Wait, you can measure that? Student engagement and why it matters | Toby Elmore | 5 Min Read

In anticipation of a forthcoming research study I will complete investigating connections between perceived locus of control, agentic engagement, and student sense of belonging, I offer descriptions of these different constructs and why we, as educators, should care about them. To reference my first article on perceived locus of control, please click here. 

It is safe to say that most learner-centered teachers desire their students to be engaged during the learning process. However, it is important for those of us in the educational community to dig deeper into what we mean by student engagement. 

Engagement is broadly defined as the degree to which a student actively participates in an activity. Participation can manifest itself in a broad range of ways, from quiet, constructive reflection to raucous debate and discussion. Much of the research literature to this point has focused on three ways students engage in the learning process: behavioral, cognitive, and affective (or emotional) engagement.

  • Behavioral engagement refers to the visible ways in which a student displays effort, resilience, and rules-based actions; it can also be measured in concrete, observable elements such as attendance, time-on-task, and disruptive or productive in-class activity.
  • Cognitive engagement refers to those processes that enable students to efficiently input new information and build cognitive structures to help transfer knowledge from working memory to long-term memory. Cognitive engagement manifests itself as concentration, self-efficacy, and self-regulatory actions that help to optimize individualized learning processes.
  • Lastly, affective engagement refers to the emotional connection to the materials or environment that either helps or hinders a learners’ capacity to be fully “present.” Affective engagement is complex, multi-faceted, and grounded in students’ prior experiences in a given classroom, with a given topic, or with a given teacher. Juggling these different engagement elements while trying to help students work through the material in a given exercise requires significant work on the planning side of things and an honest and authentic attempt to know the learners in a given context.

A brief description of agentic engagement and why it matters.

Recently, a fourth engagement construct has been added to this list. Agentic engagement is defined as those processes by which students advocate for their needs in a given learning context. This manifests itself as students showing initiative and expressing their individual learning preferences. Educational researcher John Marshall Reeve posits that agentic engagement comprises three distinct and significant characteristics.

  1. First, it is proactive, meaning that it reflects evidence of students expressing their “inner motivations” and their attempts to affect agency over their learning.
  2. Second, it is constructive, meaning that it reflects students’ desire to seek out the instructor’s help in navigating a challenge or solving a problem. We want students to make these connections in a learning environment as they attempt to augment the “motivation-to-progress” and “motivation-to-support linkages” critical in developing healthy and productive student-teacher relationships.
  3. Third, it is reciprocal, meaning that an agentically engaged student will express otherwise privately held motivations and interests with the distinct purpose of altering or adapting a learning exercise. 

Whether providing students with “choice and voice” in the classroom or making sure that we take a differentiated approach to our learners, the three characteristics of agentic engagement listed above provide a useful lens for schools to consider and measure healthy teacher-student dynamics. Thankfully, there are tools designed to measure agentic engagement. Combining the four-item “Deep Learning Strategies Measure” (Senko and Miles, 2008) along with the five-item Agentic Engagement Scale (Reeve, 2013) can provide teachers with ongoing assessments of the degree to which students’ voices are being heard, their learning needs are being met, and they are provided with opportunities to express and foster their intrinsic motivation. During the last 18 months, student social media activity should serve as a clarion call for educators to listen more intently to their desires to have their educational experiences more accurately reflect the world around them. We have the tools to do this work and we owe it to our learners to engage in meaningful work. 

Come research with me! — A brief discussion of Design-Based Research and its usefulness

The traditional model of educational research calls for a process that likely goes something like this. Somebody with a background in Educational Psychology and a connection to a research institution is needed to initiate the lengthy process of identifying schools with similar interests and needs as them, traversing the IRB process, and, if approved, getting graduate assistants to administer instruments, clean and process the data, and finally figure out whether or not the data supports the researchers’ hypothesis. 

There is great value to this process, particularly in school districts and states looking to develop longitudinal data to help determine funding and resource appropriation. However, I would argue that the daunting task of pulling together a research project of this scale dissuades even the most curious teacher and administrator seeking clarity on the experiences of their students. While my experience is purely anecdotal, I have taught in multiple private boarding schools for a total of 21 years and have never been part of research that I did not run myself. Who has the time, right?

We owe it to our students to make time to do this work and I argue that Design-Based Research provides a feasible research process for all of us. Simply put, Design-Based Research entails the identification of place-based practical problems generated by those within an institution. Identifying research-based interventions provide opportunities for practitioners to explore the literature or work with individuals (like me!) to consider best practices and begin the research process. Once begun, the process is both iterative and cyclical; practitioners become researchers and work with their learners to best understand what is happening in their classrooms and why, and the research process adjusts and adapts based on the needs of the institution rather than the needs of the researcher (see Figure 1 below). 

Figure 1: Design-Based Research vs. Predictive Research (McNulty, 2016

I will be embarking upon a Design-Based Research experiment during the 2021-2022 school year investigating connections between students’ perceived locus of control, agentic engagement, and academic achievement. While I have an initial hypothesis regarding correlations between internal locus of control, high levels of agentic engagement, and high levels of academic achievement, my work will be driven by the needs of those institutions I have partnered with. For example, the perceived locus of control data and the accompanying reflections will be used by each school’s Health and Wellness team and DEI offices to identify students of concern. The agentic engagement data will be used by instructors and department chairs to consider pedagogy and curriculum, leading to fruitful dialog between and among instructors and students surrounding what is being taught, how it is being taught, and why. 

Interested? Want to learn more or have an exploratory conversation regarding how this approach can help you and your colleagues best support your learners. Please reach out to me at [email protected]

Toby Elmore

Toby Elmore is an Upper School History Teacher at The Stevenson School (CA).

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