• Sherry St. Clair

The Power of Engagement

Engagement is incredibly influential. Unleashing its positive effects is easier than it may seem.

Some years ago, I was coaching in a school that, across all grade levels, used worksheets widely. Worksheets have their time and place. But when I see an entire school relying heavily on them, it’s a clue to me that students are likely pretty disengaged in their learning.


One day, I was observing a kindergarten classroom. Each student had a worksheet with cartoon drawings of various items, such as a rubber band, a paper clip, and a pencil. Under each image were the words “float” and “sink.” One by one, the teacher was going to drop the actual items represented on the worksheets into a clear bowl filled with water. Before he dropped each item, the students were asked to predict if it would float or sink and circle the option that represented their guess.


It was apparent by merely watching the kids that they were not engaged in the activity. Many of them struggled even to identify items on the worksheet, let alone have sufficient experience to know what they might feel like or weigh. As the exercise went on, students became less and less confident in their answers. Without the ability to discuss with each other or the teacher the factors that determine an item’s buoyancy, they weren’t learning why things sink or float. Many stopped making predictions entirely and waited for the teacher to drop the item into the water. They’d stopped working and thinking, relying on the teacher for both.


In our coaching session, I walked the teacher through an alternative approach. It was the sort of content that could easily be turned into a hands-on activity that stoked enriching conversations. I suggested that he put students in small groups and supply each group with physical items and a clear bowl filled with water. Prior to dropping an item into the water, students would hypothesize if the item would sink or float, including discussing their reasoning. Then they would test each hypothesis, note the outcomes, and eventually explain them to the class.


The teacher was a bit hesitant. He was concerned that kindergarteners entrusted with water-filled bowls would lead to a mess. But he was willing to try it. On the day that he did, I happened to be in the school and dropped into his classroom. The room was buzzing with excitement. In their groups, the students were having academically rigorous conversations. They were asking each other what makes something more or less likely to float. They discussed how the weight of the items compared and used real-world data to make their predictions, instead of making them out of thin air. I heard one group beginning to name items in their own homes and wondering together if they’d sink and why. Even the teacher was enthusiastic. Instead of standing—himself, bored—at the front of the classroom dropping in items one by one as students quietly circled words on a worksheet, he was circulating and having great conversations with students to assess their thinking. Or he was asking purposeful questions if students were stumped with a specific item.


In the end, the kids were thinking deeply about the factors that dictate an item’s buoyancy, or lack thereof. They were using new language to work through their thinking, asking each other interesting questions, and making educated guesses. And they were all staying on task. In other words, they were engaged in their learning. And not a bowl of water was spilled.


The Power of Learner Engagement

When students are engaged in learning, you can feel it. You can see it. That energy that electrifies a classroom whose students are learning deeply, thinking critically, and excited to grapple with content they know is relevant and applicable to their lives is qualitative data that engagement is happening.


When students are engaged in their learning as often as possible and throughout school years, we see engagement’s many benefits in quantitative data. In its 2016 Student Poll, Gallup found that students who are engaged in school are far more likely to believe they do well in school and get good grades than their disengaged peers. They are also more hopeful about their futures and more likely to have clear post-secondary plans, such as attending four-year college or starting a business. Disengaged students, sadly, are far more likely to say they do not do well in school or get good grades. They are discouraged about their futures and are prone to missing school. At its most extreme, persistent disengagement is strongly correlated with dropping out.


John Hattie quantified at least one indicator of disengagement: boredom, which has a -0.49 effect size. By contrast, motivation has an effect size of 0.42. By several measures, engagement and its absence have a profound impact on students’ willingness and capacity to learn, grow, persevere throughout school, and graduate with promising future plans. Engagement is powerful in both directions. It’s up to teachers to learn how to use its power for good.


Learner Engagement Defined

Researchers have identified three categories of engagement, all of which are crucial for students to achieve with regularity if they are to reap the enormous rewards of engagement. They are:


  • Emotional engagement: How a student feels about the learning environment, their interactions with adults and students, and their sense of themselves as learners in the environment. Central to emotional engagement is believing that what a student is learning is of value and relevance in the world


  • Cognitive engagement: What the student is thinking about while in the classroom. When students are thinking about the content, they are cognitively engaged; when they are thinking about something someone said yesterday or that happened with friends this morning, they are not. Cognitive engagement is accessible through emotional engagement and is dependent upon the learning task or instructional strategy the teacher is using.


  • Behavioral engagement: What the student is doing. Behavioral engagement is the most observable type of engagement, as the teacher can see if a student is doing the work as intended or is off task and distracted.


Look Fors: How to Identify the Three Categories of Engagement

Across all three categories of engagement are certain indicators that coaches—and teachers—can look for to confirm student engagement. As a coach, we too often look only to the teacher for indicators of engagement. While it is important to observe how teachers approach engaging students, that is only half the battle. Always remember to observe students, as well. No one can tell us more about their levels of engagement than they can.


As the backdrop to looking for indicators of engagement, keep in mind these foundational questions:

  • Who's doing the thinking?

