What is student engagement?

what is student engagement

Published: August 8th, 2022

Student engagement is a commonly discussed concept that all educators agree is vital. It’s a large part of why tools such as the ActivPanel interactive display and teaching software play a crucial role in classrooms today.

Despite the discourse around the topic, it can still feel a little nebulous at times, however. Just as there are countless ways to engage students, there are even more ways to define and measure engagement.

This blog will drill down into student engagement to help you better understand the main concepts. We will:

  • Discuss the differing definitions of student engagement to establish what really matters
  • Go through a short history of student engagement and how it has evolved in recent times
  • Help you understand why student engagement is so important and how can track and measure it

Read on to find out more.

Defining student engagement

If you’re new to teaching, you may wonder, ‘what is student engagement?’. However, it can often be difficult to define. While the term has been widely used since gaining initial popularity in the 90s, definitions vary.

Some subject researchers describe student engagement as “an individual’s interest and enthusiasm for school, which impacts their academic performance and behaviour,” while others define it simply as “energy in action.” The Glossary of Education Reform offers a more specific definition, describing student engagement as “the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education.”

What’s more, as the world of education evolves, our understanding of student engagement continues to adapt. In today’s learning landscape, where teaching takes place in the classroom, online, and in a myriad of hybrid arrangements, we’re seeing expanded definitions of student engagement as we learn more about new facets of the student experience.

But as countless definitions of student engagement abound, there is common ground among them. Central to any definition of student engagement is the belief that learning improves when students are curious, interested, or inspired and that education is negatively impacted when students are dispassionate, bored, or otherwise disengaged. As such, advancing student engagement is a crucial objective for educators across the globe.

The history of student engagement

The term ‘student engagement’ has been widely used for decades, starting in 1996 when it was first identified as a new buzzword within education circles. As the world of education has evolved, so has the meaning behind “student engagement.” The term’s definition has taken on several iterations, and in the current landscape where several learning environments coexist, including in-classroom, distance and hybrid, we are seeing more changes around how we discuss engagement in education.

Today we find that student engagement continues to be challenging to define in a single, static way. While it’s a commonly used concept among educators to discuss general educational strategies and teaching techniques that enhance student learning, it is a complex, multifaceted term, which can make it difficult to understand.

While there are multiple definitions around student engagement, there is a common theme among them. The shared concept of the different beliefs around student engagement is rooted in the idea that learning improves when students are curious, interested, or inspired and that learning is negatively impacted when students are dispassionate, bored or otherwise disengaged. As such, educators around the world see stronger or improved student engagement as a key objective within their classes and mixed teaching environments.

The three dimensions of student engagement

While there is some variation with the breadth of student engagement, there are mainly three types of engagement that fall within its umbrella. These different kinds of engagement that occur in learning are:

  • Emotional Engagement
    This refers to students’ feelings about their teacher, learning environment, and general school experience. It also includes a sense of belonging within the student community and how valuable they view their work to be.
  • Behavioural Engagement
    Behavioural student engagement addresses how attentive and active students are in the classroom and with a school in general. For example, is the student involved in any extracurricular activities related to the school?
  • Cognitive Engagement
    This refers to how intrinsically motivated and invested students are in their own learning process and how much they regulate and take ownership of it.

Students learn best when all three of these areas of engagement are met.

How to measure student engagement

While many teachers have a working definition of student engagement and strategies in place to drive engagement in your students, measuring student engagement is an altogether more difficult task. 

Student behaviour may give you an idea of how engaged they are with your lessons, but real actionable insights need to be better defined and measured.

Using the three dimensions of student engagement provides the ideal baseline as you begin to measure student engagement, and establishing which of these have been met on a student-by-student level gives you the insights you need to make better decisions for learners. Popular tools and tactics you can use to measure these individual dimensions and define student engagement are:

  • Classroom participation. While this is an effective way of measuring classroom engagement, teachers must tread carefully. Establish clear guidelines for what participation includes and track these accordingly for a more unbiased look at how students participate in the classroom. You also need to bear in mind individual student personalities – people who are naturally shy will be less inclined to speak up and actively participate in many ways, despite being incredibly engaged in the subject matter. Trying to force this can have the opposite of the intended effect and lead to the student disengaging and becoming withdrawn from lessons.
  • Undertaking formal assessments is a common method of measuring engagement. Use tests or exams on a regular basis to measure student progress and highlight areas of weakness for students. You can then utilise this knowledge to help you tweak your approach to better engage students in key areas of concern.
  • Student feedback via anonymous surveys can provide key insights your learners may otherwise be worried about sharing due to fear of getting into trouble. You could also ask students to mark their own participation each week to establish how engaged they feel they are.

