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Upgrading from Student Involvement to Engagement

What is student engagement, really? Educators would probably all agree that the student playing a game on his phone isn’t engaged, even if he looks up occasionally and asks intelligent questions. But what about the student who watches the lecture and takes notes the whole time? She may be involved, but is she engaged?

“At one time, student engagement — one element of school climate — was largely thought to be whether students were paying attention in class,” said Robert Marzano, an author and researcher.

But now educators recognize that student engagement goes beyond attention and involvement. Student engagement “encompasses a variety of behaviors” and should be measured based on a few metrics. These metrics include the degree to which students create rather than consume, look forward to “real life,” and meet specific engagement indicators.

The definition of student engagement

According to Campus Intelligence, a basic definition of engagement is “the investment of time and effort in educationally purposeful activities.” Involvement covers part of that definition: time and effort. But engagement comes with the rest of the definition — “investment in educationally purposeful activities.” Beyond taking notes and asking questions in class, engaged students must undertake activities that will help them achieve their ultimate purpose as students.

Many institutions have also crafted their own definitions of engagement. What engagement means for each student and each institution will vary. But usually, the idea of engagement involves both attitudes and behavior.

Engagement attitudes in students include “curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion,” according to The Glossary of Education Reform. Faculty attitudes matter, too. Student engagement becomes a priority when educators first “prioritize educational strategies and teaching techniques that address the developmental, intellectual, emotional, behavioral, physical, and social factors that either enhance or undermine learning for students.”

Engagement behaviors arise from engagement attitudes. These behaviors “demonstrate students’ interest in what they are doing in school and whether they feel it has any relevance to their lives.” Engagement behaviors include “willingly [putting] forward the required effort to find a level of personal success academically, socially and emotionally,” “[caring] about others’ success,” and “[contributing] meaningfully to the school and classroom climate,” according to AdvancED.

How should I measure student engagement?

Student engagement looks different for each student and each institution, but there are a few common indicators you can watch for. Here are three questions to help you gauge student engagement.

  • To what degree are students creating rather than consuming?

Student engagement involves being a creator. This element is important no matter a student’s intentions. In both academia and the business world, the end goal is for participants to become creators. Doctoral students will contribute significantly to the body of knowledge in their subject; workers will contribute through innovation and collaboration in the workplace.

So how creative are your students being in the classroom? For example, are they enthusiastic about in-class collaboration? Are they creating projects that go beyond the bare-bones assignment description?

You can help your students make connections and put forth meaningful effort by incorporating digital creative projects into your curriculum. Giving students opportunities to become comfortable with digital creative tools will help students better understand the subject matter, be more engaged, develop a creative mindset, and enjoy the process.

  • To what degree are students looking toward “real life?”

When students are engaged, they’re looking far beyond the grade that will appear on their transcript. They’re looking to their community and career.

“Students… need to be able to create digital content that contributes to and engages in community and national events and conversations,” according to the Digital Literacy report. “Otherwise, students will lack the depth and breadth of digital skills they need to thrive in a global economy in which an abundance of knowledge and digitization is transforming business and social institutions.”

How can you help students engage by looking toward the future of their careers and communities?

It starts by being flexible. Encourage students to adapt assignments and class discussions to their future careers and communities. Notice what sort of questions they ask, and continue to develop an approach that lets students know “I don’t expect you to tailor your coursework to fit this class and what you think will get you the best grade. You can and should tailor your learning experience to you.”

  • To what degree do students meet engagement indicators?

Your institution may have its own engagement indicators by which to measure student engagement. Engagement indicators “provide valuable information about distinct aspects of student engagement by summarizing students’ responses to sets of related survey questions.”

If you don’t have engagement indicators, here are some ideas from the NSSE:

  • “Combined ideas from different courses when completing assignments”

  • “Applying facts, theories, or methods to practical problems or new situations”

  • “Worked with other students on course projects or assignments”

Giving a formal survey to your students is just one option. Another option is to use these indicators as a less formal way to gauge how engaged your students are.

Educators recognize that student engagement goes beyond attention and involvement. It’s a combination of attitudes and behaviors that leads students to learn deeply and be prepared for the modern workplace. Educators can measure student engagement by the degree to which students create rather than consume, look forward to “real life,” and meet specific engagement indicators. Understanding and measuring student engagement is the first step to creating engaging classwork and courses.

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