The 6 Elements of “Student Engagement”, and How Educators Have It Wrong

“Student engagement” seems to be a new buzz-phrase going on in circles devoted to compulsory education. It has also crept into homeschools.  It’s a no-brainer (to me, anyway) that if students are interested in and engaged with what they are learning, they will learn the material more thoroughly and with greater ease.  It’s a sound principle.  The problem I have with “student engagement” as a buzz-phrase is the idea that educators can, and are being encouraged to, manipulate it somehow, as in this article.

The author states, “In light of this, research suggests that considering the following interrelated elements when designing and implementing* (italics added) learning activities may help increase student engagement behaviorally, emotionally, and cognitively, thereby positively affecting student learning and achievement.”  He includes the following six “interrelated elements”:

  1. Make It Meaningful
  2. Foster a Sense of Competence
  3. Provide Autonomy Support
  4. Embrace Collaborative Learning
  5. Establish Positive Teacher-Student Relationships
  6. Promote Mastery Orientations

Student engagement happens naturally when the students themselves design and implement their own learning activities.  When the students themselves design and implement their own learning activities, it automatically eliminates the need for an authority figure to artificially interject these six “interrelated elements” into the fray.  With that shift in mind, let’s examine each one in further detail, in a point-by-point back and forth, starting with what the author has to say

Make It Meaningful

“Research has shown that if students do not consider a learning activity worthy of their time and effort, they might not engage in a satisfactory way, or may even disengage entirely in response (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004).”

Really?  We needed a study to determine this?  

Ask yourself what you do when you do not consider something worthy of your time and effort.  Do you like feeling that your time and energy is being wasted?  No adult I know abides well in having their time and energy wasted, and if we have any choice in the matter, we don’t allow that to continue.  And yet, all too often we persist in demanding that our children suffer through what we ourselves would find intolerable.

“To ensure that activities are personally meaningful, we can, for example, connect them with students’ previous knowledge and experiences, highlighting the value of an assigned activity in personally relevant ways.”

Personally meaningful activities are those that someone chooses to engage in themselves, recognizing beforehand a need or a desire to do or to learn.

An authority figure cannot do anything organic to make a learning activity meaningful, other than simply get out of the way of the learners who are actively pursuing that which is meaningful for them and resist making outside, subjective judgments about what is worthwhile or satisfactory.

Foster a Sense of Competence

“To strengthen students’ sense of competence in learning activities, the assigned activities could:

  • Be slightly beyond students’ current levels of proficiency
  • Make students demonstrate understanding throughout the activity
  • Show peer coping models…and peer mastery models…
  • Include feedback that helps students to make progress”

A sense of competence is important, for sure, but it isn’t something that one person can give to another.  It has to be earned one step at a time.  When a task is personally meaningful for someone, they will ask for help or guidance as they need it if they have not been taught that asking questions and making mistakes are things to be ashamed of.

Provide Autonomy Support

“We may understand autonomy support as nurturing the students’ sense of control over their behaviors and goals.  When teachers relinquish control (without losing power) to the students, rather than promoting compliance with directives and commands, student engagement levels are likely to increase as a result (Reeve, Jang, Carrell, Jeon, & Barch, 2004).”

As long as we’re talking about the teachers retaining their power over the students, we aren’t talking about true autonomy.  It’s a ruse, designed to manipulate the students into doing or learning what someone else wants them to do or learn.  There aren’t any tricks or techniques that an authority figure can use to unleash the capacity of autonomy to ramp up student engagement.  The answer is to hand over the reigns to the student to autonomously guide and direct what they are learning themselves.

Embrace Collaborative Learning

“When students work effectively with others, their engagement may be amplified as a result (Wentzel, 2009), mostly due to experiencing a sense of connection to others during the activities (Deci & Ryan, 2000).”

Well, you know the saying: “Misery loves company.”  Of course having other people that you like work alongside you during an activity that you find distasteful makes it more tolerable.  Having other people that you like work alongside you if you want the company during an activity that you enjoy makes it even more enjoyable.  The point here, though, is the choice to determine the activity in the first place and then whether or not to collaborate with other people after that.

Establish Positive Teacher-Student Relationships

“High-quality teacher-student relationships are another critical factor in determining student engagement, especially in the case of difficult students and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (Fredricks, 2014).”

The adage that no one cares what you know until they know that you care is true.  It’s very difficult to learn from someone that you neither like nor respect.  Additionally, it is possible to leverage a good relationship in order to coerce someone into doing or learning something that you want them to do or learn.  I don’t want my kids to learn to read in order to please me because they love me.  I want them to learn to read because it is both useful and enjoyable, and they have discovered the utility and the pleasure on their own in their own lives.

What I would do with this element is flip it around.  It would be more about the student choosing his or her own guides and mentors than a teacher consciously or unconsciously manipulating feelings and connection in a relationship with a student.  

Promote Mastery Orientations

“When students pursue an activity because they want to learn and understand (i.e. mastery orientations), rather than merely obtain a good grade, look smart, please their parents, or outperform peers (i.e. performance orientations), their engagement is more likely to be full and thorough (Anderman & Patrick, 2012).”

This is 100% spot on.  The problem occurs when parents or teachers believe that they must do anything to create or manipulate this.  It doesn’t need to be promoted.  It can just be.  Parents and teachers just need to let go of the idea that learning must be linear and that there is a time and a place for every child to learn X, Y, and Z in order to empower students to approach their learning from a mastery orientation.

When you free yourself and your children from the assembly line of mass produced education and allow life to guide and direct the scope and sequence of education for each individual, you make it possible for the power of student engagement to sink its hooks into the material or experiences and make something personal of it.

About the Author Becky

I’m a married, homeschooling mama of three who is passionate about self-directed learning.

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