Student EngagementAfter reading an article on Facebook earlier this week, written by a woman who chose to spend two days as a 10th grade student (, it got me thinking about how tough it is to be a student these days…  Teaching is HARD but I would be hard-pressed to volunteer to be a student in today’s world of education…  In my line of work as a reading coach and consultant for the last 18 years, one of the things I impressed upon teachers the most was the need to increase the level of student engagement in their classrooms on an ongoing, daily basis.

On days I would be presenting workshops,  I can’t tell you how many times I observed teachers saunter into the training room with arms full of lamination that needed to be cut out or stacks of papers that needed grading or their latest needlepoint project..  And I have to say that “I get it”.  I never took that personally, in fact I took it as a challenge, and still do!  If the attention veers toward the laminating or papers  or needlework I know that I’m not doing enough of the right stuff to keep those teachers engaged.  And whether we’re teaching young people or adults, we’re all learners and we all benefit from being engaged FULLY in the learning process.  When was the last time you had to sit through an all day training or workshop?  It’s tough to stay focused and absorb the info, isn’t it?  Unless… there are lots of opportunities for movement, discussion, questioning and processing.

Back in the 70’s when I was in elementary school we mostly sat at our own individual desks.  There was no cooperative learning, there was no time for discussion after the teacher “taught” the lesson.  If I didn’t “get” what was taught I was plumb out of luck.  My 6th grade math teacher was not particularly nice, nor was she receptive to students like me who needed a second go round of the concept that was taught.  So I was in trouble, no peers to discuss with, couldn’t go to the teacher without feeling like a complete idiot so I simmered in my frustration and embarrassment and quite frankly missed A LOT.  As an adult I realize the importance of taking 100% responsibility for myself but as an 11 year old 6th grader I felt lost and alone and unsafe to communicate my feelings to anyone.  So I suffered and performed terribly at math, forevermore…

HA!  It’s true, I still struggle with higher math.

But my point here is the importance of allowing kids the opportunity to TALK and to ENGAGE with one another!  Kids need time to process after a question is asked… they need opportunities to share their thoughts and opinions with their peers.  They need time to formulate their responses before responding to questions. Not all questions are appropriate for think time and discussion, such as yes-no or evaluative questions, but higher level questions do.  Students learn more when they are able to discuss and that helps them to remember more of what they learn.

Five Levels of Student Engagement

It shouldn’t surprise anyone to know that one of the most consistent findings in educational research has shown that the more times students spend engaged during instruction, the more they learn (Gettinger & Ball, 2007). Some researchers even identify differing levels of engagement.  Schlechty (2002) defines five levels of student engagement:

  • Authentic Engagement—students are immersed in work that has clear meaning and immediate value to them (reading a book on a topic of personal interest)
  • Ritual Compliance—the work has little or no immediate meaning to students, but there are extrinsic outcomes of value that keep them engaged (earning grades necessary for college acceptance)
  • Passive Compliance—students see little or no meaning in the assigned work but expend effort merely to avoid negative consequences (not having to stay in during recess to complete work)
  • Retreatism—students are disengaged from assigned work and make no attempt to comply, but are not disruptive to the learning of others
  • Rebellion—students refuse to do the assigned task, act disruptive, and attempt to substitute alternative activities

Measuring Classroom Engagement

The level of student engagement can vary from student to student, and lesson to lesson so it may be difficult to get a general feel for how engaged a class is as a whole. To that end, Schlechty (2002) also outlined three categories that can be used to measure the level of engagement for an entire classroom.

The Engaged Classroom

In the engaged classroom you will typically find that all students are authentically engaged at least some of the time or that most students are authentically engaged most of the time.  Passive compliance and retreatism is rarely observed and rebellion is non-existent.

The Compliant Classroom

The compliant classroom is the picture of traditional education. This type of classroom is orderly and most students will appear to be working so it would be easy to infer that learning is taking place. However, while there is little evidence of rebellion, retreatism is a very real danger as it is very common in the compliant classroom.  (I was soooo good at this as a kid.)

The Off-Task Classroom

Retreatism and rebellion are easily observed in the off-task classroom. This type of classroom is each-student-for-them-self so you will see some degree of authentic and ritual engagement, along with passive compliance as well. Teachers in the off-task classroom spend most of their time dealing with rebelling students rather than teaching lessons that engage.


Seven Ways to Increase Student Engagement

Why is it so important that learners (of all ages) be engaged during instruction?  Because that’s when true, authentic learning can take place at the deepest of levels.  Involved learners learn more efficiently and retain more of what they learn.

1. The 10:2 rule:  For every ten minutes of instruction allow time for processing of the information.  That might look like student discussion time or an opportunity for writing down what they learned or asking questions.

2. Incorporate movement into your lessons: Allow students to move to another location on the classroom, perhaps you might split the class into 4 groups and allow then to discuss questions and write group responses on chart paper for processing.  The use of white boards or standing or sitting when they are done thinking about the question, etc.

3. Pick up the pace:  Teachers mostly love to hear themselves talk and that’s what happens when we talk too much!  Kids tune out after about 10 minutes and won’t hear a word you say.  Brisk pacing with opportunities for processing and discussion ensures they are learning and remembering what they learn.

4. Provide frequent and effective feedback: Teacher questioning is important so that kids get proper feedback that lends to their own understanding and learning of the material that was taught.

5.  Allow students 5-7 seconds of ‘think time’ when asking a question: At the end of the time draw a random name to answer the question.

6.  At the end of a lesson have students use the 3-2-1 method of summarizing:  Have students record three things they learned, two interesting things, and one question they have about what was taught. Allow time to share their findings with a peer.

7.  Periodically pause mid-sentence when teaching requiring students to fill in the blanks: This is a fun activity that feels like a game but kids are learning and retaining and making connections.

At the end of one of my recent day-long trainings this past summer, a teacher approached me and said, “This was a great training.  I know, because I didn’t have time to cut any of this laminated stuff I planned to cut out today.”

Whether we are teaching young people or adults, it is important to keep in mind that student engagement is more than just listening. If we are constantly monitoring the level of student engagement in our classroom we can consciously work to increase the amount of time that students are involved in learning and expect greater success in our teaching.

Now turn to your buddy and share with them what you learned from this blog post. Feel free to jump up and down or leave a comment when you are done!


*Ernsbarger, S. C., Tincani. M. J., Harrison,T. J., Frazier-Trotman, S., Simmons-Reed, E., & Heward. W. L. (2001, May). Slow teacher/fast teacher: Effects on participation rate, accuracy, and off-task behavior by pre-K students during small-group language lessons. Paper presented at the 27th Annual Convention of the Association for Behavior Analysis. New Orleans. LA

*Gettinger, M., & Ball, C. (2007). Best practices in increasing academic engaged time. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology V (pp. 1043-1075). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

*Schlechty, P. (2002) Working on the Work.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.