The Importance of Engagement | Ray Ravaglia | 5 Min Read

August 4, 2022

One often hears that in life, the most important thing is just showing up.  In education, just showing up is certainly necessary, after all, truancy laws make the alternative somewhat unpalatable.  But given the performance of most schools, just showing up isn’t sufficient.

Determining what might actually be essential for effective education has been a driving impulse behind our work at Opportunity Education.  In developing Quest Forward Learning, Opportunity Education began by conducting a thorough review of the education research and of best practices from established programs to determine what factors drive ownership of learning among adolescent high school students.  This was done to address the observation that even though students will spend more time engaged in learning while in high school than at any other time in their lives, most students view school not as an investment but as a tax on their time.  Rather than making the most of their studies to lay the groundwork for a successful future, they too often find school boring and irrelevant.  In looking for ways to reverse this trend we identified engagement as the potential crucial ingredient to improving ownership of learning.  

Corporate leaders have long recognized the importance of engagement as an important ingredient of success in the workplace.  The analytics and advisory company Gallup, in a meta-analysis of decades of engagement data from companies, has found that high engagement consistently leads to positive outcomes, such as higher productivity, lower absenteeism, higher quality work, and higher job satisfaction. This has matched their findings with students in grades 5 to 12, where engaged students are 2.5 times more likely to say that they get excellent grades and do well in school, and are 4.5 times more hopeful about their futures than disengaged peers.

Gallup has also found that engagement declines every year from grade 5 onward.  In over 5 million surveys conducted with students in grades 5 to 12 over the past several years, Gallup has reported that  29% of students are “not engaged” and 24% of students are “actively disengaged”, showing that more than half of students do not actually participate in their education.  Moreover, while 75% of Grade 5 students report high levels of engagement, only 30% of high school students do so, with engagement declining steadily year by year.   

The chart dramatically illustrates this decline. 

In their news release reporting these findings, Gallup noted that:

Student engagement with school and learning is a gold standard that every parent, teacher, and school strives to achieve. If we were doing right by our students and our future, these numbers would be the absolute opposite. For each year a student progresses in school, they should be more engaged, not less. 

In our work at the Quest Forward Academies, we have first-hand insight into the importance of engagement as a predictor of student success.  These schools take a high-frequency, low-stakes approach to assessment, with students being evaluated in real-time on an almost daily basis and in multiple dimensions of performance, spanning learning, to learning skills, to work skills, to classroom engagement.  What is particularly noteworthy is the high degree of correlation (0.71) between engagement and overall performance, as seen in the following chart.  Here overall performance, exclusive of engagement, is shown on the y-axis, normalized to a possible score of 100, while on the x-axis is engagement, scored on a 0 to 3 scale. 

As regards how engagement is measured, after much consideration, we opted for a simple procedure that teachers could complete in under a minute. In the same way that one takes attendance at the start of class to indicate that students are physically present, one takes engagement at the end of class to confirm that they were mentally present. Following the high-frequency, low-stakes approach, engagement is scored on a 0 to 3 scale with the following intuitive meanings: 3 – fully engaged, 2 – more engaged than not, 1 – more disengaged than engaged, and 0 – disengaged.  As regards how a teacher determines engagement, some training is provided pre-service to normalize values, but the determination is largely made by whether students come to class prepared and willing to participate.   


These results help to substantiate the importance of engagement as a leading indicator of performance and suggest that by identifying students with low engagement and taking appropriate measures, we can have a sizable impact on their ultimate course performance.  Also notable is the fact that there is only a single student with high performance and low engagement.  In a typical classroom, it is not uncommon for high-ability students to be bored and disengage.  The fact that students in a Quest Forward classroom take ownership of their learning allows them to spend more time working in areas of interest, which increases the chances of their remaining engaged.

One other notable feature of the chart above is that almost all students fall at the Full or High levels of engagement. Disaggregating the data by grade level (below), shows that engagement remains high across all four grades.  

engagement by grade

In every grade level, there are 2-3 times more students with High Engagement (2.3 to 3.0) than Full Engagement (1.5 to 2.3), and almost no students with Low Engagement (below 1.5).  While there are slight dips for Grade 10 and Grade 12 in the number of students with High Engagement, these are readily explainable by the common phenomena of the “sophomore slump”—in which students tend to do worse in their second years as they become more complacent in their studies and find other distractions—and “senioritis”—in which seniors stop putting out full effort once their college plans are settled. 

The fact that Quest Forward Academy students are able to maintain high levels of engagement at every grade is remarkable.  That engagement is so clearly correlated with performance shows how important this fact is. From the beginning, we have placed engagement at the center of student learning.  Our data suggest that we have been successful in this goal, and the performance of our students, their success in the college application process, and the findings of Gallup demonstrate the importance of this decision. We recommend that all schools seriously consider a similar program of assessment that will lift your students to higher levels of engagement. As the saying often attributed to Peter Drucker goes, “if you can’t measure something, you can’t improve it.”

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Ray Ravaglia for Intrepid Ed News.

Ray Ravaglia

Raymond Ravaglia, Chief Learning Officer at Opportunity Education, founded Stanford University’s Education Program for Gifted Youth, was the principal architect of Stanford University’s Online High School and is also author of Bricks and Mortar: the making of a Real Education at the Stanford Online High School. He has presented regularly at conferences on gifted education and e-learning for the past 15 years. He has published in scholarly and professional journals on different aspects of e-learning, was the 1996 recipient of the paper of the year award from GiftedChild Quarterly, and in 1997 received a Central Pioneer Award. Raymond has served as an external reviewer for the Office of Post-Secondary Education of the U.S. Department of Education, has been an advisor to the College Board on the subject of online education, and was a founding board member of the International Council for Online Learning. He received his BA and MA degrees in Philosophy from Stanford University.

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