Stronge What Works Newsletter

June 2020

How to Effectively Promote Student Engagement

Copyright to Stronge & Associates Educational Consulting, LLC, 2020

Permission to use this material within the recipient schools is granted with the requirement that the copyright notice is included.

What is What is student engagement and what do we know about it?

Student engagement is vital to academic achievement. Engaged students are attentive and participative. They are invested and enthusiastic about learning. They also persist longer and use more self-regulation to accomplish goals. They challenge themselves to exceed, and generally they gain more satisfaction from learning. On the other hand, disengaged students are more likely to avoid effort, withdraw from learning, have lower grades, and even drop out of school. Student engagement is positively associated with desired academic, social, and emotional learning outcomes (Lei, Cui, & Zhou, 2018; Reyes et al., 2012).
Research has found that teachers in highly engaged classrooms frequently display supportive practices (e.g., Dolezal et al., 2003; Konold et al., 2018). These practices include:
  • Dynamic presentations;
  • Challenging and relevant activities;
  • Communicating high expectations but also providing support; 
  • Frequent feedback; and 
  • Positive attention for each student.
Conversely, research also has found that teachers in low engagement classrooms exhibit practices that undermine student motivation. Such undermining practices include poor classroom management characterized by frequent threats of punishment, lack of organization, poor planning, and simple, unchallenging tasks (e.g., Dennie et al., 2019).
How to enhance student engagement in your school and your classroom?
There are many ways to improve students’ affective, behavioral, and cognitive engagement in the school and classroom. Here, we will just focus on three tips related to cognitive engagement.
Relevance. When students experience learning as relevant to their present lives or possible futures, that learning is more effective and more likely to stick, so it is important to make students understand why they are learning it. When teachers use examples to tie the learning material to knowledge and skills students can see as relevant to their potential career future or what they are interested in, student engagement increases and achievement outcomes improve (Schmidt et al., 2019). 
Right amount of challenge. Student engagement is associated with quality instruction that matches task complexities with individual skills. When an appropriate match occurs, students are more motivated and engaged, but when the task is not aligned to students’ skill levels, engagement and motivation are compromised (D’Mello, 2012). You may have heard the term, zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978) – the subtle area where the new learning is just beyond students’ reach based on their current knowledge but can be accomplished with your assistance. When you can understand (either through observation or other assessments) what students already can do and what they cannot, and design the instruction in a way that effectively bridges the gap between these two, then your instruction is likely to be engaging and students will actually learn and accomplish some concrete objectives.
Meaningful connections. Engaging teachers focus on forming meaningful connections between facts and ideas rather than delivering them as isolated pieces of information. Effective teachers present and engage students in content at various levels of complexity, using a broad range of objectives and activities that address both higher and lower levels of cognitive learning. Surface learning of factual knowledge is a necessary part of learning in any subject or content area, but the learning should not stop there. Students report greater interest, concentration, and enjoyment when completing tasks that require highly-developed skills so that they have to actively think, understand, apply, evaluate, and create (Göçmençelebi et al., 2012; Ismail & Grossia, 2018). Effective teachers scaffold lessons to guide students in their emerging skill and knowledge acquisition, through step-by-step instructions, modeling, and providing students with the opportunity to apply new information and skills to novel situations (Green et al., 2013).

Feel free to download this handout to facilitate your reflection about the student engagement in your own classroom.
Want to know more? Additional resources to consider:


An article on how to make learning relevant to your students:
An article on how to help students make connections between learning and the world around them. The article is targeted toward higher education learning, but is still relevant and insightful for K-12 settings:
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