Foundations of Student Engagement

Whenever I start looking at a new learning object, assignment or assessment, there are a few questions I ask myself.  One of the questions focuses on student engagement.  Before looking at another example of student engagement from the BOLO project and other classes I’ve taught, I want to take a moment to talk about what I see as the foundations of student engagement.

If you start looking into student engagement literature, you will find a plethora of models and terms that have been used to frame questions about engagement.  Sometimes the models may look different, but they are dealing with the same underlying concepts.  Same is true for some of the terms.  My foundation for discussions about student engagement goes back to a paper I came across a number of years ago: Educational Leadership:Strengthening Student Engagement:Strengthening Student Engagement: What Do Students Want. (n.d.). Retrieved July 17, 2014, from  Yes, it is an old article, but it really helps keep me grounded when I start to think about why I want to change something.

The article gives four goals that are common to people who are engaged in their work:

  • Success (the need for mastery)
  • Curiosity (the need for understanding)
  • Originality (the need for self-expression)
  • Relationships (the need for involvement with others)
    • I add to this interactive digital objects or artifacts.  An interactive tutorial requires the student to actively participate, and so is engaging.

I keep these four goals in mind while working on learning objects, assignments and assessments.  How does the activity help them master the material (this is more than just learning content)?  Does it help the student further understand not only the discipline as a whole, but also previous material?  Does it help them connect to a learning community?  Does it allow the student to express their understanding in their own words, or in their own way?  It is not about a one way interaction: teacher lectures to student, or student responses to questions on an exam only seen by the instructor.  It is about breaking down traditional barriers and creating a dialog, a learning network or community.

I see engagement as the cornerstone of all forms of blended learning.  A “flipped” class in which an instructor provides recorded lectures without interaction has not engaged the student.  It is still a one way interaction, and the student is a passive observer of the lecture.

Don’t get me wrong, one way interactions still have their place.  An interactive learning module that walks students through course material is a one way interaction, but it does snap the student out of passive learning (it is interactive, it requires student responses to continue).  My concern is with passive one way interactions.

When I talk about what I’ve done with colleagues, one thing I emphasize is “why are you wanting to blend/flip/hybridize your class?”  This is where the four goals (SCORE) above come in handy.  If you don’t want to encourage success, curiosity, originality or relationships, what is the point of changing the way you teach?  People who are doing it “because it’s expected” or “admin is telling us to do this” are going to have a tough time creating effective, innovative classes.  Why, because they are not engaged; they are not vested in the new class models.  What has to be done is to help them change their thinking, and start thinking in terms of Success, Curiosity, Originality and Relationship (i.e., how to engage students).  Heck, it’s a win if a teacher stops think about change as something expected, and starts thinking about helping students succeed.

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