Current State of Affairs
Capturing student engagement is critical, now more than ever. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, we entered a phase of profound disconnection. Teachers often spoke to blank squares on a Zoom screen. Prior to the pandemic, about 8 million students were considered chronically absent (defined as missing 10% of the school year or more). By the spring of 2022, that number had doubled. Students exhibiting the greatest social-emotional and learning challenges were left with unmet needs.
To say that students as a whole became disengaged is a drastic understatement. In our return to school, it has been challenging to reignite that connection. This is of great concern, as student disengagement has historically and consistently been shown to be related to disruptive behaviors, negative attitudes, withdrawal, absenteeism, and school dropout.
At a time when mental health and academic needs are soaring among school-aged youth,[i] increasing and maintaining student engagement in school is ever more pressing.
Teachers consider student engagement to be one of the most powerful indicators of their students’ learning on a daily basis. Teachers also routinely identify student disengagement as one of the biggest challenges they face in the classroom setting. Articulating the exact operational definition of student engagement is no simple task, however. Engagement and motivation are often conflated concepts, yet, they remain distinct as defined and measured in the literature.
While motivation is largely unobservable and describes an internalized intent, engagement is energy and effort in action. It can be observed through a range of indicators. Or, more specifically, engagement is the visible and measurable outcome of motivation.
Observing Student Engagement
Researchers most often refer to three primary dimensions of student engagement: cognitive, affective, and behavioral.
Cognitive engagement is described by a range of indicators: integrating ideas, doing extra to learn more, positive self-perceptions and self-efficacy, preference for challenging tasks, teaching self and peers, use of sophisticated learning strategies, positive perceptions of teacher support, deep learning, concentration, and focus.
Affective engagement is observed through enthusiasm, a sense of belonging, satisfaction, curiosity, a sense of connectedness to school, positive interactions with peers and teachers, and positive attitude about learning/values learning. Affective or emotional engagement indicators are most frequently studied in the K-12 setting.
Behavioral engagement is observed through study habits, efforts, attendance, positive conduct, confidence, assuming responsibility, attention/focus, supporting and encouraging peers, accessing course material, and identifying opportunities and challenges.
In one meta-analysis, 77% of articles reviewed operationalized engagement from a behavioral perspective, perhaps due to the relatively objective nature of the variables measured: participation, attendance, assignments completed, time logged in, and other on-task behaviors.
For an exhaustive list of indicators of student engagement and disengagement, please refer to Bond et al. (2020).
Fortunately, student engagement is not a fixed factor. It is extremely context-dependent and variable across ages and settings. Student engagement strategies are as important as knowledge of content standards and classroom management skills for the success of students in school. While teachers undoubtedly play the most significant role, tools such as educational technologies became an unequivocal necessity during the pandemic, and remain so in most school districts.
The implementation of educational technologies and integration into the broader classroom context can have a significant positive impact on student engagement. Many engagement strategies exist because of, or can be enhanced by, education technology. While there is not a necessary relationship between education technology and improved academic outcomes, one critical mediating factor is student engagement.
Heather Wolpert-Gawron is the author of of Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement. In this book, the author surveys hundreds of students and teachers, and of the three highest-ranking engagement strategies reported by both teachers and students, all three can be enhanced by EdTech. These include:
- providing access to technology and presenting information visually
- making content meaningful
- letting students collaborate
Students report that the value of technology is in their ability to access a variety of tools that provide greater understanding of content, organization of information, efficiency in carrying out assignments, and a greater depth of knowledge.
Some additional considerations to encourage student engagement with technology are that structural access and stability is critical. When teachers and students run into issues such as poor internet connectivity, problems logging into software or programs, or issues charging devices, student engagement is hampered rather than improved.
Grounded in Theory – The “Why”
Education technologies support the three needs critical for intrinsic motivation and engagement to thrive: autonomy, belonging, and competence. These needs are described in Self-Determination Theory, a long held framework for better understanding human personality, development, and social processes.
Autonomy: I can choose what matters to me.
The dynamic nature of technology allows for a great deal of student autonomy. Inherent in classroom technology is the element of personalization and choice. Engaging students by connecting their own interests, experiences, talents, and personal history and culture can help them to better internalize content. Giving students a sense of choice fosters intrinsic motivation.
Belonging: I belong.
All of us crave social connection and a feeling that we are valued, connected, and in relation with others. Whether it’s peer collaboration across a shared document, utilizing a daily digital check in with students about their “highs and lows,” or connecting with students from another country via email or Zoom, educational technologies facilitate more efficient ways for students to connect with peers and teachers, deepening their investment in the school community and strengthening their bonds to one another and their teachers.
Competence: I can do things.
According to researchers, students feel competent when they are “able to meet the challenges of their schoolwork.” From computer adapted lessons to assistive technology that helps students read difficult words or dictate a paragraph, along with programs that can provide immediate and ongoing feedback quickens student progress towards mastery.
Importance of Teacher Beliefs
A teacher’s sense of self-efficacy refers to the extent to which they believe they can influence or affect student learning. As it relates to technology, researchers conclude that teachers’ reported self-efficacy is significantly related to their digital competence and uses of digital tools and resources for teaching and learning. That is to say, a teacher’s sense of self-efficacy extends to their success is using digital tools for improved student learning.
Results of a survey of over 300 teachers who utilize Bluum products in their classroom indicate that the majority (57%) “strongly agreed” that their classroom tech was a useful teaching tool. Further, almost all (91%) either strongly agreed or agreed that “student engagement is higher when I use this technology.”
- Bond, M., Buntins, K., Bedenlier, S., et al. (2020). Mapping research in student engagement and educational technology in higher education: A systematic evidence map. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education,17(1), 1–30.
- Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning. Routledge.
- Hatlevik, O. (2017). Examining the Relationship between Teachers’ Self-Efficacy, their Digital Competence, Strategies to Evaluate Information, and use of ICT at School, Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 61:5, 555-567, DOI: 10.1080/00313831.2016.1172501
- Henrie, C. R., Halverson, L. R., & Graham, C. R. (2015). Measuring student engagement in technology-mediated learning: A review. Computers & Education, 90(12), 36–53.
- Rashid, T., & Asghar, H. M. (2016). Technology use, self-directed learning, student engagement and academic performance. Computers in Human Behavior, 63(10), 604–612.
- Valckx, J., Vanderlinde, R., & Devos, G. (2020). Departmental PLCs in secondary schools: the importance of transformational leadership, teacher autonomy, and teachers’ self-efficacy. Educational Studies, 46(3), 282–301.
- Wolpert-Gawron, H. (2017). Just ask us: Kids speak out on student engagement. Corwin Press.