While we talk generally about "student engagement" as a variable in academic success, we may have differing ideas regarding a definition of student engagement. Engagement in learning has many constructs influenced by both the learner and the learning environment. And the learning environment has many elements, including instructional design and delivery as well as the culture of the environment (safety, reciprocal respect, expectations, supports, and nurturing relationships, to name a few). So, to discuss student engagement we need to identify some specific aspects of engagement.

Defining Engagement
Conceptually, student engagement reflects curiosity, enthusiasm, motivation, and interest in pursuing understanding and mastery. These aspects can be observed, but are hard to measure. Simpler, more measureable variables might include attendance, listening and participating in class, and completing and returning assignments on time.

Students who are engaged in their work "are energized by four goals - success, curiosity, originality, and satisfying relationships."

Strong, R., Silver, H.F., Robinson, A. (1995). Strengthening Student Engagement: What do they want? Alexandria VA: ASCD.

Upon reflection, it is apparent that engagement is a complex construct that includes intellectual, emotional, behavioral, physical, social, cultural and even perhaps spiritual dimensions. Add to this complexity the wide variability of the students in a classroom, and it is apparent that supporting engagement is a big task!

 

Measuring Engagement

Efforts to measure engagement are varied. One such measure is the High School Survey of Student Engagement (HESSE). Administered by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University, the survey measures the engagement of secondary students; more than 400,000 students in over 40 states have completed the survey from 2006-2013. One of the disturbing and consistent findings from the survey over time is that students "are bored, not connected to school;" forty-two percent of survey respondents said they thought of dropping out because they didn't see the value in the work they were asked to do.

Another poll (the Gallup Student Poll) surveyed nearly 500,000 students in grades 5−12 from more than 1,700 public schools in 37 states in 2012. The survey measured three constructs: hope, engagement, and well-being (according to the research base used to construct the survey, "hope" is a better predictor of success than SAT or ACT scores or grade-point average).

In this poll, the findings relative to engagement traced a continual decline in student engagement from elementary to middle to high school. While nearly 8 out of 10 elementary students who participated in the poll were engaged with school, this measure decreased to 6 out of 10 in middle school, and further decreased to 4 in 10 students in high school. While we might assume that these findings reflect developmental trends, the findings themselves provide a call to action to create learning environments that are appropriate to sustaining engagement over the developmental range.

 

Opportunities to Support Engagement

One of the required components in the delivery of special education programs and services is Secondary Transition Planning. This required process presents a timely opportunity to focus on sustaining or increasing engagement that supports student success in the transition from school to post-school endeavors. Beginning in middle school, this transition planning process presents the ideal framework to assess the needs of the student and the challenges within the learning environment that must be overcome to sustain or increase student engagement.

This process has a series of basic components that can be leveraged to support and/or increase student engagement. They include the following:

  • Framing the picture of "Who is this student as a learner?"
    • What are this learner's interests and preferences?
    • What are this learner's strengths and challenges?
  • What are this learner's future goals?
  • What are we going to do to support this learner to achieve these goals?
    • What courses and experiences will support this learner to move forward toward his/her goals?
    • What skills and content mastery are necessary to support this learner to move forward toward his/her goals?
  • Who will be involved to support this learner achieve the necessary skills and content mastery?
  • What community linkages are necessary to support this learner to achieve the necessary skills and content mastery?

Embracing this required process, and utilizing strategies appropriate to the learner, the following supports and universal design tools will add value to the learning environment and support robust student engagement.

 

What Works to Support Engagement?

In order to support successful secondary transition for students with IEPs (and all students as well), we must pay attention to what students say and what we know will support and enhance engagement.

The HESSE survey includes responses from students about what keeps them engaged, how they like to learn, and what they do not like about school. These inputs from students, as well as other research, reiterate the following:

  1. Students tend to be more involved with their learning when there are opportunities to be creative, and to be involved with their peers.
  2. Discussion and debate are rated highly by students as one of the "highest" kinds of teaching.
  3. Technology projects, art, and drama projects also have a high rating by students.
  4. Students hate:
    • Work that is repetitive.
    • Work that requires little or no thought.
    • Work that has no apparent relationship to their reality.
    • Work that seems forced upon them for no reason.

