New Perspectives on Student Engagement

Do you remember Judith Viorst’s story about Alexander, who had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day? For some middle school students, each day of the school year is an Alexander kind of day as defeat after defeat turns the rose-colored glasses of childhood black.

For many 10- to 15-year-olds, adolescence is characterized by a persistent, internalized, and overwhelming feeling of being flawed. They often seek solace by withdrawing into a world of their own, disengaging from everything, including learning.

Gallup Student Poll results for 2013 showed that beginning in the fifth grade, student engagement steadily declines. Slightly more than half the number of students polled said that they are engaged with school—which, according to Gallup’s definition, means they are involved and have enthusiasm for school, feel they are recognized, and often get to do what they do best.

However, what aspect of engagement truly aims at the heart of the middle school concept and alleviates the disconnection of adolescence?

We can count how many times Johnny raises his hand in class or how many extracurricular activities Suzy takes part in, but how do we fulfill the underlying need for value and meaning that middle school students want?

The key is through engagement that goes beyond checklists, scripted techniques, or test scores, and seeks to connect students to seemingly contradictory definitions of creativity, mastery, and success.

Researchers generally agree that there are three types of student engagement: behavioral, emotional, and cognitive.

Behavioral engagement refers to student conduct and on-task behavior, drawing on the idea of participation.

Emotional engagement includes student attitudes, interests, and values, and encompasses positive and negative reactions to teachers, classmates, academics, and school.

Cognitive engagement is more profound by including motivational goals and self-regulated learning, including the idea of investment and incorporating thoughtfulness and willingness to exert the effort necessary to understand complex ideas and master difficult skills.

It is this preference for challenge and complexity that provides a new foundation to developing adolescents’ capacities to engage with content.

Taking a Different Approach

Nearly 20 years ago, Richard Strong, Harvey Silver, and Amy Robinson introduced a model of student motivation that includes four essential goals that drive engaged adolescents and in many ways contradict modern practice.

The authors suggest that teachers must ask themselves four essential questions as they look for ways to motivate students in their classroom:

  1. Under what conditions are students most likely to feel that they can be successful?
  2. When are students most likely to become curious?
  3. How can we help students satisfy their natural drive toward self-expression?
  4. How can we motivate students to learn by using their natural desire to create and foster good peer relationships?

Using the acronym SCORE (Success, Curiosity, Originality, Relationships, and Energy), this student engagement model, which they describe in a 1995 Educational Leadership article titled “Strengthening Student Engagement: What Do Students Want (And What Really Motivates Them)?”combines intrinsic and extrinsic motivation so often separated in most theories of student motivation.

Success. Students want and need work that enables them to demonstrate and improve their awareness as competent and successful human beings. However, in order to produce high-quality work, students must see success as a direct result of failure and actually a valuable aspect of their personalities. This goes against our instinct to provide insulated environments of triumph against the obvious disappointment and frustration of the “real world.”

Curiosity. Strong, Silver, and Robinson provide a critical answer to the question, “How can we ensure that our curriculum arouses intense curiosity?” Again in opposition to traditional thinking, they contend that curriculum must feature two defining characteristics:

  • The information about a topic should be fragmentary or contradictory.
  • The topic should relate to students’ personal lives within unresolved, yet manageable issues.

The authors argue that it is the lack of organization of a body of information that compels us to want to understand it further. This explains why textbooks, which are highly organized, rarely arouse student interest. The critical role of mystery motivates students to pursue complex problem solving by presenting what appear on the surface to be unsolvable riddles of the human experience.

Originality. The pursuit of self-expression is the main thrust of originality. Unfortunately, schools traditionally dampen creativity by viewing it as a form of play. They emphasize and assess technique over self-expression. According to Strong, Silver, and Robinson, students want and need work that permits them to express their autonomy and originality, enabling them to discover who they are and who they want to be, which can be the opposite of schools’ attempts to standardize creativity. Teachers should allow students more choice in how they express their learning.

Relationships and Energy. The final two components of SCORE, relationships and energy, are essential, as relationships generate the interest necessary to increase student achievement and, therefore, engagement.

The authors use homework as an example of how teachers can promote relationships that engage students in their learning. Homework usually is an unbalanced and nonreciprocal relationship between student and teacher, they say. Students don’t think the teacher needs their knowledge and the teacher, who deals with hundreds of students a day, probably isn’t seeking any deep relationship based on the student’s homework.

Teachers can add the relationship element to homework by promoting relationships between students—making the homework assignments group or cooperative work. That way students contribute knowledge to each other—they need each other. This builds a sense of necessity among students that is the opposite of the transient relationships that define much of Alexander’s days of discontent.

We don’t want our students to simply endure their school days. They are unique, complex, and valued for their contradictions—and we should embrace those contradictions as a way to engage them in their learning and in life.

Student Engagement and Teacher Evaluation

More and more school districts are incorporating student perception surveys into their year-end summative evaluations of teacherswhich begs the question: Can young adolescents who are not engaged in their learning serve as reliable judges of teaching quality?

The Tripod™ student survey, developed by Harvard’s Ronald Ferguson, combines content knowledge, pedagogic skills, and relationships to measure teacher effectiveness and suggest needed professional development. Nearly one million students have been surveyed using the Tripod instrument since 2001.

Tripod assesses teachers by the 7 Cs:

Caremaking students feel safe
Controlmanaging the classroom
Clarifypromoting understanding
Challengepressing students to work hard and think critically
Captivatemaking learning stimulating and interesting
Conferinviting students to express themselves
Consolidatehelping students organize, review, and  summarize material

Spearheaded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, district-wide administration of the Tripod survey has begun in Memphis and Denver; statewide pilots are underway in Georgia and North Carolina. Pittsburgh teachers K12 participate in the Tripod survey as part of the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Project and use the results to help inform professional development.

What are they finding out? According to a 2013 report by A+ Schools (Pittsburgh’s Community Alliance for Public Education, “In Pittsburgh as in other cities nationally, students tend to have less favorable perceptions of their teachers regarding the 7 Cs as they transition from elementary to secondary schools. In Pittsburgh, there was a drop of 15 points between upper elementary (35) and secondary middle (68) school overall scores…”

Considering the results of student perception surveys such as Tripod and implementing seemingly contrary models of student motivation such as the SCORE model might help improve student motivation and positively affect student-informed teacher evaluations.
James Hall

James Hall, a veteran middle school teacher, is in the doctoral program in curriculum and instruction at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs,
North Carolina.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2015.