Everyone agrees that student engagement in school is a critical success factor. But the definition of engagement is more complex than most would imagine.
New research by the University of Pittsburgh gives educators new tools to recognize that engagement means more than showing up and listening in class.
The issue is important as “enhancing student engagement has been identified as the key to addressing problems of low achievement, high levels of student misbehavior, alienation, and high dropout rates, ” said professor Ming-Te Wang, Ph.D.
Although attending class is first, true engagement in the material includes a student’s emotional and cognitive involvement with the course material.
In the study, published online in the journal Learning and Instruction, researchers suggest student engagement is malleable, and can be improved by promoting a positive school environment.
“When we talk about student engagement, we tend to talk only about student behavior,” Wang added. “But my coauthor and I feel like that doesn’t tell us the whole story. Emotion and cognition are also very important.”
In the past, only behavioral measures of student engagement — such as class attendance, turning in homework on time, and classroom participation — had been evaluated when gauging student engagement.
By conducting a study linking students’ perceptions of the school environment with behavior, the authors intended to show the viability of a multidimensional perspective.
For the research a 100-question survey was developed to evaluate emotional and cognitive engagement. Sample survey questions that tested emotional engagement in classes across all subject areas asked students to agree or disagree with statements such as “I find schoolwork interesting” and “I feel excited by the work in school.”
Sample questions concerning cognitive engagement asked students to provide ratings to questions like “How often do you make academic plans for solving problems?” and “How often do you try to relate what you are studying to other things you know about?”
Using the survey, researchers conducted a two-year longitudinal study, tracking approximately 1,200 Maryland students from seventh through eighth grade.
The authors measured students’ perceptions of their environment by asking questions on five areas.
Topics included the clarity of teacher expectations; students’ opportunities to make learning-related decisions; if subject matter was relevant to students’ personal interests and goals; students’ perceptions of the emotional support offered by teachers; and students’ perceptions of how positive their relationships were with fellow students.
Researcher discovered that students who felt that the subject matter being taught and the activities provided by their teachers were meaningful and related to their goals were more emotionally and cognitively engaged than were their peers.
Also among the paper’s main findings is that the school environment can and, indeed, should be changed if it is impeding student engagement.
A positive and supportive school environment is marked, Wang said, by “positive relationships with teachers and peers. Schools must provide opportunities for students to make their own choices. But they also must create a more structured environment so students know what to do, what to expect, from school.”
Wang also noted, however, that there is no “one size fits all” strategy to the problem of student engagement.
“Usually people say, ‘Yes, autonomy is beneficial. We want to provide students with choices in school,’” Wang said. “This is the case for high achievers, but not low achievers. Low achievers want more structure, more guidelines.”
As a result, Wang said, teachers must take into account individual variation among students in order to fulfill the needs of each student.
Source: University of Pittsburgh