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Friday, November 23, 2012

How can educators identify engagement in their students?

I served as a judge recently in our school district's junior high National History Day competition, and while the projects we evaluated were all very good, I was most impressed by the work of students who were able to connect their learning to personal experiences. National History Day is a curricular program that involves students in discovery, critical analysis, interpretation, and creativity. Students operate within a theme to produce dramatic performances, exhibits, multimedia documentaries, websites, and research papers - all elements of academic work that most parents and educators believe is important for students. The students I talked to found meaning in the work they were doing. They were emotionally invested in their projects. They were engaged. How do I know this? They told me.

There is much to be learned from the National History Day framework when thinking about how to design engaging learning experiences for students. However, research, analysis, collaboration, independent study, creating products, and reporting findings are learning activities. They represent conceptual, pedagogical elements of a learning environment that can potentially be cognitively engaging for students but do not, in and of themselves, facilitate student engagement. The authors of a recent study in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence that analyzed factors that facilitate student engagement would refer to them as objective indicators. They argue that learning environments are evaluated differently depending on "a variety of psychological and ecological characteristics of the student and the setting" so that any consideration of engagement must include the student's perceptions of the learning environment.

The authors use self-determination theory (SDT) to analyze engagement. SDT asserts that self-regulation and self-motivation are driven by psychological needs to feel autonomous, competent, and emotionally connected to others. In other words, there is an emotional aspect to engagement that requires educators to understand how students will interact with the objective indicators of instructional design. Defining emotional engagement as students' affective response to learning activities and the people involved in those activities, the authors sought to understand the connection between students' perceived fulfillment of their needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness and their engagement in particular learning contexts. The authors used the Experience Sampling Method (ESM) to collect data from individual students while they were participating in various learning environments over a three-year period to better understand how engagement may fluctuate depending on a student's environment.


The authors found that emotional engagement was unstable across learning environments when analyzing individual student variation. For each student, perceptions of autonomy, competence, and relatedness within a particular setting informed their level of engagement. To the extent that these needs were perceived by students to have been met within an individual learning context, they were engaged in that context. The authors also found this to be true "over and above the effects of students' gender, race/ethnicity and achievement level."

I think this study has some implications for schools that are seeking to find ways to engage their students. First, engagement is not an objective measure but depends heavily on subjective concepts like meaning, confidence, and connection. The fluidity of emotional engagement across contexts suggests that the inclusion of only objective indicators of engaged learning (the actual activities) is not enough. The work of instructional designers should also account for the subjective elements of emotional engagement. Education is a people business not a product business.

Second, an encouraging implication is the idea that the design of learning contexts that account for student needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are relevant with diverse student populations and among students at various levels of achievement. While there are variables that are outside of the school's control, this finding is encouraging because it suggests that many of these variables may be less powerful than the contextual factors over which schools do have control.

Finally, this study is a great process model for showing educators how they can identify engagement in their students. The long and short of it? Just ask them.

  • Park, S., Holloway, S. D., Arendtsz, A., Bempechat, J., & Li, J. (2012). What makes students engaged in learning? A time-use study of within- and between-individual predictors of emotional engagement in low-performing high schools. Journal of youth and adolescence, 41(3), 390–401. doi:10.1007/s10964-011-9738-3

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