Teaching Opinion

Response: Student Engagement “Requires A Conversation”

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 24, 2013 11 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This is Part One of a two-part series on student engagement.)

Cindy Murphy asked:

The question that I seem to hear from teachers comes up when we discuss engagement vs on task behavior. Teachers want to know how can you see engagement. Paula Bevan tells us that engagement = brain sweat, but can we see a kiddo’s brain sweating. What evidence can administrators and teachers collect that will show true engagement and not on task behavior?

Student engagement is the sometimes found and often elusive Holy Grail for many of us teachers. I’m taking advantage of the opportunity offered by Cindy’s question to make this topic into a two-part series, with Part Two focusing on the concept of “flow.”

Today’s Part One post offers some very helpful guest responses from educators Mark Barnes, Dr. Jeffrey Zoul, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, and Marsha Ratzel (plus multiple comments from readers).

In addition, readers might find this list of resources I’ve compiled to be useful, The Best Posts & Articles On Student Engagement. It might also be worth revisiting previous posts in this blog on the topic of student motivation.

Response From Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a 20-year classroom teacher and author of Role Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in the Student-Centered Classroom (ASCD February, 2013). Mark is the creator of the award-winning how-to video site for educators, Learn It In 5, and the developer of five online courses for teachers:

What distinguishes true engagement from simple on-task behavior is interactivity. Classrooms founded on mundane assignments, like rote-memory worksheets and multiple-choice tests, are easy to spot. However, putting a student on a computer to compose an essay, instead of asking her to write it in a composition notebook, isn’t much better than on-task seatwork. Engaging activities can’t be judged by points and percentages; they require a conversation and an opportunity to share both successes and failures across the classroom and, in some cases, across geographical borders. Tasks that are interactive and engaging have three distinct features:

Student choice. When students are given the opportunity to choose how to demonstrate learning, they are far more apt to participate than they would be with the “Do-this-and-do-it-my-way” worksheet. Engagement begins with autonomy, and teachers learn a great deal about how students learn by evaluating the choices they make to demonstrate understanding and curiosity. Saying to students, “How can you show me that you’ve learned about inertia?” is far more engaging than telling students to “Fill in the blanks on this test.”

Digital tools. Used appropriately, technology can be a powerful catalyst for engagement. The 21st-century learner is a digital native who wants to use Web 2.0, social media and mobile learning devices. When coupled with choice of tools to use and a variety of methods in which to deliver information, technology becomes the center of student engagement. Digital projects provide the opportunity for sharing online. There’s nothing more engaging than teaching students how to use the online community, Goodreads.com, and receiving alerts on a Smartphone when they add a book to a shelf or review something they’ve just read. Plus, most online learning tools can be used as a platform for narrative feedback, which gives students a chance to improve upon their work and demonstrate mastery.

Collaboration. Group projects, driven by student choice and an assortment of digital tools, inspire the aforementioned interactivity and feedback that provides clear evidence of engagement. When students collaborate, they feel a sense of pride in their accomplishments. Students performing simple on-task activities feel incomplete and, worse, learn very little.

Response From Dr. Jeffrey Zoul

Dr. Jeffrey Zoul currently serves as Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning with Rock Island-Milan Schools in Illinois. Prior to working in this capacity, Jeff served in many roles including school improvement consultant, building principal, university professor, and classroom teacher at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.

Dr. Zoul is also the author of several books relating to education published by Eye On Education in New York. His books include Improving Your School One Week at a Time: Building the Foundation for Professional Teaching and Learning and The 4 CORE Factors for School Success, co-authored with Dr. Todd Whitaker:

“I know it when I see it.”

The phrase “I know it when I see it” has become an oft-invoked expression in an attempt to describe an observable “something”, even when the “something” is subjective or lacks clearly defined parameters. The phrase is most famously attributed to United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who uttered the words to describe his threshold test for obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964):

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

In our noble profession of education, “student engagement” has become one of the most common “somethings” we strive for in our classrooms. Like most educators, the term connotes within me myriad positive associations and I suspect--based on both exhaustive research as well as my own experiences--that “it” has a strong correlation to student academic achievement. But what exactly does student engagement means and look like and how can we evidence it in our classrooms? To a large extent, I really do think “I know it when I see it,” but that, of course, is helpful to no one, so allow me to delve deeper.

When I served as principal of a large suburban middle school, I made it a point to read the daily morning announcements every day. I tried to keep these announcements very brief but I closed each day’s announcements with the same remark, 180 days a year, each year that I served as principal at this school. After sharing all necessary announcements, I would say, “Students and teachers, remember to work hard, have fun, and be nice today.”

