Student Well-Being

‘Students Aren’t Widgets’ and Other Findings on Engaging Kids at School

By Evie Blad — June 27, 2017 4 min read
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Keeping students interested in school is important, but it takes different strategies to get different types of students engaged in classroom work, a new report suggests.

Using results from a nationally representative online survey of 2,006 public and private school students conducted in 2016, the report picks out six dominant categories of students and suggests some ways to help them feel more connected and interested in school.

“What educators need to take seriously is the distinction between typical teenage whining and signs that students are actually disengaging from their formal education,” says the report, released today by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning think tank. “Such disengagement is a portent of trouble, and not just because student engagement is closely linked to academic achievement. Among high school students who consider dropping out, half cite lack of engagement with the school as a primary reason, and 42 percent report that they don’t see value in the schoolwork they are asked to do.”

The survey included 39 questions about six factors that affect student engagement:


  • Cognitive/intrinsic engagement questions measured students’ mental effort and personal desire to succeed in school.
  • Student-teacher relationship questions were a measure of whether students value connecting with their teachers.
  • Affective engagement questions measured whether students enjoy school.
  • Valuing questions ask whether students see the significance and the relevance of what they’re learning.
  • Belonging questions measured whether students feel like they matter to others at school.
  • Class participation questions measured how attentive—or inattentive—students are in the classroom.

Researchers found that a majority of students answered positively to questions related to cognitive engagement. Of respondents: 84 percent said they go back over materials they don’t understand, 95 percent said they complete assignments, 81 percent said they “try to figure out the hard parts on my own,” and 91 percent said they listen very carefully.

But beyond those commonalities, there are some differing trends in what students value in school, the report says. Authors used students’ responses to the various categories of questions to determine their primary or dominant mode of engagement. They divided students into six subgroups, each making up 15 to 19 percent of respondents.

Authors note some demographic trends among the different categories. Subject lovers are more likely to be white males, for example, and hand raisers are more likely to be female. Higher proportions of deep thinkers and emotionals report having a C grade point average, and students in those two groups were also the most likely to say they’d considered dropping out.

The report made some suggestions about how schools could best engage students in the different subgroups. Students who value social interactions may favor small group work, the report says, while students who favor teacher relationships may respond to a “flipped” classroom model where they watch video lectures at home and spend time in class discussing and applying what they’ve learned.

Do Students Need More Choices to Feel Engaged?

It’s probably not surprising that a report from Fordham draws some conclusions in support of school choice. The report opens with a conversation with now Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, an advocate for vouchers and charter schools, when she was chair of the American Federation of Children, a group that also pushes for choice-friendly policies. The study was funded in part by the American Federation for Children Growth Fund and the Walton Family Foundation.

Fordham worked with marketing research firm Crux Research to conduct the survey. The project’s authors were advised by Hunter Gelhbach, associate professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Ze Wang, associate professor at the University of Missouri.

The authors conclude that “students aren’t widgets, and it’s unlikely that they’ll all respond well to a single best model of schooling.” They argue that an array of approaches is needed more than one, scalable approach. They also suggest there is room for more “customization” within schools.

“We’ve heard it a million times: a one-size-fits-all education system all but guarantees that some students will be left out—and eventually left behind,” the report says. “Both engagement and choice take many forms. In this case, choice does not have to be among schools (though more of that would surely help). It can also be among teachers, among courses, among delivery options, among instructional strategies, among programs, and among schools-within-schools.”

I’m sure some folks will quibble with these conclusions. Are the distinctions between subgroups really great enough to warrant completely different approaches? And isn’t it possible—and necessary—for a school to be flexible and engaging enough to reach a broad array of students? Is it possible that a student who scored high in one area, say emotional engagement, would score higher in other areas if his or her school had stronger academic programs?

What do you think? Read the report and explore the survey findings for yourself.


Further reading on student engagement:

Follow @evieblad on Twitter or subscribe to Rules for Engagement to get blog posts delivered directly to your inbox.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.


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