Saturday / March 2

How Can We Tell They’re Engaged?

Student Engagement

Contributed by Lois Brown Easton

Imagine a classroom of students. What are students doing? During the all-class activity, a few are waving their hands to answer a question. A few students wave their hands to ask a question. Some are leaning forward. Others may be tapping the keys of their tablets or taking notes by hand.  Still others might be sitting back. One student who is sitting back has his eyes closed. Another student has put her head down on her desk.

When they get into groups, group members continue the behavior they exhibited during the all-class activity.

Which students are the most engaged?  Which students are the least engaged?  How can you tell?

Ultimately, of course, you can tell by what they do as a result of the “engaging” event.  Do they produce something that proves their engagement?  Could they have produced this work without engagement?  That is, did they need the all-class activity and then the small-group activity?

In the meantime, the only way we know if a student is engaged or not is by asking him or her.  That’s worth doing, even electronically (by having them dial a code on their smartphones at various times during a learning experience) or through a survey during or right after an activity.

Engagement is not an all or nothing behavior.  “Are they engaged?” cannot be answered by “yes” or “no.”  Phillip Schlechty in Working on the Work (WOW) (2002) suggested that there are levels or types of engagement:

  1. Authentic engagement is when the learner finds meaning and value in the work.
  2. Ritual engagement is when the learner completes the work appropriately. This might be called “on-task” behavior.
  3. Passive compliance is when the learner completes the work to avoid negative consequences. Also a form of “on-task” behavior.
  4. Retreatism is when the learner doesn’t do the work but also doesn’t disrupt the work of others. “Off-task” behavior.
  5. Rebellion is when the learner refuses to do the work and hampers the work of others. An extreme of “off-task” behavior.

We can probably surmise from the classroom description above that students are engaged at levels 1-3, perhaps level 4; no one is exhibiting level 5.

Another way to understand whether or not students are engaged is to c

onsider these types of engagement:  intellectual engagement, emotional engagement, behavioral engagement, physical engagement, social engagement, and cultural engagement.  Behavioral engagement is easiest to identify, with physical and social engagement running a close second.  The others have to be deduced through the final outcomes of the learning session – or through interim surveys or indicators.

The ultimate form of engagement is what Mikhaly Czikszentmihalyi (1996) calls “flow.”  Flow is “a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”  Flow is “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it” (p. 4).

Athletes and artists are in flow when they are competing or creating. In flow, a person is unaware of time passing and unperturbed by disturbances around him or her.  In flow, a person seems to be racing madly – even joyfully – towards a desirable outcome.  In flow, a person is very happy but relatively unselfconscious about it.

Flow is an optimal experience for learning, and every other form of engagement (Schlecty, for example) pales against it. Students are not likely to be in flow when I am talking at them; they might be in flow when they are engaged in a real dialogue about an important matter; I hope they’ll be in flow when they are engaged in their own projects.  I use the concept of flow as a benchmark indicator; it tells me where my students are in terms of their engagement.  The sad thing is how often they are nowhere near the ultimate engagement of flow.



Lois Brown Easton works as a consultant, coach, and author. She is author of The Other Side of Curriculum: Lessons for Learners (2001, Heinemann), Engaging the Disengaged: How Schools Can Help Struggling Students Succeed (2008, Corwin), Protocols for Professional Learning (2009, ASCD), and Professional Learning Communities by Design: How Schools Can Help All Students Succeed (Corwin, 2011). She is editor of and contributor to 3 editions of Powerful Designs for Professional Learning (Learning Forward, 2004, 2008, 2015).


Latest comments

  • Hi, Haslinda — I will contact you by email directly. I have some materials to recommend. Lois

  • Hi…i am doing a research on student’s interest..but i have problems in finding literature on behaviours indicating students’ interest and participation on learning. i would appreciate if u can assist me..thank you.

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