Teaching Opinion

Response: Student Engagement Is ‘The Act of Being Invested in Learning’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 13, 2014 13 min read
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(This is the third post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

This week’s question is:

How would you define student engagement, and what are good strategies to promote it?

In Part One of this series, Julia Thompson, Myron Dueck, Bryan Harris, and Debbie Silver contributed responses. In addition, you can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Bryan and Debbie about this topic on my BAM! Radio Show.

In Part Two, ReLeah Lent, Barry Gilmore, Nancy Steineke, Michael Opitz, Michael Ford, and Eric Jensen all shared their thoughts on the topic.

Today, I’m featuring the ideas of Patricia Vitale-Reilly, Ken Halla, Zaretta Hammond, Barbara Blackburn and Heidi Weinmann.

Response From Patricia Vitale-Reilly

Patricia Vitale-Reilly is a former classroom teacher and literacy coach and currently the Executive Director of LitLife West Hudson, a strategic planning and educational consulting company. She is the author of The Complete Year in Reading and Writing Grade 2 and of a forthcoming book on student engagement from Heinemann Publishing:

It is an interesting task to define student engagement. For me, I see student engagement as the key to student success. Engaged learners are there for the learning, not the prize and not the bonus or extrinsic motivator offered. They are there without, or even when, the proverbial carrot is taken away.

Research supports the fact that engagement is key to student attitude, efficacy and achievement and defines engagement in various ways. For me, engagement is defined as the act of being invested in learning. Engaged learners are passionate, hardy, thoughtful, committed and connected to their work.

How do we promote student engagement?

There are a number of components of teaching that we can consider when looking to promote student engagement. One such component is the environment for learning.

There are three parts to a classroom learning environment: the physical environment, cognitive environment and the emotional environment and implementing strategies for each will promote student engagement.

Create an Engaging Physical Environment: The physical arrangement of a classroom leads to engagement or disengagement, so consider the use of classroom space wisely. Arrange furniture in a way that allows for learning differences (for example allowing a more distractible student to face a quieter or less busy wall or section of the classroom or considering teacher proximity for a student needing more support) and carefully consider how wall space is used. Don’t operate in extremes - completely blank walls or completely covered walls. Walls should contain charts and other visuals that provide students with pertinent information (such as an anchor chart from a recent lesson) or motivation (such as a class motto or other inspiring thought).

Attend to Building a Strong Cognitive Environment: The cognitive environment is defined by the academic and appropriately challenging tone of a classroom and will make or break student engagement. Considering the cognitive environment means that you will set high and clear expectations for students, promote creativity and active learning and employ consequences when necessary. Communicate expectations verbally and in writing and promote active learning by building in the use of daily student “I will” statements or weekly independent learning checklists.

Support a Positive Emotional Environment: The emotional environment is defined as the “relationship” part of the environment and includes building connections and positive feelings towards learning. Students become more engaged when you create a positive tone in the classroom. You can do this simply by employing the use of classroom rituals such as end of week reflections or student led classroom meetings. In addition, interactions with students help to maintain student engagement so incorporate daily greetings and strong communication through verbal exchanges or nonverbal signals.

Response From Ken Halla

Dr. Ken Halla is a National Board Certified Teacher, social studies department chair who is in his 24th year of teaching in Fairfax County, VA. His book Deeper Learning Through Technology: Using the Cloud to Individualize Instruction will be published in January by Corwin (SAGE) Press:

In my new book, “Deeper Learning Through Technology: Using the Cloud to Individualize Instruction,” I use the word “interactive” for student engagement and define it as any lesson where students receive continuous feedback from the teacher and/or other students in the classroom. As students work on the more difficult parts of a lesson, they can seek out peer and teacher assistance. Thus there is “interaction.” Feedback is not the same as giving out answers. The goal is to help move a student along the path towards deeper learning. This may involve re-teaching, leading by questioning, or checking for understanding. It often involves some level (on Bloom’s taxonomy) of higher thinking skills.

So for example, an interactive could be a math problem set, an art project, writing an essay or completing a group project such as a science experiment. Students who are working on these types of assignments benefit from having access to a teacher so that they can ask both simple and more complex questions. The key is that the teacher is providing feedback right away rather than a student going home and being frustrated by being unable to complete an assignment without assistance.

Interactives also allow for differentiation since not all students learn the same way. Students learn differently or perhaps want different stimuli for each assignment. Richard Felder and L.K. Silverman developed a model which categorizes the learner into five types “auditory, abstract (intuitive), deductive, passive, and sequential” (Felder and Silverman 1988, p. 680, go here for more). They argue that auditory learners need to hear instructions or content information, visual learners need to see pictures, diagrams, flow charts, etc. to better learn and retain information and so on.

Interactives also mean less traditional lecture so you might also consider using or making 10 - 15 minute video lessons at home for the most important parts of a traditional lecture into. After watching the video at home, students can then enter the classroom and begin working on group projects or problem sets having already been exposed to the key points of the material.

Honestly, one of the hardest things to do as a teacher is to let go of the teaching methods which helped you as a student. The longest serving teachers tend to be the ones who are continually learning new content and re-thinking their teaching strategies with items such as “interactives.”

Response From Zaretta Hammond

Zaretta Hammond, M.A. is a former writing teacher turned instructional designer and professional developer in the areas of equity, culturally responsive teaching, and literacy. She is the author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor (2014). In addition, she designs and delivers reading development training for reading volunteers assigned to low-income schools. She is currently the literacy trainer for the Hayward Promise Neighborhood Initiative in Hayward, CA. She blogs at www.ready4rigor.com:

I define student engagement as a student’s ability to focus his attention and sustain active involvement with the learning task at hand. Engagement is an internal process. When we understand how the brain works we are able to ignite students’ engagement.

