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Why Student Engagement is Important in a Post-COVID World – and 5 Strategies to Improve It
By: Michael D. Toth
How will engaging students in a post-COVID world be different?
After several long months of remote learning – more than a year for some – school officials report that many students have become more passive, have a lesser sense of social belonging, and feel disengaged from their learning.
The EdWeek Research Center surveyed students and teachers after the first half of this school year and found that student motivation and morale are significantly lower than they were prior to the pandemic (2021). See figure 1.
Student Motivation and Morale in the 2020-21 School Year is Suffering
(data from EdWeek Research Center, 2021)
Figure 1. Students self-report less motivation (50%) and lower morale (49%) as compared to their motivation and morale prior to the pandemic. An even larger majority of teachers perceive less student motivation (87%) and lower student morale (82%).
Although we have an idea of the effects of low-quality remote instruction on student achievement gaps, we don’t yet fully understand the effects of social isolation, inconsistent structures, and personal trauma on student engagement.
What we do know is that student engagement remains important to learning and achievement, and it’s likely that teachers will need to find new ways to motivate and engage their students.
Understanding how to re-engage students requires first understanding the definition of student engagement, the benefits, the different types of engagement, what it looks like in the classroom, and the psychology of engagement. At the end of the blog, you’ll also find five student-driven strategies to improve engagement and motivation.
What does student engagement mean and why is it important?
According to educational neuroscience expert Dr. David Sousa, student engagement can be defined as “the amount of attention, interest, curiosity, and positive emotional connections that students have when they are learning, whether in the classroom or on their own” (2016, p. 17).
Dr. Sousa goes on to note that engaged students:
- Have more motivation to participate in class
- Enjoy achieving their learning goals
- Are more likely to persist through challenges in learning
- Feel intrinsically motivated to gain new and deeper understanding
One of the main reasons why student engagement is so important is because the associated skills and habits – motivation, joy of learning, persistence, curiosity – set students up to thrive in college and their careers.
What are the benefits of student engagement?
The importance of student engagement cannot be underestimated – engagement affects student achievement, students’ futures, and it can potentially help close COVID-19 learning gaps.
How does student engagement impact student achievement?
The correlation between high student engagement and improved academic outcomes has a strong research history (Dyer, 2015).
More recently, a Gallup study which involved 128 schools and more than 110,000 students found that student engagement had a significant positive relationship with student academic achievement progress (growth) in math, reading, and all subjects combined (Reckmeyer, 2019). See figure 2.
Figure 2. The effect of low (bottom quartile) vs. high (top quartile) student engagement was especially impactful in math – students with higher engagement had 21.99% higher achievement compared to students with low engagement. Achievement was 4.45% higher in reading and 12.99% higher in all subjects for engaged students. Data derived from Gallup poll (Reckmeyer, 2019).
How does student engagement impact students’ futures?
As discussed above, student engagement encourages skills and habits that give students a better chance of success once they leave school.
In fact, a longitudinal study of Australian students ages 9-15 found that 20 years later, those who had higher childhood school engagement were more likely to achieve a higher adult occupational status than those who were less engaged in school (Abbot-Chapman et al., 2014).
How can student engagement help reverse COVID-19 learning loss?
The Brookings Institute recommends that schools focus on the instructional core in order to emerge stronger than before the pandemic (Vegas & Winthrop, 2020). When students are engaged, they are more likely to excel in core instruction and less likely to need academic interventions.
The Economic Policy Institute also recommends more personalized instruction to help students catch up as schools re-open – especially for those students who have been disengaged during the pandemic (García & Weiss, 2020).
One of the most effective ways to personalize learning is to use student-driven engagement strategies, as discussed below.
What do different types of student engagement look like?
Student engagement looks different depending on if the engagement is coming from the teacher or from the students and the academic tasks.
Most educators aim for teacher-driven engagement. Many teaching programs encourage teacher-driven methods, such as: building strong teacher-student relationships, delivering high-energy lectures, and using interactive games. Naturally charismatic teachers often excel with these methods.
But the truth is, student-driven engagement can be much more effective. These methods focus on creating challenging learning tasks and giving students the roles, responsibilities, and collaborative structures to engage in these tasks with their peers. Engagement comes from peer interactions and the challenge of the tasks, rather than primarily from interactions with the teacher.
The important difference is that teacher-driven strategies are highly dependent on a teacher’s experience level and personality, while student-driven engagement strategies can be more easily learned through professional development.
In fact, school leaders have reported that even their first-year, inexperienced teachers achieved the same positive effects as veteran teachers when using student-driven methods (Learning Sciences International, 2019).
Below are a few examples of what classrooms can look like depending on the role of the teacher and students and the level of academic challenge.
Low student engagement
The psychology behind student engagement: Flow and productive struggle
The epitome of student engagement is when students experience what is known in psychological research as flow: “joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008, p. xi).
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – the psychologist who discovered the concept of flow and spent decades studying how people experience it – the combination of both high challenge and high skills is what creates flow. Csikszentmihalyi wrote:
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (2008, p. 3).
