Defining Student Engagement

Student engagement can be difficult to define. While the term has been widely used since gaining initial popularity in the 90s, definitions of student engagement vary.

Some researchers of the subject describe student engagement as “an individual’s interest and enthusiasm for school, which impacts their academic performance and behavior,” while others define it simply as “energy in action.” The Glossary of Education Reform offers a more specific definition, describing 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.”

What’s more, as the world of education evolves, our understanding of student engagement continues to adapt. In today’s learning landscape, where education takes place in the classroom, online, and in a myriad of hybrid arrangements, we’re seeing expanded definitions of student engagement as we learn more about new facets of the student experience.

But as countless definitions of student engagement abound, there is common ground among them. Central to any definition of student engagement is the belief that learning improves when students are curious, interested, or inspired, and that learning is negatively impacted when students are dispassionate, bored, or otherwise disengaged. As such, advancing student engagement is a key objective for educators around the world.

The term, ‘student engagement’ has been widely used for decades, starting in 1996 when it was first identified as a new buzzword within education circles. As the world of education has evolved, so has the meaning behind “student engagement.” The term’s definition has taken on several iterations and in the current landscape where several learning environments coexist, including in-classroom, distance, and hybrid, we are seeing more changes around how we discuss engagement in education.

Today, we find that student engagement continues to be difficult to define in a single, static way. While it’s a commonly used concept among educators to discuss general educational strategies and teaching techniques that enhance learning for students, it is a complex, multifaceted term, which can make it difficult to understand.

While there are multiple definitions around student engagement, there is a common theme among them. The shared concept of the different beliefs around student engagement is rooted in the idea that learning improves when students are curious, interested, or inspired, and that learning is negatively impacted when students are dispassionate, bored, or otherwise disengaged. As such, educators around the world see stronger or improved student engagement as a key objective within their classes and mixed teaching environments.

The 3 Dimensions of Student Engagement

While there is some variation with the breadth of student engagement, there are mainly three types of engagement that fall within its umbrella. These different kinds of engagement that occur in learning are:

  • Emotional Engagement
    This refers to students’ feelings about their teacher, classroom environment, and general school experience. It also includes a student’s sense of belonging and how valuable they view their work to be.
  • Behavioral Engagement
    Behavioral student engagement addresses how attentive and active students are in the classroom and with a school in general. For example, does the student have involvement in any extracurricular activities related to the school?
  • Cognitive Engagement
    This refers to how intrinsically motivated and invested students are in their own learning process and how much they regulate and take ownership of it.

Students have the most comprehensive engagement and learn best when all three of these areas of engagement are met.

Why Student Engagement is Important

Educators hold student engagement in high esteem because when students are engaged, it means they are taking an active role in their own learning. In an era where hybrid learning environments are becoming more common, there can be a struggle to keep everything about the student experience consistent. However, a sense of strong student engagement must remain critical, as it predicts a multitude of important factors including:

  • Academic grades
  • Test scores
  • Learning
  • Class attendance
  • School retention
  • School graduation
  • Academic resilience

Students who are engaged in the school achieve greater academic success. Furthermore, another noteworthy benefit is that students who exhibit strong student engagement are less likely to fall victim to potential adolescent trouble, which is often related to drop out risk.

While there are multiple definitions of student engagement that have each seen their own retooling through time, there is common ground regarding its importance in education. Consistent student engagement is key to student success inside of the classroom and beyond.

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