  • Who's doing the work?

  • What level is the thinking?

  • What level is the work?


Engaged students shoulder the lion’s share of thinking and work—leaning on teachers only for scaffolding and support.


Emotional Engagement Look Fors:

When a child is emotionally engaged, she feels safe in the environment, comfortable taking risks, and believes in the purpose and value of the learning. Emotionally engaged students are more motivated in school, more likely to ask for help, and will show they feel safe making educated guesses or trying new things.


Cognitive Engagement Look Fors:

Often, we identify cognitive engagement through summative assessment. But as coaches, we need to determine if students are cognitively engaged in the day to day, which can be detected in the rigor and relevance of learning tasks and formative assessments. To determine the quality of cognitive engagement, look to teachers and students. Do learning tasks and questions demand higher order thinking, and do student work and responses show that level of thinking? Are tasks relevant, in that they use primary sources and real-world tools? (E.g., using actual items to test buoyancy as opposed to drawn items on a worksheet.) Can students connect their learning to real-world situations? Do teachers routinely give students opportunities to share their thinking and learning throughout class? This can be through questions and oral answers, on paper, or in small groups. Are small formative assessments peppered throughout class?


Behavioral Engagement Look Fors:

Are students showing visible signs of being on task and comprehending content so far? Keep in mind that there’s a difference between compliance (merely doing what one is told to do) and behavioral engagement. The idea here is to look for indications that students are actively involved in the work they are being asked to do. Examples of behavioral engagement vary based on the task but include students’ eyes and fingers moving along pages when reading or following someone doing a read aloud, or all students getting the opportunity to speak in group work or academic dialogue. Perhaps the most critical look for is ensuring that every student is given the chance to demonstrate their behavioral engagement. As coaches, we must remind teachers that asking for confirmation of engagement from only a few students in a class will tell us nothing about all the others.


Tips to Enhance Engaging Instruction and Learning

Engagement is one of the things I see teachers struggle the most with. Yet many are not aware that increasing student engagement can be straightforward and light weight. Tips for teachers that I frequently share include:


Increasing Emotional Engagement:

  • Create student interest inventories. Ask them how they feel about topics, what interests them, and what they’d like to learn. Tying teaching to topics or ideas that students see as relevant to their worlds and interests automatically shows them the value of the learning and provides an emotional engagement boost.

  • Use growth mindset language to reassure students that they are safe making mistakes and taking risks in the classroom.

  • Example: I once saw a teacher ask her math students to predict the answer to a math problem at the start of class. Then, step by step, they worked through it together as a class. As they progressed, many students began changing their answers and indicating they reached a new level of understanding. Yet many students hadn’t gotten there yet. To reassure them, the teacher said “Great, some of you are discovering your own learning. Let’s be patient as we work through the rest of the problem. We know what it feels like to be in the midst of growth and not yet having quite gotten to the moment where it clicks. We’ll all get there, so let’s give each other and ourselves time.” It was a brilliant way to remind her students, particularly those still productively struggling, that the timing of their understanding didn’t matter; their persistent effort did. Surely, all students were reminded at that moment that they were safe in this classroom.


Increasing Cognitive Engagement:

  • Ask purposeful questions that demand more rigorous levels of thinking. How students answer can indicate their level and breadth of cognitive engagement, including if they’re grasping the content and staying connected to the context.

  • Facilitate or observe academic conversations with students or among students. The prevalence of academic language and the quality of questions can indicate cognitive engagement.

  • As often as possible, use relevant resources and real-world tools. This includes primary sources, hands-on materials, and technologies (always used in a way that enhances learning and utilizes future-ready skills).


Increasing Behavioral Engagement:

  • Throughout class, do multiple quick checks to assess students’ level of participation, such as Turn and Talk, Quick Writes, or Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down.

  • To keep in mind: As you do these checks, make sure you approach them in a way that ensures you can see every student’s response. For example, sometimes teachers will ask students to put up one finger if they think the answer is “a,” two if they think it’s “b,” and so on. They will do this in succession, such that it becomes impossible to remember which students put up fingers indicating engagement and which ones never did at all. It’s more effective if you ask for all students to give a thumbs up if they’re following along. Then you can scan all students and support those who didn’t give a thumbs up.

  • If you are doing read alouds, make sure every student has access to the text so they can follow along. Look for signs all students are, in fact, following along—like using their fingers to track lines or turning the page at the right time.


For those of you who’d like to go deeper into engagement, in Coaching Redefined, I devote a chapter to coaching for learner engagement. Included in that chapter are rubrics, coaching scenarios, and strategies and tools to elevate learner engagement in instruction in learning. Here I’ll share with you the reflection questions I include in the chapter. They align with the learner engagement rubric in the book and are intended to help coaches and teachers look for indications of different aspects of engagement.


Coaching & Observing Learner Engagement: Reflection Questions


How can I help you? Please connect with me to share your own engagement ideas or ask for assistance. We truly are all in this together.

Twitter: @Sherrystclair

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Website: Reflective Learning, LLC