Flow is similar to the concept of productive struggle, where teachers create structures for students to actively discover new and deeper understanding instead of passively giving students information through direct instruction. The definition of productive struggle is:
“Students grapple with and solve a question or problem that is just beyond their current level of understanding and that requires them to examine multiple avenues of thought. Students wrestle with ideas yet persevere and come up with solutions themselves” (Toth & Sousa, 2019, p. 12).
Like flow, productive struggle relies on a combination of challenge (a rigorous academic task) and skill (which is developed when students have active roles and responsibilities). See figure 3.
Figure 3. The conditions that create flow and productive struggle lead to a learning environment where students are highly engaged. Based in part on Csikszentmihalyi’s flow research and diagram (1997), along with original research.
Both flow and productive struggle make clear why student engagement is important in the classroom. When students experience the joy of accomplishing a worthy academic challenge, they are motivated to work harder. As students continue to work harder, they build persistence, critical reasoning, and the ability to apply their learning.
What teachers say about how to keep students engaged and motivated post-COVID
Rachel Jenner, a high school instructional coach, gathered feedback on student engagement from her teachers. Their school is a vocational-technical center and is using a hybrid model this year.
The majority of teachers reported that students are now less motivated, more afraid to speak and interact with each other, more withdrawn, and not responding to questions during classroom discussions or asking for help.
However, some teachers found that their students were happy to be back in class. These teachers leveraged the smaller class sizes for improved teacher-student relationships and classroom management.
Rachel is partnering with her teachers to incorporate new strategies to re-engage all students, including the use of whiteboards for individual responses and creating opportunities for peer collaboration.
“Activities where students collaborate as a team require students to engage, but in a genuine, meaningful way that they simply can’t argue with.”
Rachel Jenner, instructional coach – Massanutten Technical Center (high school), Harrisonburg, VA
Neha Ahmad, a teacher in a different school, is teaching fully in-person with her middle schoolers. She reported that when students returned to her classroom, they were eager to see their friends, so lessons that include peer collaboration have been especially engaging for her students.
She also noted that students who got a taste of autonomy during remote learning (being able to manage their own workload) began to develop a sense of ownership, which she encourages and aims to further develop.
“I have been teaching face-to-face this year, and the pandemic has definitely affected student engagement…At home, students had a lot of freedom on how, where, and in what order they wanted to do their work. Whereas, in school we typically follow a routine. However, it is nice to see how our students are developing a sense of student ownership and recognizing ways they like to learn. Despite the uncertainty, they are all very excited to be back in school. Therefore, lessons that incorporate opportunities for them to collaborate with their peers safely are very engaging for them.”
Neha Ahmad, student teacher – 5th and 6th grade, Johnstown, Pennsylvania
Teachers can leverage the fact that students are excited to be back with their peers and some students are willing to take more responsibility for their learning. The key is tapping into the power of student-driven engagement.
5 student-driven strategies to improve engagement and motivation
Taking into account the research on why student engagement is important and how to cultivate it, the following strategies can help educators improve engagement and motivation in their classrooms as students return to in-person instruction.
1. Reserve more time for collaborative active learning
“Right size” your lecture so students have more time for collaborative active learning with their peers. Remember that students do not need to have everything explained to them upfront – in fact, students learn more when they have the autonomy to make academic discoveries on their own. If productive struggle turns into unproductive struggle because students didn’t have enough foundational information, you can always fill in knowledge gaps and correct misunderstandings as you go.
Example (task adapted from this blog on effective virtual instruction)
Teacher A (passive learning) gives a lecture explaining how and why each state named its capital and then asks students to create a chart to prove they understood the factors involved in becoming a state capital.
Teacher B (collaborative active learning) gives an abbreviated lecture (perhaps only explaining a few new vocabulary words) and then writes an open-ended question on the board (such as “What factors do you think a city needs in order to become a capital?”). Students investigate using texts and other resources provided by the teacher, formulate their reasoning, and explain and debate with peers to discover the answers on their own.
2. Give students real roles and responsibilities
Students can become more active, engaged participants in their own learning when they have structures for autonomy. In most classrooms, when students are working independently the teacher’s role is to support students by checking student work, answering students’ questions, and offering coaching and feedback. Instead, gradually empower students to self-track their learning progress, coach their peers, and turn to each other and their resources to find answers to their questions. Students quickly become adept at personalizing the learning to one another’s needs.
Organize students into teams and give each student a role card describing their responsibilities to the team. For example, one student might be the team facilitator, who takes responsibility for supporting all team members to participate equally. You might provide a list of prompting questions for the team facilitator to use, such as: “Where in the text do you see evidence for your idea?” Teachers have had success using tools from the Academic Teaming Resource Pack for setting up roles and responsibilities.
3. Create structures for student ownership
For students to truly engage with their own learning, they must first understand what they are expected to learn. Learning targets describe the knowledge and skills students should be able to demonstrate by the end of the lesson. Learning targets are broken down into success criteria so students can self-assess and track their learning progress. Once students meet all the success criteria, it means they have achieved the learning target. Students can check off their success criteria as they work, which keeps them focused on their academic tasks. Self-reflecting on their own progress also helps students learn the concepts more deeply. Understanding how to develop learning targets and success criteria consistently creates a structure where your students can take ownership for their learning progress.
