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Student engagement can feel like an elusive concept in the busy life of a teacher, at every grade level and in any subject area. And yet, engaged students are those who make a firm commitment to learning and continue to see the most success. In fact, research shows that student engagement has been linked to improved achievement, persistence, and retention (Finn, 2006; Kuh, Cruce, Shoup, Kinzie, & Gonyea, 2008). These students make a notable effort to understand course material and incorporate it into their lives. Educators observe their engagement levels as strong relationships between themselves and course content, peers, teachers or professors, and the institution.
Across the past several years, many educators have found it challenging to sustain engagement levels while transitioning to virtual course formats or re-engineering their in-person experience. With new hybrid learning environments and online options, cultivating the sort of engagement and collaboration that have become synonymous with successful learning environments might, at times, seem nearly impossible.
In this blog, we’ll look at why student engagement is important, dissect some impediments to engaging students in a virtual world, and offer several ways to cultivate a learning environment where students can thrive.
Student engagement refers to the level of interest, attention, and involvement students demonstrate during learning activities, whether in person or online. It goes beyond mere participation and focuses on the emotional, cognitive, and behavioral investment students have in their education. Engaged students are often highly motivated, attentive, and actively seek meaning and understanding.
In their research article, “Mapping research in student engagement and educational technology in higher education: a systematic evidence map,” Melissa Bond and her team define student engagement as:
“[T]he energy and effort that students employ within their learning community, observable via any number of behavioural, cognitive or affective indicators across a continuum. It is shaped by a range of structural and internal influences, including the complex interplay of relationships, learning activities and the learning environment. The more students are engaged and empowered within their learning community, the more likely they are to channel that energy back into their learning, leading to a range of short and long term outcomes that can likewise further fuel engagement” (Bond et al., 2020).
Defining student engagement is the first step; next, educators and administrators must understand the value of student engagement and how it can affect student learning outcomes in the short- and long-term.
Student engagement is important for myriad reasons: engaged students are more likely to excel academically. When students are invested in their learning, they exhibit higher levels of comprehension, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. They are also more likely to retain information, apply knowledge to real-world scenarios, and achieve better grades. Student engagement and authentic learning go hand-in-hand: when students are required to engage in meaningful activities and actively think about what it is they are learning, it fosters their intrinsic motivation to succeed.
Student engagement also fosters personal growth by nurturing self-confidence, independence, and a love for learning. Engaged students develop a sense of ownership over their education, becoming lifelong learners who actively seek opportunities to expand their knowledge and skills. And when educators can support learners with differences, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and BIPOC students, there is an even deeper connection and a sense of belonging among diverse groups of students and their teachers.
Finally, a classroom with high levels of student engagement creates a positive and vibrant learning environment. Engaged students contribute to a supportive and collaborative atmosphere, where everyone feels valued and respected. This, in turn, enhances peer-to-peer interactions and promotes a sense of belonging and community. When students feel seen in the classroom, research shows that dropout rates are reduced significantly, increasing the amount of time students spend in the classroom and thereby increasing the chances that they will grow and learn.
It is challenging for students to transition to virtual learning, particularly because of the barriers to engagement in the online environment. They may be unfamiliar with virtual environments or the requisite technology and may need help adjusting to online learning. This includes developing more self-discipline and deferring immediate gratification.
Instructors who are themselves new to online teaching also have to learn how to properly design courses, improve their online teaching skills, and learn the best practices for the environment, rather than trying to migrate in-person classes to a virtual setting. They must set clear course expectations for students, including updating honor codes for online learning environments, and work to understand that there are new possibilities in remote learning that are not available to classes held completely in person.
Despite all these challenges, instructors can and should build community in an online classroom, for even in virtual interactions students can find ways to engage with their teachers, their peers, and the material.
From Kindergarten to graduate programs, student engagement may look a bit different, but it all has the same underlying tone: individuals interacting with topics, materials, peers, and instructors in a motivated, interesting manner. Almost any educator can tell you an anecdote about a lesson or activity that really landed well with their students, where the class may have been focused, energetic, and/or delighted by the time spent learning.
Let’s consider of a few of the following examples of student engagement, which can be adapted for specific subject areas or grade levels as needed:
Fortunately, many of the learning theories, pedagogies, and practices that stimulate engagement in face-to-face settings often work well in virtual settings. This should come as good news to many of the educators who are transitioning temporarily or permanently to the online market, which is expected to reach $336.98 billion by 2026. This projection is likely to see an update sooner rather than later due to the pandemic.
In the early days of virtual learning, educational institutions made many investments in understanding how to cultivate engagement online, given the lack of immediacy and control that on-campus educators are used to. The successful application of research helps to explain why 52% of graduate students in the U.S. found their online, college-level education provided a better learning experience than their college-level, in-class education, according to Guide2Research.
Today, teachers and professors in the virtual and on-campus spaces share best practices that work well across environments. In addition to the examples above, here we’ll explore some of the thoughtful ways that you can foster student engagement, regardless of format.
Student engagement is the key to unlocking student success, even in the era of virtual learning. By nurturing active involvement, educators can inspire a love for learning, foster critical thinking, and create an inclusive and supportive learning environment. Implementing various strategies, from active learning to technology integration, will empower students and equip them with the skills necessary for their academic journey and beyond.