Student Engagement Is A Thing, Isn't It?

    Student engagement and its role in the learning process for students is vital in the classroom. Often bolstered by the role motivation plays, student engagement can make the difference in what a student learns, how the student learns, and how that learning affects decision making.-1

What is Student Engagement?

    At its core, engagement is the reciprocity between a stimulus and the learner with the result of growth. The Glossary of Education Reform defines student engagement as “the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education.”-2 Though reciprocity is at the core of engagement, how the student responds is key to determining that engagement that occurred. When looking at how students are engaged, researchers have discovered different areas that students engage with the world around them and arenas where teachers can focus their engagement efforts.

Areas of Student Engagement

    Researchers Appleton, Christenson, and Furlong (2008) propose that students engage with learning in 3 ways: behaviorally, cognitively, and affectively.-3 Behavioral engagement involves the behaviors shown by a student when they engage in learning. Actions may include a student's participation in class assignments, activities or discussions. Cognitive engagement centers on the psychological effort students exert. It presents in how student monitor their understanding and make connections of new learning. Affective engagement involves the feelings of student around their learning. When a student is affectively engaged, they may feel curious or interested in the learning. A student, who wants to tell you a personal story based on the learning presented, is emotionally connecting or engaging and wants to satisfy their curiosity. 

    If you think you've recognized these 3 areas, you're not going crazy. You have! In 1956, researchers Benjamin Bloom, Max Englehart, Edward Furst, Walter Hill, and David Krathwohl published their Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.-4 Commonly known as Bloom's Taxonomy, this framework addresses 3 domains of educational objectives: Cognitive, Psychomotor, and Affective. Though the cognitive domain is the most known, all 3 domains are important in how students engage and in how teachers attempt to engage students in the classroom.

Newer research has emerged that presents the engagement of students in a different way than through the cognitive, physical, and affective. Berry (2020) proposed that student engagement should be looked at on a continuum moving from displays of disengagement to active forms of engagement.-5

    One of the important pieces to keep in mind is that a student cannot operate at the active level of engagement for extensively long periods of time. Its not a slight to the teacher or the content. High levels of engagement on one topic can increase the cognitive load of a student and time is needed to break from heavy cognitive load periods to allow for rest. Some terms to refer to this rest include synonyms like simmering, marinating, rest and repair time, and reflection

How Can Teachers Engage Students

In considering how teachers can intentionally engage students, The Glossary of Education Reform lists 6 areas that teachers, as well as schools, can focus their engagement efforts.-6


This area focuses on the content and instruction, assessments, and learning experiences or opportunities. This area includes topics like agency and voice, differentiation, authentic learning.


Teachers may establish classroom routines, use consistent cues, or assign students roles that foster behaviors more conducive to learning.


Teachers may use physical activities or routines to stimulate learning or interest. For example, “kinesthetic learning” refers to the use of physical motions and activities during the learning process.


Educators may use a wide variety of strategies to promote positive emotions in students that will facilitate the learning process, minimize negative behaviors, or keep students from dropping out. This area, along with other areas connect with the principles of restorative practices in the classroom space.


Teachers may use a variety of strategies to stimulate engagement through social interactions. Strategies such as group work, collaboration., and social breaks fall into this area.


The general goal of such strategies would be to reduce the feelings of confusion, alienation, disconnection, or exclusion that some students and families may experience, and thereby increase their engagement in academics and school activities. This area allows students to share their experience in multiple ways as they learn. Think windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors. -6

Student Engagement Key Takeaways

  • Engagement cannot stay high all the time. The cognitive load must decrease to allow processing and breaks
  • Students engage in different ways at different times. Disengagement from one thing may indicate engagement to another stimulus.
  • Teachers can focus their engagement efforts in the classroom and don't need to feel the burden to engage everything at once. 
  • Repetition and opportunities to show learning through achievement are important gauges to judge the type and level of engagement by students. 


2 The Glossary of Education Reform. (2016).

3 Appleton, J. J., Christenson, S. L., & Furlong, M. J. (2008). Student engagement with school: Critical conceptual and methodological issues of the construct. Psychology in the Schools, 45(5), 369–386.

4 Armstrong, P. (2010). Bloom’s Taxonomy. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved [November 16, 2022] from

5 Berry, A. (2020). Disrupting to driving: Exploring upper primary teachers' perspectives on student engagement. Teachers and Teaching, 26(2), 145–165.

6 Sims Bishop, Rudine. (2015). Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books from the Classroom 6, no. 3 (Summer 1990), available at Reading Is Fundamental.


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