Example (from AcademicTeaming.com)
Analyze how the author unfolds an analysis or series of ideas or events, including the order in which the points are made, how they are introduced and developed, and the connections that are drawn between them.
– I can determine and explain the central idea and the specific ideas that shape and refine that central idea
– I can analyze and explain how the author organized and developed and connected an analysis or series of ideas
Use the text set sources The Assassination of Julius Caesar by Suetonius Tranquillus and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar excerpt to analyze how an author unfolds an analysis or series of ideas or events, including the order in which the points are made, how they are introduced and developed, and the connections that are drawn between them. Prepare your evidence for the task to bring to your academic team. Have a team discussion by explaining and justifying your thinking about the differences in the texts’ organization, development, and connections.
4. Monitor students’ level of engagement and make adjustments
It’s important to find a way of understanding whether your students are engaged and quickly adjusting instruction when they are not. Most teachers use their perceptions to read the room, but that doesn’t always work – students can be skilled at pretending to be engaged. Using some type of system or tool to measure student engagement allows teachers to make more informed, data-driven decisions. The most effective way to monitor engagement is to involve students in the process by having them use learning targets and success criteria, as discussed above. Learning targets and success criteria keep students focused and give you a concrete way of measuring whether students are engaged in their learning.
You can ask students to self-assess their progress to the learning target by checking off success criteria on paper (or digitally). Check the students’ self-assessment against their work when walking around the room during collaborative time. Keep track in your own notes whether students have actually achieved their success criteria. At the end of the lesson, organize all the papers or digital documents and record them into a spreadsheet to keep track of the student’s progress over time. There are also technological innovations that make this process much easier for teachers and more feasible for districts concerned with creating a consistent system from classroom to classroom. One such example is the Student Evidence Tracker.
5. Increase the rigor of academic tasks
Both student engagement and learning increase when students have access to truly rigorous tasks. As discussed above, students may enter a flow state and experience productive struggle. Challenge students to push their thinking and harness the collective skills of their teams. Resist the urge to over scaffold and “water down” material. Instead, take a step back and let students support one another and rise to the rigor of the task.
Example (from The Power of Student Teams book)
During a fourth-grade math lesson, student teams shared their reasoning with the rest of the class after working on a complex problem. The teams discovered they had arrived at different answers. Instead of simply confirming which team had the correct answer, the teacher asked students to figure it out. The teams engaged in debate, making connections and applying their mathematical thinking like real mathematicians would. When the teams stalled in their progress, the teacher wouldn’t reveal the correct answer – she only gave a hint about a mathematical principle students had learned earlier. In the end, students found the correct answer, but not all teams solved the problem in the same way. This was an inclusion classroom, and yet every student was able to engage with a rigorous task and deepen their learning (Toth & Sousa, 2019, p. 53).
The five strategies above show us why student-driven engagement is so important – learning becomes deeper and more authentic, and students experience the joy of being stretched beyond their limits.
Related blog: Achievement Gaps and the Lost COVID-19 Generation
Abbott-Chapman, J., Martin, K., Ollington, N., Venn, A., Dwyer, T., & Gall, S. (2014). The longitudinal association of childhood school engagement with adult educational and occupational achievement: Findings from an Australian national study. British Educational Research Journal. 40(1).
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. Basic Books.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
Dyer, K. (2015, September 17). Research proof points – Better student engagement improves student learning. NWEA. https://www.nwea.org/blog/2015/research-proof-points-better-student-engagement-improves-student-learning/
EdWeek Research Center. (2021). Data snapshot: What teacher and student morale looks like right now. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/data-snapshot-what-teacher-and-student-morale-looks-like-right-now/2021/01
García, E. & Weiss, E. (2020). COVID-19 and student performance, equity, and U.S. education policy. Economic Policy Institute. https://www.epi.org/publication/the-consequences-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-for-education-performance-and-equity-in-the-united-states-what-can-we-learn-from-pre-pandemic-research-to-inform-relief-recovery-and-rebuilding/
Learning Sciences International. (2019). Moseley Elementary: From an “F” school to a place where all students thrive. https://www.learningsciences.com/resources/from-an-f-school-to-a-place-where-all-students-thrive/
Reckmeyer, M. (2019, October 30). Focus on student engagement for better academic outcomes. Gallup. https://www.gallup.com/education/267521/focus-student-engagement-better-academic-outcomes.aspx
Sousa, D. A. (2016). Engaging the rewired brain. Learning Sciences International.
Toth, M. D. & Sousa, D. A. (2019). The power of student teams: Achieving social, emotional, and cognitive learning in every classroom through academic teaming. Learning Sciences International.
Vegas, E. & Winthrop, R. (2020, September 8). Beyond reopening schools: How education can emerge stronger than before COVID-19. Brookings Institution. https://www.brookings.edu/research/beyond-reopening-schools-how-education-can-emerge-stronger-than-before-covid-19/
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