“We want to increase student engagement.” The intersection of three elements

I think we’ve all heard this said,

“We want to increase student engagement.”

What do we mean by ‘engagement’? Amidst marriage proposals, military operations and turning up for dinner, the relevant definition in Merriam Webster relates to “emotional involvement or commitment”. 

This article “School engagement: Potential of the Concept, State of the Evidence” by Fredericks, Blumefeld & Paris (2004) reviews definitions, measures and outcomes of engagement. Fredericks and colleagues state that the research literature defines engagement in three ways: behavioural, emotional and cognitive.

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Behavioural engagement is evidenced by participation and is considered crucial for positive learning outcomes.

Positive conduct – adhering to classroom norms, absence of disruptive behaviours

Involvement in learning tasks – persistence, concentration, asking questions and contributing

Participation in school related activities – athletics, extra-curricular

Emotional engagement is connected to how students relate to teachers and peers, and how these emotional ties influence a student’s willingness to do work.

Affective reactions – happiness, interest, boredom, anxiety

Emotional reactions to school and the teacher

Identification with school – belonging and value

Flow – so involved that they lose the sense of time and space

Cognitive engagement is based on the idea of investment, being willing to exert effort to learn complex concepts and gain mastery.

Self-regulation or being strategic

A desire to go beyond the requirement

A preference for challenge

Flexibility in problem-solving

Intrinsic motivation to learn

Positive coping in the face of failure

The authors see measuring engagement as somewhat problematic, however, they state that, “engagement has considerable potential as a multidimensional construct that unites the three components in a meaningful way” (p.60).  We need to see engagement as an intersection of each of the elements – cognitive, behavioural and emotional engagement.

What matters to engagement?

Teacher support: Interpersonal and academic support has been shown to influence all three aspects of engagement:

If teachers focus only on academics but create a negative social environment, students are likely to experience emotional disengagement and be more apprehensive about making mistakes… if teachers focus only on the social dimension but fail to attend to intellectual dimensions , students are less likely to be cognitively engaged in learning” (p.75)

Learning tasks: One study cited theorises that: Engagement in learning will be enhanced in classrooms where the tasks are:

  • Authentic
  • Provide opportunities for students to assume ownership of their conception, execution and evaluation
  • Provide opportunities for collaboration
  • Permit diverse forms of talents
  • Provide opportunities for fun

Individual needs of students: Connell’s self-system model, a theory of individual needs and engagement, states that individuals have a fundamental need for:

  • Relatedness – where teachers and peers create a caring and supportive environment; being accepted, valued, included and encouraged by others.
  • Autonomy – where students have choice, shared decision-making and relative freedom from external controls.
  • Competence – students believe they can determine their success, understand what what it takes to do well, and to succeed.

I have discovered from this study of relevant research that the idea of engagement is more than a classroom full of students with their heads down.


2 thoughts on ““We want to increase student engagement.” The intersection of three elements

  1. Hi Anne,
    I am looking into this area at the moment for our school and love this art. You have referenced some page numbers her and am just wondering if you can let me know where these are from?


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