Student Engagement and Why It Matters, Part I


johnson By Bruce A. Johnson, PhD, MBA

As an instructor do you expect that your students will be active and present in the class? The level of a student’s involvement in the class and the learning process are often assessed by his or her performance and the work product submitted; however, does active involvement equal engagement in the class? What does student engagement mean to you and to your class?

Instructors who understand the process of engagement, can encourage students to become involved in the class, which in turn may lead to improved classroom and individual performance. In this entry, the first of a two part series, I’ll explore the concept of student engagement, and examine the instructor’s role. The second part of this series will take a look at engagement in an online classroom and methods of encouraging student engagement.

Defining Student Engagement

Engagement is an action-based state that consists of the time, energy, and effort that the student devotes to his or her class. The process of being engaged in the class involves more than the student just getting by in his or her class or doing the minimum required to pass the course. When a student is engaged in the class they are devoting the time necessary to become an active participant in the process of learning and their attention is focused on the course.

A student may consciously think about being engaged in the class or it may occur as a reaction to specific requirements, such as a participation requirement or a group project. It is possible for the level of a student’s engagement to frequently change, depending upon the interactions and experiences with other students and the instructor. In addition, the student’s emotions and feelings may also influence the conscious decision to be actively engaged. Throughout the class students may experience a range of emotions that can either increase the level of engagement or adversely affect it. For example, if the student is feeling confident with their progress and abilities, that positive emotion can enhance their engagement. In contrast, if the student feels discouraged their engagement and progress may diminish.

Adam Fletcher has found that “student engagement is increasingly seen as an indicator of successful classroom instruction.” Engagement may be enhanced or reduced if there is a feeling of being disconnected from the class or the instructor. Students who experience negative interactions may retreat from the class or withdraw their active engagement from the class as a reaction or retaliation for what they have experienced or how they have perceived a particular incident.

When adults experience engagement in what they are doing they are devoting their full attention to the task and they are enthusiastically involved, highly interested, and experiencing positive emotions. Active engagement can lead to increased participation in the class discussions, which is a gauge that instructors often used to measure the level of a student’s engagement.

The Instructor’s Role in Student Engagement

The process of learning itself may produce emotional reactions that can influence engagement. If an instructor encourages students to utilize critical thinking and reflection students are likely to experience a range of emotions while exploring their opinions, ideas and belief systems.  The process of critical self-examination can happen while the student is working on his or her own or during classroom discussions, emphasizing the need for instructors to provide support and guidance. Instructors have an ability to establish classroom conditions that encourage positive interactions in a productive, respectful environment. When students feel positive emotions and have experiences that produce positive emotions they are likely to be fully engaged in the learning process and actively present in the class.

The instructor’s level of engagement has a direct impact on a student’s level of engagement. A student who believes their instructor is present in his or her class will be more active and engaged in the class as well. Students also react to their instructor’s ongoing engagement in the class. At Maryville University students are told that they will discover “enthusiastic professors with impressive academic credentials and professional experience.” When instructors demonstrate a high level of enthusiasm as they engage in the class, it provides an example for students to follow.

Dr. Richard D. Jones notes that “it is easy to observe the lack of student engagement when students are slouched in their chairs and not listening to the teacher or participating in the discussion.”  From the instructor’s perspective, adult learner engagement may be observed but not measured as the instructor is often focused on the required assignments, class discussions, and administrative aspects of classroom facilitation. In addition, many classroom assessments are designed to measure performance and progress towards meeting the required learning objectives rather than the level of engagement. Because student assessments are performance driven engagement often becomes a criteria that is considered but not measured.

It is possible that increased engagement will have a positive impact on individual and classroom performance; therefore, instructors should consider methods of engaging students in the class.

About The Mentor: Dr. Bruce Johnson has had a life-long love of learning and throughout his entire career he has been involved in many forms of adult education; including teaching, training, human resource development, coaching, and mentoring. Dr. J has completed a master’s in Business Administration and a PhD in the field of adult education, with an emphasis in adult learning within an online classroom environment. Presently Dr. J works as an online adjunct instructor, faculty developmental workshop facilitator, and faculty mentor.

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