By engaging in this type of measurement on both a macro (a student’s engagement with their education as a whole) and micro (a student’s engagement level on a course-specific basis), you gain a much better picture of how engaged your pupils are and arm yourself with the ability to quickly course correct should students start to disengage.

Why engagement in student learning is important

Educators hold student engagement in high esteem because when students are engaged, they are taking an active role in their learning. 

In an era where hybrid learning environments are becoming more common, there can be a struggle to keep everything about the student experience consistent. While COVID-19 introduced new barriers to student engagement, it also spurred creative methods of engaging students in hybrid learning classes, as well as remote learning environments. Even amidst challenging times, a sense of strong student engagement must remain critical as it predicts a multitude of important factors, including:

  • Academic achievement
  • Test scores
  • Learning
  • Class attendance
  • School retention
  • School graduation
  • Academic resilience

Students who are engaged in school achieve greater academic success. Furthermore, another noteworthy benefit is that students who exhibit strong student engagement are less likely to fall victim to potential adolescent trouble, which is often related to drop-out risk.

While there are multiple definitions of student engagement that have each seen their own retooling through time, there is common ground regarding its importance in education. Consistent student engagement is key to student success inside of the classroom and beyond.

Advancing Student Engagement with Promethean

Promethean gives schools and teachers the tools they need to drive meaningful, sustained student engagement in both hybrid and in-person learning environments.

The Promethean Activpanel is designed to support student engagement and enable intuitive learning experiences with more opportunities for interactivity. Every panel comes preloaded with a suite of premium teaching tools and student engagement features, including infinite canvas, screen capture, screen share, spinner, timer and more. We also offer ClassFlow, the award-winning, free lesson delivery software that allows teachers the ability to bring presentations, documents, image files, videos, and more into a single dynamic lesson. As we look to the future of student engagement, it is clear that technology will play a critical role. So, bringing in new ways of driving engagement in the classroom with technology can prepare schools for where student engagement is heading. 

Ready to learn more? Schedule your free demo with a Promethean expert today!


What is good student engagement?

A positive student engagement experience is often characterised by good behaviour, positive feelings and student thinking and effort. Positively engaged students are often inquisitive, interested and inspired by their learning. 

However, It’s also important to recognise that students will engage in different ways, and teachers can implement student engagement strategies to increase emotional, cognitive and behavioural engagement amongst their students. 

How do you promote student engagement in the classroom?

Teachers can implement various student engagement strategies to work on engaging students in their learning. Teachers should provide an assortment of content and present information in a variety of ways. Not only will this benefit students’ different learning styles, but it will also create a fun and engaging learning environment. 

Creating meaningful conversations is also beneficial when engaging students in their learning. Engaging with your student interests and incorporating these into the conversation will likely create a much more engaged classroom.

What are engagement activities for students?

Engagement activities can be implemented by teachers and support staff in the classroom and online to better motivate students and take their learning to the next level. Different learning activities will engage students in different ways, depending on their learning styles.

Engagement activities that can be executed across the classroom include frequent discussion and hands-on learning activities through active learning strategies, movement, classroom games and rewards. 

Incorporating new technology into the classroom, such as an interactive display like the ActivPanel from Promethean, can enable intuitive learning experiences and drive sustained student engagement in a variety of learning spaces.

Why is it important to engage students in the classroom?

Student engagement is a pivotal aspect of student learning and growth within education. Driving engagement amongst students not only makes learning fun and rewarding but also increases academic achievement. Lower student engagement can often predict a negative trajectory across a student’s education, so promoting student engagement across all levels of education is paramount.