As we move into the final stretch of one of the most challenging school years in our history, teachers and students might be noticing a decline in stamina. No matter the learning context (remote, in-person, or hybrid) keeping students engaged in learning at this point in the year is a common challenge. Although numerous teaching obstacles remain, there are several small but significant things that schools and teachers can do to boost and maintain student engagement.
Below we take a deeper dive into what student engagement really is and why it is so important. Then we discuss some practical approaches for keeping students interested and involved in lessons, activities, and discussions.
What Is Student Engagement?
The concept of student engagement is multidimensional, meaning that there are different types of engagement. Behavioral engagement refers to students’ academic involvement and participation in learning activities. It includes things such as effort, persistence, attention, asking questions, participation, following rules, and the absence of disruptive behaviors. This is often the type of engagement that teachers are most aware of and work to support.
Another type of engagement that is just as important is emotional engagement. This refers to the affective attitudes students have towards their school, classroom, classmates, and teachers. It includes emotions such as boredom, happiness, sadness, anxiety, a sense of belonging, and a liking or disliking toward school.
The last type of engagement is known as cognitive engagement, which is defined as students’ strategic investment in learning. Some scholars see this type of engagement as a subcomponent of behavioral engagement, but includes additional features such as self-regulation, a preference for challenge and hard work, going beyond requirements, efforts in mastering new knowledge and skills, and using learning strategies.
It is also important to note that these three dimensions of engagement are linked. When students have a good relationship with their teachers and classmates and feel a sense of belonging to their school (emotional engagement), they may be more likely to participate in class discussions and activities (behavioral engagement). Over time this can lead to a stronger commitment and investment in their learning (cognitive engagement).
Why Is Student Engagement Important?
Student engagement can be seen as the glue that holds together all aspects of student learning and growth. Not only does student engagement make teaching itself more fun, engaging, and rewarding, but it has been shown to have critical impacts on students. When students display high levels of behavioral, emotional, and cognitive engagement, they are more likely to excel academically, form a stronger sense of connection with their school, and have a more positive sense of social-emotional well-being.
On the other hand, low student engagement is associated with a host of negative outcomes, such as delinquency, violence, substance abuse, and school dropout. Although these troubling outcomes tend to appear in adolescence, having poor engagement in elementary and middle school can set students on a negative trajectory. Thus, it is critical to promote student engagement across all grade levels.
What Factors Contribute to Student Engagement?
Research has shown that teacher-student relationshipsare a key contributor to all types of student engagement. When students get along with their teachers and feel like they are seen and heard within their classrooms, they are more likely to display positive indicators of engagement. Teachers’ perceptions of their relationships with their students also impacts student engagement. When teachers report having a difficult relationship with a student it is more likely that the student will also show signs of disengagement.
Another important predictor of student engagement is the level of teacher stress and burnout. When teachers feel extremely overwhelmed, overworked, and emotionally drained, their students are more likely to show signs of disengagement. It is probably not surprising that teachers’ sense of well-being is linked to students’ behavior in the classroom; nevertheless, supporting teachers and their social-emotional needs is critical. When teachers feel recognized and supported by their school leaders and have positive relationships with their colleagues they are less likely to experience high levels of burnout and emotional exhaustion.
Finally, social-emotional learning (SEL) is another factor that can impact students’ behavioral, emotional, and cognitive engagement in classrooms. When implemented effectively, SEL practices can build positive relationships between students and teachers and improve students’ sense of belonging in their school and classroom community. This emotional safety provides the foundation for more behavioral forms of engagement.
There are also links between students’ social-emotional competencies and their executive functioning and cognitive skills. One example of this is students’ self-regulation and self-management skills, which have been associated with cognitive engagement and the ability to develop a deeper understanding of academic content.
Examples of Classroom Practices that Promote Engagement
There are many different practices and approaches that can be used to keep students engaged. Below we outline a few examples that can be used when teaching in-person or remotely. When these practices are implemented effectively on an ongoing basis they can improve students’ behavioral, emotional, and cognitive engagement:
Embed interactive components into lessons
Games, contests, polls, and collaborative hands-on activities can all be used to promote students’ willingness to participate and stay focused. Research shows that students’ attention will start to fade at around 20 minutes of instruction, so try to build in at least one interactive component every 20 minutes or so. This can also include small group discussions or pair and shares.
One of our Branching Minds teachers recommended the platform Nearpod which she uses while teaching remotely to keep students engaged. She also uses Class Dojo to provide students with incentives and different ways to stay engaged with the classroom content.
Use everyday practices to promote social and emotional connections
There are a lot of small but meaningful ways to promote students’ feelings of belonging and connectedness with their teachers and peers. The Harmony SEL program provides evidence-based activities that foster students’ emotional engagement in their classroom. For example, their free Quick Connection Cards can be used to drive conversations among the whole class or with peers. Many of our Branching Minds teachers use the Meet Up and Buddy Up practices from Harmoney SEL both in-person and remotely each day as a starting point to get students engaged and participating from the get-go.
Integrate student interests into classroom content
One of our Branching Minds teachers recommended motivating students by integrating their interests, hobbies, and favorite shows into lessons and activities. For example, a student’s trip to a pet store turned into an interview with the pet store owner and a whole class learning opportunity on how to build a saltwater fish tank.
Drawing connections between academic content and real-life experiences is a great way to improve cognitive engagement. This approach also strengthens learning by connecting abstract concepts to the real world. Expert teachers have been known to use this strategy across the different topic areas they teach in order to deepen students’ knowledge and engagement with the content.
Interested in Learning How to Support the Whole Child with Branching Minds?
Branching Minds makes MTSS easy, efficient, and effective by bringing together all of the components of MTSS so teachers can collaboratively problem-solve and support all students’ holistic needs. Our system-level solution helps schools improve students’ outcomes across academics, behavior, and SEL equitably.
Our platform supports teachers with Behavior and SEL in the following ways:
Assessing SEL Needs with the DESSA Understand Students' Perception of their Own SEL Competence with the SECA Leveraging SEL Screeners for Tiering More effective problem-solving Finding the Right Evidence-based Interventions & Accommodations for Each Learner Creating Intervention Plans and Monitoring Daily & Weekly Progress in Behavior/SEL Logging & Monitoring Behavior Incidents Pattern Matching Behavior Incidents Across Groups
Essie Sutton is an Applied Developmental Psychologist and the Director of Learning Science at Branching Minds. Her work brings together the fields of Child Development and Education Psychology to improve learning and development for all students. Dr. Sutton is responsible for studying the impacts of the Branching Minds on students’ academic, behavioral, and social-emotional outcomes. She also leverages MTSS research and best practices to develop and improve the Branching Minds platform.