues and factors affecting student engagement in online learning. The abrupt transition to socially distanced learning wasn’t seamless for many, but teachers and pupils alike made improvements and continue to adapt and have discovered the importance of student engagement in online learning.

Student engagement and motivation can be hard enough to positively affect in the best circumstances and when pupils are physically present in the classroom. As e-learning days and digital education programs remain common and become more popular, teacher tips for influencing student engagement online include:

  • Routinely posting class-wide announcements
  • Littering live-video lectures and presentations with prompts and opportunities inspiring group discussion or sparking debate and encouraging student engagement
  • Use partner or group projects to keep students connected with friends and engaged with their peers
  • Understanding various digital communication tools and styles and which may be best suited for each student in different situations. For example, some students may respond better to quick chat messages, while others prefer more detailed email outlines or video conferencing. 
  • Hosting formal office hours and informally, continually welcoming and encouraging all student questions while responding early and often to help build relationships with students.

What Drives Student Engagement?

Student engagement is multidimensional and results from many aspects of the educational experience. Some of the key proponents of student engagement include:

  • Teacher-student relationships – Positive relationships between teachers and students are essential. When students feel seen and heard by their teachers and feel psychologically safe in their classroom, they are more likely to be engaged in learning. 
  • Support for teachers – For student engagement to be successful, teachers must have the support and resources to be effective and avoid burnout. 
  • Pedagogy and instructional techniques  – One of the biggest focuses for teachers’ professional development is how to engage students in the classroom with instructional methods. These include flipping the classroom, gamification, hands-on activities, pair or group work, and more.  
  • Social-emotional learning – Engagement is about more than just academics. Learning to listen, communicate, and solve problems with others is integral to building an engaged classroom. 
  • An appropriate level of challenge – It is crucial that students experience a proper level of challenge in their academic work. If the work is too easy, they become bored; if it is too difficult, they will become discouraged and give up. Encouraging students to strive for something beyond their current grasp is how we can keep them engaged. As students succeed in facing new challenges, their self-efficacy grows. 
  • Connections to life outside the classroom – Students engage more readily with material when they understand how it applies to life outside school. Connecting the curriculum with real-life examples and experiences helps drive engagement. 

Why is Student Engagement Important?

Student engagement is one of the most important predictors of student success. Students who show increased engagement also experience several positive education and career outcomes:

  • Engaged students are more intrinsically motivated to learn
  • Engagement builds resilience in the face of obstacles
  • Engagement is associated with higher grades and standardized test scores
  • Engagement increases information retention and recall
  • Engaged students develop relationships with peers and teachers

In a 2019 Gallup study, researchers found that students who scored in the top quartile of engagement experienced higher academic achievement and growth across all subject areas than those who scored in the bottom quartile. They scored 4.45% higher in reading, 21.99% higher in math, and 12.99% higher across all subjects. 

The impact of engagement is about more than just grades. Engaged students experience profound, lasting benefits. A Gallup study from 2018 found that highly engaged students report better grades and are also 4.5 times more likely to be hopeful about the future than their actively disengaged peers.   

Lack of engagement correlates with poor academic performance, increased absence from school, and social and behavioral problems. 

Improving Student Engagement

Fortunately, much research and a wealth of resources are focused on improving student engagement. Avanti’s library of professional development videos for teachers includes content created for and by educators with years of classroom experience. Whether you’re looking for new teaching strategies or help with classroom management, Avanti’s videos and accompanying materials can provide you with actionable, practical, evidence-based tools you can start using immediately. Avanti makes professional learning easy and accessible, so you can be your best and help your students thrive. Claim your free trial today.

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