Sunday, May 12, 2013

Putting the pieces together

Understanding student engagement is about understanding the dimensions and depth of the relationship between students and the school community, according to the authors of an analysis of measuring student engagement published last year in the Handbook of Research on Student Engagement. The authors frame engagement as a three-dimensional construct that includes a cognitive component (engagement of the mind), a behavioral component (engagement in the life of the school), and an emotional component (engagement of the heart). And they assert that measuring the depth of each of these elements of engagement requires understanding students' perspectives.

"As in any social system, an understanding of the complexities of the system does not necessarily reside in those at the top of the system, who only have a narrow understanding and perspective on the ways in which the system operates; those at the bottom of the social hierarchy within a system often have the greatest insights into the whole system." 

The authors assert that educators must learn to conceptualize engagement as a cultural issue rather than a structural one. They describe cultures as interrelated, overlapping, nonlinear sets of relationships that, when viewed from a distance, appear as webs or sets of webs. In other words, a single student's engagement in the school begins from a perspective that is unique to that student but not independent from the perspectives of others nor from the structures upon which the school environment is based. This is why, the authors assert, attempting to understand engagement only as a structural issue and implementing top-down policies as a means to address it "does not have a direct and uniform impact on student outcomes." Cultures are way too complicated for that.

So is engagement.

For example, emotional engagement has been found to be fluid on any given day across learning environments for individual students, suggesting that engagement is context dependent (Park, Holloway, Arendtsz, Bempechat, & Li, 2012). While this may seem to complicate things from an educator's perspective, it is actually great news for schools because many elements of the learning context are within the control of educators: how we interact with students, the work that is designed for students, and how organizational systems are designed to support that work.

It also means we need students' perspectives. But how do we get them?

Again, complicated... and the best way is the most personal and hardest to measure; getting to know individual students and what motivates them. But an aggregate understanding of the students' perspective is important as well for schools, something that is communicable and practicable. There are student self-report surveys that have proven to be statistically reliable and valid measures of engagement as it relates to student achievement. Experience sampling has proven to help researchers understand engagement as it relates to context. Teacher ratings and student interviews also provide insight into students' interaction with learning environments. And observation is potentially useful for both research and practical purposes. The problem is that currently the most common, and too often the only, means of understanding the student experience is performance on standardized assessments. While performance data is important for understanding the full scope of a student's educational experience, it is not enough and does little to inform understanding about the educational processes that are linked to the outcomes the assessments measure.

The authors of the current analysis review the findings of the latest High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE), a student survey designed to assess the extent to which high school students engage in educational practices associated with high levels of learning and development. A statistically valid and reliable construct for data collection and analysis, the HSSSE is designed to collect information regarding all three aspects of engagement (cognitive, behavioral, and emotional). The latest administration of the HSSSE revealed three major themes: students feel they have little voice in the school community, teachers are powerful figures in the lives of students, and students crave activity and interaction in the learning environment.

These three understandings represent actionable data for schools in designing their learning environments. When combined with other data, including personal knowledge about what motivates students, interview and observation data, and a variety of student performance data, we can begin to put together the engagement puzzle. Warning, however, it's a really big puzzle. And it will take attention, commitment, persistence and a sense of purpose to complete it.

But if engagement is the key to learning... puzzle anyone?

  • Yazzie-Mintz, E. & McCormick, K. (2012). Finding the humanity in the data: Understanding, measuring, and strengthening student engagement. In S.J. Christensen, A.L. Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.) Handbook of Research on Student Engagement, 743-761.
  • 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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