What is Student Engagement & Why is It Alluring Now?

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While the conversation about student engagement is always the rage in educational circles, it’s important to be able to specifically answer the question, “what IS student engagement?”

Teachers, administrators, and even parents can talk about this concept all day long, but if they don’t have a true answer to that question, then there is no point in pursuing techniques or strategies to reach them.

Student engagement is how much effort, excitement, attention, and interest a student shows in content material. By asking what is student engagement, a person is trying to define what will get a student to participate willingly, actively, and excitedly in the classroom. 

It seems like with our Generation Z students, this is easier said than done.

Engaging Generation Z

To me, this is an extremely frustrating mentality. While generation Z is apparently learning differently from previous generations, they are not difficult to get engaged in the classroom if the proper techniques are used.

The issue is, there is not a one-size-fits-all to answer that question of what will get students engaged in the classroom. While there are certainly programs, activities, techniques, etc. out there, it is up to the teacher to determine not only what their students would be interested in, but what they would actually enjoy using as part of the classroom experience as the educational facilitator in the room.

Student engagement is a parent outside of the classroom as well. This could include extracurricular activities, sports, clubs, and organizations that allow the students to have a broader range of experiences throughout their educational careers. Again, this is extremely important to Generation Z because they are a very passionate generation when it comes to their interests and what gets them excited. Having opportunities outside of the classroom for student engagement will trickle into the classroom as well if they feel that they have some choice and autonomy in their school experience.

what is student engagement

This is the part where many teachers, especially very seasoned ones, roll their eyes. We have a very defined idea of what the classroom and school are supposed to look like. There is much resistance to changing what has “worked” for all these years and generations that came before them. But the system of education was first formed to benefit the needs of society at that time. The world these kids are living in is very, very different from any world that any previous generation has grown up in. We need to be preparing them for the world that awaits them, not the world that came before them.

All this blends together to determine the answer to the question, “what is student engagement?” In some educational circles, going to class, listening intently, actively participating, and following rules and expectations fit the bill. Others see those as factors, but how they are being executed is more important (with excitement, curiosity, interest, etc.).

Engagement with the Learning Experience

It’s pretty simple, really. The more engaged a student is with their learning experience, the more they are going to learn. Reading that, it looks like common sense, but this is where people start getting confused with the concept of “rigor”.

I cringe when I see how some teachers approach the concept of rigor in the classroom. 

Let me emphasize something:

Just adding more work does not make a class rigorous.

Read that again if you need to.

According to EdGlossary, “rigor is commonly applied to lessons that encourage students to question their assumptions and think deeply, rather than to lessons that merely demand memorization and information recall. For example, a fill-in-the-blank worksheet or multiple-choice test would not be considered rigorous by many educators. 

Although courses such as AP United States History are widely seen as rigorous because of the comparatively demanding workload or because the course culminates in a difficult test, a more expansive view of rigor would also encompass academic relevance and critical-thinking skills such as interpreting and analyzing historical data, making connections between historical periods and current events, using both primary and secondary sources to support an argument or position, and arriving at a novel interpretation of a historical event after conducting extensive research on the topic.”

To sum this up quite simply, rigor means taking content and encouraging students to engage with it on a deeper level, not piling on assignments that students will do whatever it takes to simply finish and not actually intellectually engage with.

Mastery vs. Compliance

This comes back to the question we ask ourselves (or should be asking ourselves) in education: are we more interested in mastery or compliance?

I remember the first time I had heard this concept. I had just started teaching at a new school and the vice-principal mentioned it. Coming from a school that was firm on deadlines and had specific grading expectations written right into their Student Code of Conduct, I was taken aback that this was even something to consider.

If we want our students to master content, we need to make sure they are deeply engaged with that content. We need to be giving them assignments that are meaningful and have a purpose so they work their hardest (and often “learn by accident”, as I like to say, because they are working hard on something for their own innate drive, not because they have to). 

If we are more interested in the students following directions and false time management skills, then piling on work that is busywork at best and just a time filler disguised as “rigor” at worst, is a beneficial route.

However, if we are meant to be teaching our students with a whole-child approach, what are we actually teaching them by the latter?

So, What IS Student Engagement?

So, what is student engagement? It is creating assignments that naturally differentiate for each student without it being more work for us as teachers, allowing for creativity and understanding that even though we are the “holders of knowledge”, we can not only be creative in dispensing the knowledge but can also encourage our students to be creative in receiving it (and giving it back to us).

Because frankly, the more engaged a student is, the better their academic achievement will be.  According to a study published in the Journal of Educational Research, “Multilevel analysis showed that behavioral engagement (defined as effort and perseverance in learning) and emotional engagement (defined as sense of belonging) significantly predicted reading performance. The effect of emotional engagement on reading performance was partially mediated through behavioral engagement.”

Engaging our students’ matters on so many fronts, but when our job is to make sure they are learning as a person, not just a math student or a social studies pupil, creating engaging experiences in the classroom is the best (and least outdated) way of educating the students we have in our classrooms today. 

This can be extremely overwhelming for some teachers, especially those who have been teaching the same way for many years. If you ask them, “What is student engagement?”, they may give you a similar answer to what is listed above, but their delivery of their content does not match with what needs to be encouraged to meet those goals.

As a teacher, it isn’t harder to do this…it’s just different than what you are used to. Twice a year, I release a video series called, “Finding Your Student Engagement Formula“. This series helps teachers hone in on what works for them as educators first and then the trickle-down goes to the students. It answers that plaguing “what is student engagement and how can I make it happen with MY students” question that plagues so many teachers. Once you find that student engagement formula, it will work time and time again.

Though you can change what assignments, etc. you use in the classroom, you don’t have to. You can use the same materials you always have, you just need to package them up a little differently. Finding your student engagement formula is the key to student engagement success (and it makes you less stressed and have more time on your hands…both inside and outside of the classroom…in the meantime.)

What is student engagement? It’s finding that formula and making it work first for you and then for your students. That formula is the key to teaching the students that sit in front of us today.

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