Engagement means students directing their attention and energy ‘in the moment’ towards a particular task or activity. In the classroom, the term ‘engagement’ is often used to refer to the extent of the students’ active involvement in a learning task.

Engagement can be broken down into  four interrelated types:

  • behavioural engagement — the amount of effort and involvement the student is directing towards the activity in terms of attention, effort and persistence
  • emotional engagement — the presence of positive emotions, such as enjoyment, and the absence of negative emotions, such as anxiety, during task involvement
  • cognitive engagementthe sophistication of strategies used by the student; for example using active strategies for understanding (such as elaboration and organisation) rather than superficial or more passive strategies (such as memorisation)
  • agentic engagement — the extent of the student’s proactive role in instruction; for example, in terms of expressing preferences and needs.

Engagement with learning is essential to academic progress. It is most likely to occur when students are motivated, interested, and socially interactive. It is also most often associated with other characteristics in students, such as self-regulation or self-directedness, conscientiousness, and drive.

Student outcomes are affected by the extent to which students display all four aspects of engagement listed above; that is, to the extent that they exert effort, demonstrate enthusiasm, think strategically, and constructively contribute to learning plans.

What engagement involves

Engaged learners have the ability to regulate and adapt their behaviour to the situation in order to achieve goals they personally value. They are likely to persevere and demonstrate prolonged attention to a task. Engagement might even involve an intense absorption with an experience to the exclusion of other stimuli. Engaged students are ‘agentic’ in that they express their preferences, ask questions and make various types of input while they are being instructed or taught. An autonomy-supportive teaching style specifically supports students to develop such agentic engagement.

A word of a caution: although engagement, motivation and persistence are associated with positive outcomes, a high and prolonged engagement with a learning challenge can actually lead to fatigue, disengagement and to decreased motivation. Engaged students are often more interested in tasks, but can tire faster. Engagement might decline as part of a student’s natural coping mechanism to avoid overload and burnout.

How to promote engagement

High levels of engagement are supported by:

  • students’ interest in a task and in a specific subject. Interest in the task influences students’ attention, persistence and — ultimately — their acquisition of knowledge, skills and strategies. Sometimes students hold a pre-existing interest in the task, but often that interest will have to be developed by the teacher’s instructional strategies or the materials, or by adapting texts and materials to students’ personal interests.
  • meaningful, authentic, challenging (yet achievable) tasks which require higher levels of thinking. Understanding the importance of an activity can also enhance engagement.
  • a learner-centred teaching style where teachers use their expertise and knowledge to cater to the needs of individual learners
  • increasing opportunities to learn by using a variety of techniques
  • asking students to justify and explain their answers
  • promoting experiences of success through realistic goals, appropriate challenge and constructive feedback
  • feedback that focuses on comprehension, mastery and strategies, rather than feedback which defines competence in comparison to class performance
  • groupwork in which students work with their peers. This can be particularly important to enhance interest and engagement in inherently uninteresting tasks. Perceptions of relatedness and belonging to the classroom community of both peers and teacher (nurtured through quality of teacher-student and student-student relationships and interactions) enhance engagement.
  • activities which provoke curiosity, or which enable students to personalise knowledge, or to which students can bring their own cultural knowledge
  • providing students with a sense of ownership and choice. Students are more likely to engage in a task they have chosen, if it is a good match with their interests.

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How to promote student engagement in your class

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