Teaching Engagement

08/23/2010  |  ROBERT J. MARZANO, PhD
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Engagement is obviously a central aspect of effective teaching. If students are not engaged, there is little, if any, chance that they will learn what is being addressed in class. A basic premise of this article is that student engagement happens as a result of a teacher’s careful planning and execution of specific strategies. In other words, student engagement is not serendipitous. Of course, no teacher will have all students engaged at high levels all of the time; however, using the research-based suggestions presented in this article, every teacher can create a classroom environment in which engagement is the norm instead of the exception.

Engagement, motivation, and their related processes are very complex constructs that are difficult to fully understand. However, for the purpose of busy classroom teachers, our goal is simply to develop an internally consistent model for planning and carrying out instruction.

At the core of our model are four emblematic questions:

  1.  How do I feel?
  2.  Am I interested?
  3.  Is this important?
  4.  Can I do this?

The first question, “How do I feel?,” addresses the affective side of learning. The second question, “Am I interested?,” deals with the extent to which classroom activities intrigue students. These first two questions combined constitute what we refer to as attention. Attention is a short-term phenomenon that ranges from a few seconds to a few minutes. Emblematic questions three and four deal with engagement — a more long-term phenomenon lasting beyond the parameters of a single class period. Question three, “Is this important?,” addresses the extent to which students perceive classroom goals as related to their personal goals. Question four, “Can I do this?,” deals with the extent to which students have or cultivate a sense of self-efficacy.

One of the most powerful determiners of how a student answers the question “How do I feel?” is the relationship a teacher has with students. Carol Goodenow found teacher support was consistently the strongest predictor of motivation among students in sixth through eighth grades. By taking concrete steps to foster accepting and supportive teacher-student relationships, a teacher can increase the probability that students will respond positively to the emblematic question “How do I feel?”

Even if an individual is engaged emotionally (responds positively to the question “How do I feel?”) he or she may still fail to engage in a new activity simply because he or she doesn’t perceive it as interesting. One way to increase students’ levels of interest is to initiate friendly controversy. In their review of the research, David Johnson and Roger Johnson  built a strong case for the fact that conflict can be used in the classroom to enhance student achievement, noting that “controversies among students can promote transitions to higher stages of cognitive and moral reasoning.”

If students see classroom goals as being important they are more likely to stay involved in the tasks at hand. One way to do this is to help students make connections between content and their personal short- and long-term goals. As Boekaerts explained, every student enters class every day with goals that drive his or her behavior. Connecting classroom content to those goals will help students answer affirmatively to the question “Is this important?”

Finally, the answer to the final emblematic question “Can I do this?” affects engagement. Hazel Markus and her colleagues noted that efficacy is determined in part by students’ sense of their possible selves. Possible selves are cognitive representations of an individual’s future. The extent to which students have developed clear and capable conceptions of who they might become in the future enables them to develop a positive sense of self-efficacy.

In general, one might say that a teacher is always addressing two questions:

  1. Do I have students’ attention?
  2. Are they engaged?

If the answer to the first question is no, the teacher looks for ways to raise the emotional tone of the classroom and pique students’ interests. If the answer to the second question is no, the teacher looks for ways to help students recognize the importance of the content and raise their senses of efficacy.

Robert J. Marzano, PhD, is cofounder and CEO of Marzano Research Laboratory in Englewood, Colorado
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