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Examining Student Engagement

Student’s critique teachers like customers critique restaurants — it’s always polar. There’s no in-between. Explore your favorite restaurant’s Yelp page and you’ll see what I mean. Five-star reviews and one-star reviews make up almost 80% of the reviews. Likewise, students either think a teacher has the stage presence of Jerry Seinfeld or the monotonous drone of Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. While we can probably chalk some of this effect up to the bias of the adolescent lens, it important to remember a student has much more control over his or her level of classroom engagement than meets the eye.

So what do we mean by “student engagement” anyway? For some, the word “engagement” might conjure the image of a diamond ring and bended knee, but that’s not what we’re going for her. In short, student engagement is the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning, which extends to their level of motivation to progress and grow. So, how do we measure and improve student engagement? To answer that question, we need to look at the work of Philip Schlechty.

A keen understanding of the great Phillip Schlechty’s research into student engagement can help students of all ages, discover and ignite their fervor for academic or non-academic pursuits. Let’s start with the two most crucial inputs of engagement: commitment and attention. The basic formula for engagement looks like this:

Commitment + Attention = Level of Engagement

Attention is frequently the metric of student engagement. Parents and teachers alike command students to “stay focused” and “concentrate”. Although I agree that students should defend their “focus tank” with all of their might, especially in the world of social media and other tools of mass distraction, this only half the battle. Even if a student is completely focused on a task, it doesn’t equate to a high level of engagement. Commitment is just as vital as attention. Commitment is the degree to which students derive intrinsic value from a task and its product.  Intrinsic motivation turns good workers into great students. let’s look at how the equation creates Schlechty’s 5 Levels of Student Engagement:

Level 1 – Rebellion: Diverted Attention + No Commitment

This is the lowest level of student engagement. Here we see a student who is so disinterested in the work that he or she actively diverts attention to tasks for which they have more commitment. Multi-tasking or outright refusal to do the work restrains growth and limits learning. Helping the student establish intrinsic value with the task at hand, processing emotions of frustration, and strategizing for productive output will help move him or her up the ladder of engagement.

Level 2 – Retreatism: No Attention + Low Commitment

At this stage, students tend to appear bored. They are not exactly oppositional but are very much a passive presence in the learning process. Utilizing goal-setting metrics to increase the student’s motivation and delivering instructions in short, clear chunks will produce a higher level of engagement and performance.

Level 3 – Ritual Compliance: Low Attention + Low Commitment

I like to call this mode of engagement the “minimum effective dose” stage. At this level of engagement, students will do whatever it takes to avoid negative consequences… nothing more, nothing less. This is dangerous because if it becomes a habit, the student will disengage from learning for an extended period of time, finding no meaning or intrinsic value in the process. The antidote is a growth mindset, positive encouragement, and goal-setting.

Level 4 – Strategic Compliance: High Attention + Low Commitment

Things are getting better. At this level, students are obsessed with output and results. “I need an A. I must get an A.” The inherent problem here is that a student does not associate with the learning task. In fact, they find little to no meaning in their learning whatsoever. The only motivation is the result. Students here are prone to burnout and lapses in ethical judgment (cheating/plagiarism). Parents and teachers should encourage process over result, progress over perfection. Thus, encouraging grit and helping the student find meaning in the struggle.

Level 5 – Engagement: High Attention + High Commitment

Finally, the holy grail of engagement. The student retains the skills to focus and produce while adding the most important skill to succeed as a student: finding and sustaining meaning from the task at hand. Students here will crush their goals because they have the internal support to persist in the face of struggle, to push past the resistance. As renown chess and tai chi master Josh Waitzkin says in The Art of Learning, “Growth happens at the point of resistance.”

What level of engagement does your student demonstrate most often? Growth is always possible. Remember, attention AND commitment must increase for engagement to increase.

Please check out our other resources for more information on how to instill a growth mindset, help your student set goals like a pro, and how our unique EF skill curriculum can help capable students succeed.

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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