There are three critical stages. The first is attention. The brain takes in about 11 million bits of information per second. Our reticular activating system (RAS) is charged with deciding what incoming information to pay attention to. It focuses on things in the environment that generate excitement or curiosity - novelty, surprise, or emotion.

The way to capture students’ attention is to create positive cognitive dissonance when opening up a lesson. Start with a provocative statement or share an alarming statistic. Offer an intriguing puzzle or mystery to be solved by the end of the lesson. Show an emotionally charged video clip. Play off of what topics are important to the age group you are teaching or the sociopolitical issues important to their communities.

The second stage is persistence and drive. After the initial hook, the brain makes a decision whether or not to stay tuned, especially if it has to work at understanding or the task stretches our skills. The brain says, “oh, this is kind of hard. Should I continue?” If the brain has determined there is some payoff, then it stays engaged and actually brings even more focus and effort to learning.

Incorporate elements of game design to stimulate persistence and drive during the lesson. Most video games are designed around solving a problem. These same principles can be incorporated into our units. The main thing is to create some authentic challenge. The brain rewards our perseverance with a hit of our “reward” neurotransmitter, dopamine. This makes us want to keep going.

The final (and most overlooked stage) is evaluation. At the end of the learning experience, the brain steps back and evaluates whether that was good, fun, threating, or boring. It is like getting to the end of a roller coaster ride. As you sit there gathering yourself, you decide whether or not you enjoyed it and whether or not you will do it again. The brain codes our experiences so it recognizes those we want to do again or to avoid.

Make space for students to re-code learning as fun. Help them bypass the brain’s natural negativity bias by giving them time to highlight and talk about what they found interesting in the lesson.

Response From Barbara Blackburn

Barbara Blackburn is a nationally recognized speaker and consultant in the areas of rigor, motivation, and leadership. She is also the author of 14 books, including the best seller, Rigor is NOT a Four Letter Word. She can be reached through her website at www.barbarablackburnonline.com:

What exactly is student engagement? I recently read a comment from a teacher on an Internet bulletin board. He said that his students seemed to be bored, and after talking with them, he realized that they were tired of just sitting and listening. He said they wanted to be more involved in their learning. I was excited to read further. The teacher said he decided then to “change how I teach, so now I make sure I do one activity each month with my class.” How sad. That means 19 days each month of class with no activities. Unfortunately, that describes many classrooms today.

Don’t misunderstand me. There is a place in teaching and learning for lectures and explanations and teacher-led discussions. But somehow, many teachers fall into the trap of believing that lecturing at or explaining to works. Perhaps it comes from our own experiences. Many of our teachers taught that way; it’s what we saw most of the time. But how many of those teachers were outstanding or inspiring educators? Not many. I had several great teachers, and none of them taught like that. What I do remember is that the older I got, the more I was talked at.

Where did that idea come from--the idea that as children grow up, they should be less involved in their own learning? Let’s be clear on some basic points:

* Although kids can be engaged in reading, reading the textbook or the worksheet and answering questions is not necessarily engaging.

* Although kids can be engaged in listening, most of what happens during a lecture isn’t engagement.

* Although kids working together in small groups can be engaging, kids placed in groups to read silently and answer a question isn’t. Activities in groups where one or two students do the work aren’t engagement. Small groups don’t guarantee engagement just like large groups don’t automatically mean disengagement.

So, what does it mean to be engaged in learning? In brief, it really boils down to what degree students are involved in and participating in the learning process. So, if I’m actively listening to a discussion, possibly writing down things to help me remember key points, I’m engaged. But if I’m really thinking about the latest video game and I’m nodding so you think I’m paying attention, then I’m not. It is that simple. Of course, the complexity is dealing with it.

I’ve learned there are five rules for increasing student engagement:

Five Rules for Student Engagement

    1. Make it fun, and learning happens.
    2. Build routines, and everyone knows what to expect.
    3. Keep students involved, and they stay out of trouble.
    4. Make it real, and students are interested.
    5. Work together, and everyone accomplishes more.

Here’s a link to my full article on this topic...

Response From Heidi Weinmann

Heidi Weinmann is a fourth grade teacher with over a decade of classroom experience spanning several grades. She enjoys the challenge of getting the best out of her students each day using fun and creative methods. She writes about teaching, parenting, and life in general at www.bulgingbuttons.wordpress.com:

We have all been there, stuck in a boring meeting or presentation wishing we were somewhere else. Unfortunately, for many students this scenario describes their typical school day. It is our responsibility to change that situation, so that our students are involved and engaged in learning. Here are a few techniques I have found to be extremely effective with my elementary age students.


Remembering the phases of the water cycle is so much easier for my students since they learned the song (sung to a familiar tune). They find themselves singing it, and each time it helps to cement their learning.


Incorporating gestures allows for student movement and the ability to form additional neural pathways to help remember information. Learning landforms becomes easier when they connect the gesture for a canyon or a peninsula to the definition.


For goodness sake, get up! When practicing place value take steps to the right or left to demonstrate 10, 100, or 1,000 times greater or less. When learning cardinal directions turn to the southeast or the west. When studying angle measurements jump 90 degrees or 180 degrees. Listen for transition phrases in text and take a step each time the author uses one.

Write on Furniture

In my classroom whiteboard markers can be used on the desks, then wiped away. The students LOVE the opportunity to write on their desks, and I love being able to see their thinking process as they work through math problems.

Focused Pairing

Give specific directions for partners. “Partner 1, give a character trait and provide text evidence. Partner 2, agree or disagree giving additional evidence,” is far more effective than, “Talk to your partner.”

Keep students engaged and interested, and you will have a fun classroom full of serious learning.

Thanks to Patricia, Ken, Zaretta, Barbara and Heidi for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be including readers’ comments in Part Four

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