Now, that is not exactly rocket science advice and surely nothing I picked up in my doctoral classes, yet it was, in essence, what I hoped to see occurring throughout our school each and every day: students and teachers teaching and learning together and, in the process, working hard, having fun, and being nice--or, to put it another way, students and teachers highly engaged. You see, the harder kids worked, the more fun they had doing it, and the nicer they were to each other while doing it, the more engaged they were in the process of learning. Happy, hard-working, and nice students are also highly-engaged students.

But, what evidence can we find during classroom visits to support whether or not students are “engaged” (working hard, having fun, being nice)? We can begin with the obvious, creating checklists of behaviors we would expect to see in each of the three areas. We can also spend intentional time examining the quality of student work assigned and student work completed. Most importantly, perhaps, we must continue to query our students, surveying them regularly (daily exit tickets) and periodically (engagement surveys) to assess their level of engagement and elicit heir feedback on what is working and what is not.

“Student engagement” is a strategy we would all agree is worth attaining. As with any other strategy we agree is important (e.g., “High Expectations,” “Relationships,”), we need to move from agreeing the strategy is important to taking specific, actionable steps we can employ to achieve it. The scope of identifying such steps may be beyond the constraints of a brief column, but the process begins with collaborative professional dialogue centered on: defining what it looks like, identifying what is already working and striving to replicate it systemically, conducting intentional classroom observations focused on it, and including our students in the conversation about it. The more we do this, the more we will agree on the meaning of it when we say, “we know it when we see it.”

Stay “engaged” in the conversation--and work hard, have fun, and be nice today!

Response From Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is a middle school teacher in San Gabriel, CA and author of ‘Tween Crayons and Curfews:Tips for Middle School Teachers:

I disagree. I think we can see a kid’s brain sweating. Or, at least, we can hear it. Levels of engagement, I believe, can be measured in what we are hearing almost more than what we are seeing. Are the students Asking questions? Are those questions in a structured, formal ask-and-answer format or are they rapid-fire-they-can’t-keep-up-with-answering-them there are so many? Are the questions simple, level 1 questions or higher level questions that could even stump an adult? If a student can make a teacher’s brain sweat, then you know they are really engaged and thinking. You might need to lay the groundwork, of course, teaching early in and repetitively on what makes good questions. But by a certain point of the year, after being submerged in the expectation of high level questioning, the students will begin to use those skills more naturally in their collaborative conversations.

Are the students teaching each other? Are they approaching each other for solutions before/instead of coming to you, the teacher? The goal, after all, is to have students own the information. Ownership pairs nicely with confidence and pride in sharing solutions and answers. Students enjoy being experts. It’s their eagerness at sharing the expertise that can indicate true engagement.

Response From Marsha Ratzel

An 18 year middle school teacher of math and science, Marsha Ratzel still loves the start of every school year. Her blog, which details classroom challenges and victories, can be found at Reflections of a Techie. Marsha also contributes to Middleweb:

The trick with this is that it isn’t something that can be done on a quick step into the classroom. Administrators are going to have to be involved enough in what’s going on to be able to distinguish between surface level discussions/answers and the ones that involve thinking. Administrators could also make enough time to sit down with teachers and ask them to provide “evidence”....in the form of student work samples or videos of bits of a lesson. The discussion of the work samples would be highly instructive to both parties and the conversation about those sample would build trust, confidence and insight.

Responses From Readers


I think student engagement is evident when they are eager to talk with others about the work they’re grappling with; comparing and contrasting thinking and sharing “stuck points.”


I think it depends on the activity. For example, you’d measure discussion-based activity engagement differently than engagement with independent seatwork. Rather than trying to identify a universal sign of student engagement, I think it’s more effective to provide training to educators on how to design assessment systems that would be able to capture the range of behaviors associated with engagement.

If there were a universal indicator of engagement, I like on-task measures such as the BOSS, which look behaviors such as what a student is looking at (teacher, blackboard, desk, etc.).

D Owen:

Actually, I’m not sure that “engagement” is really the right question. I think that “motivation” is a much better indication of how much students are invested in their learning. As Dan Pink mentions in “Drive”, people need autonomy, mastery, and purpose to be truly motivated. He also talks about “flow”, which is when a person gets so caught up in an activity that they become oblivious to what is going on around them. That is perhaps one of the best indicators to a teacher that students are motivated; they are energized and excited about their learning.

connie weber:

Engagement: you can recognize it because the need for any sort of external control has dropped away and in its place is activity. There’s a hustling bustling energy for the project at hand; students are self-motivated, exploring deeply, earnestly, and happily, driven by inner purpose and a wish to know. (see the rest of Connie’s thoughtful comment here)

Quite a few readers also used Twitter to share their ideas. I’ve used Storify to collect them:

Thanks to Mark, Jeff, Heather, and Marsha for contributing their responses, and to the many readers who shared their ideas.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of seven published by published by Jossey-Bass.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email....

And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first year of this blog, you can check them out here. You can also see a list of the ten most popular posts in 2012.

Look for Part Two, focusing on “flow,” in a few days....

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.