So how do we foster a learning environment that supports student engagement? It is important to begin with essential goals of engagement:

  1. Supporting success and the drive and need for mastery (we have all seen that look of accomplishment on a student's face when s/he realizes mastery of a new skill or concept).
  2. Encouraging and supporting curiosity and the need for understanding (where adults do not diminish students' questions and hypotheses).
  3. Encouraging and supporting originality (where adults do not denigrate but instead appreciate students' novel approaches to understanding or expression of what they understand).
  4. Building and supporting relationships (acknowledging the need for involvement with others and supporting meaningful, reciprocal and respectful relationships).

"The drive toward interpersonal involvement is pervasive – unbalanced and nonreciprocal relationships prove transient and fail to generate energy or interest."

Ibid.

Supporting and strengthening student engagement is also related to building self-esteem. Building on this linkage, Beane and Lipka suggest numerous strategies and tools to use; a few of these include:

  • Clearly articulate criteria for success and provide clear, immediate and constructive feedback.
  • Model necessary skills; show students these skills are within their grasp.
  • Create mystery when introducing new skills and content – begin with a problem that arouses curiosity, and then support discussion and collaborative hypotheses.
  • Model problem-solving and demonstrate how mistakes are part of the learning and mastery process.

Mistakes we make too often:

  • Assuming that pre-requisite skills are already mastered by the student(s).
  • Not modeling how the skill is used and useful.
  • Assuming that creativity is an understood tool rather than modeling and supporting further development.
  • Not modeling brainstorming, not demonstrating that all ideas are worthy of consideration.
  • Not explaining or demonstrating how the learning is tied to students' personal lives.

 

Universal Design for Learning and Student Engagement

The most encompassing approach to engagement is utilizing the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). The UDL is based on neuroscience research that has identified three primary neurological networks that impact learning. These include:

  • The recognition network deals with incoming stimuli and affects WHAT students learn
  • The strategic network mediates HOW students process incoming information as well as
  • Their motivation to engage in specific activities – the WHY of their learning and engagement.

The understanding of these neurological networks yields the three principles of UDL:

  1. Multiple means of representation—providing various ways of acquiring information and knowledge.
  2. Multiple means of expression—providing alternatives for demonstrating what students know.
  3. Multiple means of engagement—using a variety of ways to tap learners' interests, increase motivation and incorporate challenges.

Focusing on multiple means of engagement, the UDL Center at CAST provides guidelines for recruiting interest, sustaining effort and persistence, and options for self-regulation. The website provides many examples for all of the aspects of engagement, including the following principles:

  • Providing options for recruiting interest
    • Optimizing individual choice and autonomy
    • Optimizing relevance, value, and authenticity
    • Minimizing threats and distractions
  • Providing options for sustaining effort and persistence
    • Heightening salience of goals and objectives
    • Varying demands and resources to optimize challenge
    • Fostering collaboration and community
    • Increasing mastery-oriented feedback
  • Providing options for self-regulation
    • Promoting expectations and beliefs that optimize motivation
    • Facilitating personal coping skills and strategies
    • Developing self-assessment and reflection

With a focus on these principles across the secondary transition process for students with IEPs, student engagement can thrive.

 

Especially Useful: The UDL Center at CAST

The UDL Center at CAST is a very rich resource for all teachers, and especially for teachers who have students with IEPs in their classrooms. Of special interest are the Supporting, Engaging and Enhancing Comprehension for Student in High School (SEEC) Toolkit, which "provides high-school educators with strategies, procedures, activities, and resources informed by Universal Design for Learning principles for increasing reading proficiency in subject area content. The toolkit integrates UDL instructional methods and flexible digital curriculum content with empirically validated reading practices. It guides teachers in the use of effective vocabulary instruction and reading comprehension strategies that promote access, participation, and progress in subject-area content for all students."

 

Ultimate Support for Engagement

School culture is the foundation for focusing on student engagement. A culture where norms, values and expectations are evident is critical. Such a school culture provides respect for every child and adult and all are engaged in the process of learning. Attitudes clearly emphasize the benefits and satisfaction gained from learning. Such attitudes are modeled and nurtured, with each person contributing to the creation of a positive climate. In this school culture, engagement is a norm and support for all learners is universal.

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