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What does student engagement look like?

Jenny FultonApril 5, 2019

students in class with their devices with one girl raising her hand

You stand before a group of students preparing to start the day’s lesson. You enjoy teaching and love your students — like all great teachers, you want what’s best for them. And part of that means being able to lead and guide them through the day with engaging lessons.

But how do you know if your students are actually engaging with you in the classroom? How do you know if your strategies are working?

Fortunately, there are some indicators that can give you a pretty good idea of whether you’re on the right track or not.

Three kinds of engagement

In its most basic definition, the Glossary of Education Reform refers to student engagement as “the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught.”

A more comprehensive definition encompasses three different types of student engagement: emotional, behavioral, and cognitive.

  • Emotional engagement refers to students’ feelings about their teacher, classroom, and general school experience, as well as their sense of belonging and how valuable they view their work to be.
  • Behavioral engagement includes how attentive and active students are in the classroom and with school in general (eg., their involvement in any extracurricular activities).
  • Cognitive engagement refers to how intrinsically motivated and invested students are in the learning process and how much they regulate and take ownership of it.

Works such as Jennifer A. Fredricks’ book Eight Myths of Student Disengagement argue that students learn best when all three areas of engagement are met.

At first glance, this can seem like a lot to take in. However, if you break down these areas into outward, observable indicators, they become much easier to comprehend. And once you know what to look for, you can more easily assess the degree of engagement that each student is demonstrating.

5 opportunities to detect student engagement in the classroom

empty school corridor
Photo credit: Pixabay

1. Beginning of class

Student engagement (or lack thereof) begins the moment students walk through the door. Many teachers can get a pretty good idea of how their class time might go based on how the students appear and behave at the onset.

Indicators of Emotional Engagement:

  • Students give you a genuine smile.
  • They greet you when they walk into your classroom. Regardless of the kind of day they may have had up to this point, they are demonstrating enjoyment and trust in having you as their teacher.
  • They establish eye contact as they receive any instructions you give.

Indicators of Behavioral Engagement:

  • Students come to class with all their books and materials.
  • They sit down and immediately begin working on any review seat work you have assigned.
  • When you introduce the lesson with your incredibly funny (or not-so-funny) anecdote, they really listen to you and perhaps respond positively.
  • They respond according to the nature of the story (perhaps by laughing or groaning in good humor).
  • Their eyes track your animated account.

Indicators of Cognitive Engagement:

  • The student sits down and immediately sets out any materials that may aid him in the learning process (notebook, pen, etc).
Teacher in front of her class talking with sheets in her hands
Photo credit: Google

2. During teacher-directed instruction

Many begin their class with teacher-directed instruction. But this time doesn’t have to be as boring as the name suggests. When presented with enthusiasm, visual aids, relevance, and occasional discussion points, this form of instruction can be very engaging. From personal experience, I know that it’s easy to get wrapped up in your subject and focus on the students who are obviously mirroring your enthusiasm. However, to gain a fuller picture, you’ll want to keep your attention on all your students and watch for the following indicators of their engagement with you.

Indicators of Emotional Engagement:

  • The expressions on the students’ faces show that they’re interested in the lesson.
  • They react, according to the lesson, with expressions of happiness, surprise, concern, etc.
  • They respond to questions with enthusiasm.
  • They eagerly offer their own input when invited (and sometimes, even when it isn’t).

Indicators of Behavioral Engagement:

  • Students are alert and listening.
  • They track the lesson with their eyes.
  • They take notes and ask questions.
  • They answer questions on a basic surface level.
  • They respond promptly to your directions.

Indicators of Cognitive Engagement:

  • Students ask in-depth questions that go beyond the material presented.
  • Students make connections to other ideas and offer insights accordingly.
group of students working together on a laptop
Photo credit: Google

3. During group activities

One of the best ways to engage students is to break them up into groups, each of which has a specific learning goal that you want to meet. As you’re walking around and monitoring the work of each group, keep your eyes out for the following indicators of each student’s engagement.

Indicators of Emotional Engagement:

  • Students interact well with the rest of the group. They seem to fit in.
  • They eagerly offer their input during group discussions.
  • Members of the group speak to each other kindly and with respect.
  • Their facial expressions and tone of voice indicate their interest in and enthusiasm for the assignment.

Indicators of Behavioral Engagement:

  • Students contribute to group discussions according to the parameters set by the teacher.
  • They listen attentively to others in the group.
  • They each complete their share of the work.
  • They work hard at excelling in their assigned roles.
  • They focus on the group activity.

Indicators of Cognitive Engagement:

  • Students take notes of what the group is discussing and do anything to better grasp and build upon the concept.
  • They offer insightful comments, pulling information from the content they previously learned.
children in the classroom working on art project
Photo credit: Pragyan Bezbaruah

4. During independent work time

At some point, each student must demonstrate an individual understanding and mastery of the lesson objective. This usually takes the form of independent work time. As you are walking around and monitoring student progress, keep your eyes out for the following indicators of each student’s degree of engagement with the work.

Indicators of Emotional Engagement:

  • The student appears interested in the work.
  • The student is focused and seems to be enjoying the work.

Indicators of Behavioral Engagement:

  • Students work carefully and diligently, doing their best.
  • They are persistent, even with difficult material.
  • They complete the assignment and turn it in on time.
  • If they have questions, they seek you out for help.

Indicators of Cognitive Engagement:

  • Students use any tools or methods (such as using a highlighter or pen) that best enable them to process the material and make notes of important information.
  • They go beyond the basic requirements and do what will best enable them to complete their assignment (such as planning out the steps, drawing a picture, making a diagram, etc.).
  • They may do a couple of extra problems or examples to better master the concept.
  • They ask questions that go beyond the material and connect to other ideas.
  • They check their work after they’ve finished the assignment to see if they missed anything.
  • They seek out extra material on the subject to learn more (this one may not be evident until later — for example, if you see a student with a book on a topic you recently covered).
3 friends at school talking together in the corridors
Photo credit: Kobe Michael

5. At the end of class

As you arrive at the last five minutes of class, give one final glance to see how engaged each student has been in your classroom and in the learning process.

Indicators of Emotional Engagement:

  • The students make eye contact and say goodbye as they leave the room.
  • They are in good spirits and don’t appear to have become tired or frustrated by the material you presented.

Indicators of Behavioral Engagement:

  • Students follow end-of-class instructions promptly.
  • They clean up their work areas as instructed.

Indicators of Cognitive Engagement:

  • Students use an assignment notebook or other organizers to make note of any remaining work.

Progressively develop more engaged classroom

It is, of course, impossible to know what exactly is going on within the mind of each student. Fortunately, inner thoughts and feelings have a way of displaying themselves in outward indicators. If you learn how to read the signs, you can develop a pretty good idea of how well your students are connecting with you and the material, and how they are feeling about the learning process.

It’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to engage all students in all three areas at all times, but at least you can use the data you informally collect to build upon and develop a progressively more engaged classroom.

Photo credit: Google

Student Engagement