For most students, school is not a place that they go to bed or wake up looking forward to. Apart from having new material being constantly introduced to them in different subject areas, students also have to navigate social, emotional, and physical spheres of their lives while at school. This means that schooling becomes a sport in which they have to juggle their academic, social, and personal lives i.e. discovering who they are as people and what their life’s work would be. This task is not only challenging, but also nearly impossible to succeed at without the help of an adult who has been through a similar situation. Given that parents already do so much at home, teachers seem like the next reasonable option to guide students and to solve issues that arise while they are at school. And while the primary role of teachers is to teach, they have so many more hats that they can wear to help influence the overall well-being of a student, and this is where student engagement comes in.

It should be noted that student engagement is defined and interpreted differently depending on the context in which it is being addressed. It comes as a surprise to many that a widely-used term such as “student engagement” has no precise definition. However, the interpretation used by edglossary.org seems to be a widely-accepted one, and they define it as:

“the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education”.

Some people take on this from a different perspective and look at student engagement as the extent to which students are involved in matters concerning decisions made on behalf of, or for, the student body e.g. nurturing student leadership. However, given the context of this article, only the first description will be used, hence this article will cover why and how classrooms should be made more engaging to students.

The difficulty with student engagement goes beyond just its definition and even into its implementation. Getting students to be genuinely interested in classrooms has proven to be a challenge for quite some time now. For example, apa.org accounted back in 2014 that

nearly half the students that they surveyed said that they either did not feel engaged(28%) or completely disengaged(19%). Similarly, only 40% percent of the teachers believed that their students were highly engaged and motivated.

And even though these are old and US-centric data, the state is not unfamiliar in other parts of the world, because as noted previously, student engagement is a huge buzz word in the educational community. Some may wonder though, why is this the case? Why are administrators so interested in increasing students’ engagement in classes?

Research has shown time and again that engagement is more than just “nice”. For example, this article from gallup.com reports that,

students that are more engaged in classrooms have a 2.5 more chance of saying that they got better grades and a 4.5 higher chance of being more hopeful about the future than their disengaged counterparts.

Another article from pronto.io  warns that,

students may suffer from boredom, isolation, retention, and even poor class attendance as a result of not having engaging classrooms. Furthermore, young students that report disengagement are less likely to go to college and could even develop behavioral problems along the way.

This ripple effect that develops, is one that arises from the fact that student engagement decreases as one rises in the schooling system, such that by high-school, a good 60% of students report feeling disengaged from their classes. So, why does this happen?

Cassfoundation.org explains this in a research article by listing several factors that could affect student engagement. They split it into individual, family, and social factors. Individual factors include poor self-esteem, low intelligence, and learning disabilities. Family factors include family dysfunction and parental illness. Social factors include gender, ethnicity, and anti-social behavior. Understanding these and other areas that could affect a student’s ability, desire, and willingness to participate in class is crucial in fashioning ways to make classes more engaging. To achieve higher levels of engagement, teachers should work to improve these three main sectors that were described by Fredericks, Blumenfeld and Paris.

Emotional engagement:

This means that teachers should aim to connect with students beyond just the material being taught. Understanding how students feel about things like the teaching style, the pace of the class, and the workload is a key point in determining where they are at in terms of interest. One of the individual factors listed above was disability, so learning about students' disabilities or specific learning problems and looking for ways to structure class material to cater for them too is really important. This will not only make students feel seen and accepted, but also valued. And when students feel valued, they will want to also add value to the discussions and conversations in the classroom.

Behavioral engagement:

Apart from emotional engagement, teachers should also aim to understand and improve student’s participation, attendance, behavioral responses and obedience while in class. Students reveal a lot from how they act while in class. For example, putting phones away and turning off all notifications, will decrease distractions and help students have higher concentration levels. Furthermore, students’ involvement in social aspects of learning like group work need to be catered to as well in order to increase behavioral engagement. This will ensure that the students are active and willing to participate.  

Intellectual engagement:

This involves the direct creation and use of academic tools that allow students to further understand the content of the subject area. Interactive classrooms have been shown to increase participation in classroom activities because they take up features like presentations, games, and even creative assignments. This makes them less boring and much more attention-grabbing for students. It is important for teachers to not use the same technique every single session e.g. if a teacher always gives lectures, students are more likely to get bored and to disconnect during class sessions, unlike when the teacher uses discussion-based teaching.

In relation to all of this, it is important that schools take advantage of the growing body of technology to ensure that students are highly engaged. The world is growing at a very quick pace such that students are constantly visually stimulated. The attention span of an average human has been said to be lower than that of a goldfish! With this kind of data, one can only wonder… how long is it till students can no longer take a mere 1-hour class session?

Some practical solutions to help counter these threatening levels of disengagement include: using different spaces other than classrooms to teach i.e. field trips have proven to be very useful, allowing students to research and present on specific topics in class, incorporating discussion questions at the end of a lecture, and promoting group projects in class. This list is not exhaustive, of course, but these few have proven to be a recurring way in which teachers have boosted up participation in their classrooms. However, we at Edvora are aware that teachers need more than this simple list to see a significant and permanent increase in student engagement, and this is why we are working to help bring tools to teachers that can help them grab more students' attention during class. So, write to us at [email protected] to let us know other means, that have worked in improving engagement in class.