Student engagement

18 April 2017

Scattered around the University’s websites (and in the work of colleagues in CleaR there are many references to student engagement. This is probably because “Engagement could be described as the holy grail of learning …. because it has been linked with to positive learning outcomes both in and out of schools” (Sinatra, Heddy & Lombardi, 2015, p. 1). From the perspective of a manager, I have often found the notion to engagement—in general—to be somewhat messy. Consequently, I am even less certain what is meant by student engagement.

In thinking of engagement, I find it useful to bear in mind its opposite — ‘alienation’ (Khan, 2014).

“A programme of education typically requires students to engage with specific sets of tasks and activities. Where higher education is concerned, there are choices to be made about how much time is devoted to one’s studies, and about such considerations as where and how one studies. There is significant scope for variation in how, or whether, a student carries forward their learning” (Kahn, 2014, p. 1006).

It is argued that learning does need to be self-regulated—by the students–and this “This is the case not only for the cognition entailed in learning, but also for the behaviours and motivation expressed by students…. Specific strategies, for instance, that have been shown to enhance a student’s own motivation include self-consequating, interest enhancement and self-talk in pursuit of goals. Regulation may also be seen to involve various phases, for instance taking in mental activity that is focused on forethought, activation, monitoring, control and reaction. Studies on metacognition similarly emphasises the role that the learner plays in monitoring and controlling their own cognitive activity.” (Khan, 2014, p.1007). Overall, it is seen as desirable for students to take responsibility for their learning. It is less clear to me if this is a statement of ‘belief’ or if it is a statement relating to learning outcomes.

That said, “Engagement involves more than simply participating in some practice, but is accompanied by a range of feelings around those practices, and an attempt to make sense of the activity” (Khan, 2014, p.1006)

In their review of measures of engagement, Sinatra et al., (2015) suggest there are four type of engagement:

  1. Behavioural engagement: “operationalized as involvement on one’s own learning and academic tasks and is usually defined in one of three ways, including positive conduct, involvement in academic tasks, and participation in schoole related activities…. Measures of behavioural engagement include displays of effort, peristance, behavioural aspects of attention …, and seld-directed academic behaviour (Sinatra et al., 2015, p. 2).

  2. Emotional engagement: “is define as students’ emotional reactions to academic subject areas such as science or to school more generally…. Often included in operational definitions … are motivational constructs such as perception of value related to school and interest. Task values are believes about the return benefit that individuals perceive for engaging in specific school-related tasks (Sinatra et al., 2015, p. 2).

  3. Cognitive engagement: “is more difficult to precisely define…. [as there] is a lack of agreement … how cognitive engagement should be operationalized. A widely used definition … is psychological investment. Conceptualized this was, many of the dimensions of cognitive engagement overlap with dimensions of both behavioural engagement (i.e., effort) and emotional engagement. This raises the issue of whether the dimensions can be effectively differentiated.” (Sinatra et al., 2015, p. 3)

  4. Agentic engagement: “where students are proactive during instruction …. [they] actively contributes to the flow of instruction …. however, [it] is a new idea, and much more research is needed to validate the construct.” (Sinatra et al., 2015, p. 3)

“Engagement with learning could be examined in any discipline, task, subject matter, or content area. Certainly there are domain-general aspects of engagement. For instance, all engagement likely includes psychophysiological arousal that generates a cognitive, behavioral, and/or emotional response. Other domain-general aspects of engagement include attention, metacognitive awareness, emotions (positive or negative), and behavior.”

Sinatra et al., (2015) go on to list some of the challenges associated with measuring student engagement.

First, there remain problems around the definition of the construct. It is still not clear if researchs can produce an integrated view of engagement that addresses/distinguishes all the dimensions of engagement. Second, there is the issue of “grain size”; do we care about engagement in a particular task, during a specific class, within an entire course or programme of study, or at the level of the school (or beyond that even). Thirdly, there are individual differences stemming from age, race, gender, socio-economic status, and so on. Perhaps most importantly, there is the challenge of identifying the source of engagement; e.g., “If a researcher reports or observes engaged behavior in a lesson on force using toy cars, is it the concept itself, the car, or the interaction with the other students that is the cause of the engagement?” (Sinatra et al., 2015, p 8).

That all being said, and notion of student engagement needs to built upon an understanding of student learning, but we still have a “need for theories of student learning to draw on a more sophisticated approach to theorising the individual and society, taking into account recent developments in these two fields” (Khan, 2014). Khan (2014, p. 1008) has much to say about in this regard. “Learning inherently involves one in progressing projects in unfamiliar contexts … uncertainty plays a role in impelling learning quite generally…. Such factors as the novelty of the context, the presence of incongruities or the range of possible ways forward all all related to the challenges entailed in learning…. On going gains in knowledge suggest the world is radically unknowable, and this results in challenges for both novices and experts…. [Thus] students need to come to terms with anxiety and that humans flourishing involves ‘living effectively amid uncertainty’…. But a longstanding body of research also points to the social basis of knowledge and its acquisition. Recent research has emphasised the need to consider social goals within the regulation of learning…. ‘There is, however, a growing conceptual agreement in the literature from both sociocultural and socio-cognitive perspectives that both self and social forms of regulation are needed to understand regulation in actual learning activities’. This suggests that we need to widen the frame of our discussion beyond the agency of the individual learner, to include the way that groups of learners and tutors pool their agency together.”

This all seems to suggest that engagement (a) is a function (or identical to) the degree of self-regulation of learning that student undertakes, and that (b) student engagement actually goes beyond the individual and must—somehow—include the communities in which the student participates.

That all makes engagement a problematic issue.


Kahn, P. E. (2014). Theorising student engagement in higher education. British Educational Research Journal, 40(6), 1005–1018.

Sinatra, G. M., Heddy, B. C., & Lombardi, D. (2015). The challenges of defining and measuring student engagement in science. Educational Psychologist, 50(1), 1–13.