What is Student Engagement? And What Should it Be?

motion with progressMaybe those seems like weird questions. But they’ve been bouncing around in my head for a while now. I hear a lot of people talk about student engagement as a goal, but I get the impression that not everyone means it in the same way. So what is it? Is it showing interest? Paying attention? Spending time doing something? I’m just not sure. So I thought I’d dig into it a bit.

I started with the omnipotent Wikipedia. Here’s how they define it:

Student engagement is frequently used to, “depict students’ willingness to participate in routine school activities, such as attending class, submitting required work, and following teachers’ directions in class.” However, the term is also increasingly used to describe meaningful student involvement throughout the learning environment, including students participating in curriculum design, classroom management and school building climate. It is also often used to refer as much to student involvement in extra-curricular activities in the campus life of a school/college/university which are thought to have educational benefits as it is to student focus on their curricular studies.

Well, at least this explains why I’m confused by who means what when they say “student engagement.” Even Wikipedia has several, rather amorphous, definitions. Every other definition I saw fit within Wikipedia’s description. But I think what we can take away from it, generally, is that the term “student engagement” describes some kind of participation, activity, or involvement with educational materials, the classroom environment, etc.

Most educators, myself among them, would agree that student engagement is important to learning. We need kids interacting with educational materials, whether low tech or high tech, in order for learning to happen. If there’s no interaction, well, what can you do with that?!? And we know how to build opportunities for kids to interact…how to require lots of student responding, how to keep kids tapping the screen, how to get kids moving stuff around onscreen. We got that.

But here’s the thing: Not all interaction opportunities are created equal.

This has really struck home for me lately as I look, not only at educational apps that are targeting kids, but at the apps’ marketing claims and reviews that are written about some of them. First off, pretty much every educational app claims to be “engaging” (I mean, honestly, who is going to say they are NOT engaging?). And that’s fine, that’s marketing and whatever. And then I read reviews of apps and I see things like “highly engaging” and “this will keep your students really engaged.”

So I’m excited, right? I go check out the app that is said to be so engaging for students. And here is what I often find: the “engagement” consists of turning pages on the app to advance the screen, of touching items on the screen to “explore” what sounds they make, of touching a screenshot of a video to start watching it.

And that makes me angry. If it’s an entertainment app, fine. But don’t TELL me that’s an educational app, if the responses and interactions on the part of the student aren’t relevant to some kind of learning outcome. And if you know me at all, by now, you know that by learning outcome I mean something that a student has to DO. Not “understand.” Not “learn about.” Not “know.”

Why does this distinction matter so much to me? Because relevance matters. Parents and teachers are getting the wool pulled over their eyes when they’re told that “student engagement” really means anything. What really means something is “relevant student engagement.” Don’t bother telling me that engagement is high if all you’re really saying is that kids will use this app willingly. That’s simply not enough.

Let’s not confuse motion with progress.


About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
This entry was posted in App Reviews & Recs, Instructional Design, Learner Behavior, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What is Student Engagement? And What Should it Be?

  1. fran says:

    Love the Montapert quote. I agree all motion is not significant, especially in the classroom and that includes teachers as well as students.

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