Sunday, December 19, 2010

Defining Student Engagement

In my District I am part of a Professional Learning Community (PLC) with other administrators.  The focus of our PLC is the Classroom Walkthrough practice as a tool to improve student achievement.  During our professional day in October we decided to collect data on whether or not student-centered learning was taking place and present our finding to our respective staffs in January.  As a group we decided to zero in on whether or not students were engaged in order to determine if student-centered learning was taking place using the following criteria/definitions:
  • Actively engaged in individual practice
  • Not note taking or viewing a video unless connected to an accompanying activity
  • Cooperative learning/Group work
  • Instruction expects students to be participants
  • Students should be engaged in an inquiry or discovery based activity
  • Common question asked to students - Can you tell me what you’re learning about in this lesson?

Defining what constitutes student engagement can be extremely tricky and quite arbitrary at best.  How would you define or describe whether or not students are engaged during a lesson?  What should administrators look for?  I would like to expand or alter the list above based on your feedback.  

If you would like to learn more about PLC's check out AllThingsPLC.


  1. I'd like to see administrators ask two more questions of my students when the come to the room. Besides, "What are you learning?" which is a staple, I would love to hear, "How will you be able to use this in the real world?" and, "How else / What else do you think you could learn about this topic?"

    The first question is important to me because I want the kids to understand that there is more to life than filling in bubbles on tests. Yes, the tests are important, but these skills are much more important in real life. And the second is important because kids need to see that everybody can be a teacher and a learner. Especially today when kids know so much more about technology than many of their teachers, I think they would be a wonderful resource for many educators.

  2. Eric, I think it's great that your admin team is involved in a PLC. As admin we spend a lot of time helping to create and maintain strong PLCs in our schools among our teacher groups, but I am sure having the chance to work and learn in a PLC with your colleagues is invaluable!

    Student engagement "look fors" may include: students discussing their learning with one another or with a teacher; summarizations- oral, written, graphic representations, etc.; students emotionally engaged with their learning and motivated; students making connections with the content, prior knowledge, and their lives; students as "teachers"; student autonomy in learning tasks; collaborative opportunities; student awareness of learning goals; students and teachers posing critical questions and exploring possible solutions/justifying reasoning; students knowing how and where to access information and materials/resources to support learning.

    Thanks for getting me thinking with this post!

  3. Eric,
    IMO an engaged student is one that is;collaborating with others,questioning, taking notes,teaching others. I am sure there is more but that is my quick list.
    Great post

  4. At the lowest level, teacher gives a prompt requiring individual response every 5 to 7 min; prompt is related to desired learning outcome; at least 85% of students perform the task; teacher or peer gives corrective feedback if response is incorrect. That's a base hit.
    Upwards from their for collaborative work, explore/discover/generalize; use academic language; following student interest

  5. Here are a few...
    How are kids re-using the content, demonstrating the skills, and re-telling the stories?

    What will the kids responsible for? Are the responsibilities authentic?

    What are they creating? Is there room for spontaneity? Are they just duplicating someone else's creation and ideas? Are the final products all be the same? Are the final answers all be the same?

    Is the teacher teaching, leading, or collaborating?

    Who is responsible for the success of the project?

    What is the contribution they are making to the world?

  6. Good question to ask: What does it look like when teachers and administrators are engaged?

  7. Eric,
    In our district and for our student engagement initiative, we use an Instructional Inventories Practices model that was researched and designed by Dr. Jerry Valentine from the University of Missouri. The model is based on higher order thinking, student conversations/collaboration with higher order thinking, to complete disengagement. It is designed to get a snapshot in each classroom as soon as an observer walks in based on a rubric of what STUDENTS are doing, not the teacher. It's been a great reflective tool for teachers in our district in defining student engagement. Dr. Valentine deeply believes the tool should not be use as an evaluative method, but strictly for teachers to use for reflective practices.

  8. I would love to hear some thoughts in connection with the second bullet point of your walkthrough list. As a high school teacher who feels very strongly about student-centered learning, I am sometimes struck with panic knowing that I am sending my students off to college unprepared to listen to a lecture and take notes. Please don't hear this as a condemnation of student-centered learning. It is quite the opposite in that I wish more college professors were learning this approach to teaching. However, more often than not, college professors still lecture to students who must take notes. Note taking from direct instruction is a specific skill that students need to develop prior to college. How does this fit into engaged learning? My personal feeling is that, if done well, a lecture can be engaged learning if you have students actively involved (i.e. coming up to the screen and making points, breaking out in discussion about a political cartoon, or acting out a scene from a famous photograph with historical perspective in mind). I have seen meaningless lessons that would hit every point on the list above. Good teaching is choosing the right pedagogy for the specific skill/content being taught. Teachers should be able to say why they chose this method over another one and students should be able to say why learning this particular content/skill is important.

  9. Molly,

    I think one could argue quite well that if each student is taking notes combined with questioning techniques that check for understanding, informally assess, and foster critical thinking skills that students are engaged. The key, or challenge, is keeping all students authentically engaged during direct instruction.

  10. The best thing about your initiative is that you all recognize it won't be one or two things to look for. I think its as much observation as it is investigtation: what are students working on?; what level of questions are assigned to task?; what is teacher/student role?; what outcome are we working towards? Our district uses several walk through templates to look for different things. We have to be commit to look at what's going on in the classroom as well as investigating design and outcome.

  11. Heya Eric-

    This is a question I'm always interested in- how to measure and define "engagement". I wanted to point you in the direction of Bernie Dodge ( I went to a session of his at ISTE last year where he described how he is working on doing just that- measuring levels of engagement in the classroom. It was really interesting stuff.


  12. We have been using this document for our walk-throughs. We have had some really great discussions and feedback.

  13. In an action research project I did a few years ago, I was guided by Elaine Chapman's article 'Alternative approaches to assessing student engagement rates' She looks at engagement in terms of three domains: the cognitive, affective and behavioural. These domains provided a useful framework for data collection. Might be of use.Cheers.

  14. Everyone,
    I love the conversation around student engagement. I would highly recommend Phillip Schlechty's Working On The Work. He clearly defines student engagement in what I believe is tangible look fors not only for administrators but also for teachers. His work is an integral part of our upcoming PLC's on student engagement and student work. I've taken a team of my teachers to his conference and they were blown away. Probably the one of best things I've done to improve teaching and learning at my school. Check it out! I'd be more than happy to send information that I have it you'd like.....

  15. Leigh,

    Can you send me the info you have? My email is and mailing address is as follows:

    Eric Sheninger
    New Milford High School
    1 Snyder Circle
    New Milford, NJ 07646

  16. Eric,
    Absolutely. Please expect an email from

  17. I feell that not only should the students know what their goal is "what they are learning" I think that the way that they get to the answer is the engagement piece. I know that the test are important but as many have said before me are we really engage the student or are we teaching the test. The test becomes the most important to the student, parent, teacher and adminstrators instead of the process of learning. One of my favorite sayings is if you tell me I might forget but if you let me do it I am more apt to retain it and will be able to reapeat it