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Student Engagement: A Key Driver of Academic Achievement

Teaching a classroom of engaged students is fun and enjoyable for learners and teachers alike. Students who are engaged show up, pay attention, ask questions, and participate. They are focused and eager, curious and excited. They are less disruptive and more motivated. And seeing that imaginary light bulb above their heads—that’s what teaching is all about, isn’t it? But do engaged students actually learn more?

Yes. It turns out there are more—many more—reasons than fun and games to make student engagement a high priority in your classroom. Engagement is increasingly seen as an undeniable driver of student achievement. In fact, engaging students is just as important as teaching content.

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of students are disengaged
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Lack of engagement is the enemy of learning

A 2013 Gallup poll found that approximately 55% of students across the United States are engaged in their current school, leaving 28% of students who are disengaged, and 17% who are actively disengaged. 

Many educators think that boredom is normal among today’s students and even inevitable. But what we’re learning is that lack of engagement is not something to take lightly. It is a serious problem. When students are not engaged in school, they are at higher risk of poor academic achievement, attendance problems, and dropping out (2004 report on Engaging Schools published by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine).

We must address lack of engagement if we want better outcomes for our students and for our country. American students are falling behind in key subjects, according to international tests that compare the United States’ students to those in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, as well as several East Asian countries and cities. Students are struggling to raise their “C” performance in math, science, and reading. For this to change, we must do a better job of teaching. And children must do a better job of learning.

Student disinterest: Is there a cure?

The achievement gap is real and student engagement is a critical piece of closing it. According to the National Education Association, the causes of achievement gaps are multiple and complex, and vary from school to school and district to district. However, certain factors have been identified in studies contributing to the gap. The most important factor to this discussion is students’ lack of interest in school.  

You’ve probably been there. Your lesson is moving along nicely (or you think it is) when you notice students who have stopped making eye contact with you…whose faces are glazed over…who are shuffling their feet and looking out the window. That’s when you realize you’ve lost them.

Welcome to the real world of teaching. No matter what the level of teaching experience, we’ve all felt this disconnect with students. Capturing and keeping students’ attention is difficult. No doubt about it. Ask any teacher. And, you’ve probably wondered at times—is it worth the effort?

The answer is yes, it’s well worth it. But first, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page when it comes to defining engagement

Student engagement—it’s complicated 

Most of us agree about the importance of student engagement and the need for it to occur in all classrooms. But for schools and districts to evolve toward becoming more relevant learning environments, we must agree about what engagement is—and isn’t. 

Student engagement is a complex term which makes it all that more difficult to understand and do. Simply put, it is the amount of attention, passion, and optimism students display in a classroom while learning. It’s about the intensity with which they apply themselves. 

When we talk about engagement, we typically talk about behavior. We think students are engaged when they sit up straight or lean in, take notes, make eye contact, nod in agreement and smile. But are such students really engaged? Just as important, are they learning? Maybe not. That’s why digging a little deeper and understanding and tracking the different types of engagement is useful.

Researchers generally agree that engagement is not just one thing. It’s three.


Behavioral engagement refers to student conduct and on-task behavior, drawing on the idea of participation. It’s the difference between positive behaviors and compliance with expectations for learning and acting out and veering from the expected norms and tasks.


Cognitive engagement refers to students doing more than just busy work. They are focused on understanding and mastery. Think deep learning vs. rote learning. They are thoughtful and willing to put forth the effort necessary to understand complex ideas and master difficult skills. When students engage in content-rich discussion and interact with you and other students in meaningful ways, they are cognitively engaged.  


Emotional engagement is more difficult to recognize. It refers to students’ feelings of interest, happiness, anxiety, and anger during activities. We’re talking about positive and negative reactions to teachers, classmates, academics and school, feeling like what they are learning about is relevant and personally important to them. 

Engagement in action

Over and over, research supports a strong connection between student engagement and academic and life success. When students are involved in meaningful, relevant, and collaborative experiences, they want to learn more, they do learn more, and they are more likely to achieve success in the classroom, in college, and in careers. The research is exciting because it clearly points to the everyday ways teachers who know how to engage can significantly impact student lives. 

Take a look at some inspirational findings:

Pittsburgh researcher Ming-Te Wang, who co-authored a study exploring a multi-dimensional approach to student engagement, says, “Enhancing student engagement is a key to addressing problems of low achievement, high levels of student misbehavior, alienation and high drop out rates.” The study found that students who felt instruction was meaningful and related to their goals were more emotionally and cognitively engaged than were their peers. 

A study of Australian students found the more children felt connected to their school community and felt engaged—rather than bored—the greater the likelihood of achieving higher educational qualification. It also showed a higher chance of going on to a professional or managerial career over and above their academic achievement or socio-economic background. 

Similar findings can be found at every level of education:

Among North Carolina University students taking introductory physics, failure rates in engaged learning classes were typically 50 percent lower than in traditional lectures.

When the math department at Minnesota’s Byron High School replaced the traditional lecture with a more engaging flipped classroom, the percentage of students who passed the state mathematics test increased from 29.9 percent in 2006 to 73.8 percent in 2011. 

In a study of K-12 schools, RAND found that students improved reading and math scores at an above average rate after becoming more engaged in their learning via a personalized digital curriculum.

The rewards of engagement

Imagine if your classroom was totally engaged. What might you expect?

Better behavior: Perhaps that difficult student in your room speaks out of turn or disrupts the class because of not feeling engaged in the learning. Students who are motivated by and engaged in learning tend to be better behaved than unmotivated and un-engaged peers and, in turn, perform considerably higher academically.

Lower dropout rates: The reason many students quit is because they do not feel a sense of belonging in the classroom. When they do, they are more likely to experience success and ultimately graduate.  Engagement has been associated with positive student outcomes, including higher grades and decreased dropouts, and the seeds for becoming a high school dropout can be sown very early on, when students disengage during the elementary years.

Improved attendance: Engaged students want to come to school. They are as passionate about school as they are about their favorite sport, and the link between attendance and academic achievement is clear. Studies show that beginning in kindergarten, students who attend school regularly score higher on tests than their peers who are frequently absent.

Improved test performance: According to Dr. Steven Wise, senior research fellow at NWEA, students are highly likely to remain interested and engaged with testing whenever there are meaningful personal consequences associated with their performance. That is, they try because they want to attain something they value, such as a good grade, high school graduation, or a scholarship.

Motivation, enjoyment, and passion—engagement researchers have long been interested in these traits. In recent years, another term worth your consideration has been added to the discussion: social-emotional learning.

Unraveling SEL-engagement connection

There is growing evidence to suggest that students in classrooms across the country are missing a critical component of education. Reading, writing, and other subjects are being taught, while life skills have been underestimated or forgotten. If you haven’t delved into the idea of social-emotional learning (SEL), take some time to do so. The research overwhelmingly shows the linkages among SEL, student outcomes, and school performance. 

So, what is SEL exactly? More than 20 years ago, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defined SEL—a term that is now widely used in education circles. According to CASEL, SEL is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

According to a report for CASEL, many teachers “in the trenches” report student lack of interest as a problem in schools. Among these teachers, many believe SEL is very important and will improve academic performance. Research corroborates teachers’ views: A study found that students who received explicit SEL skills instruction demonstrated improved attitudes and behaviors, including a greater motivation to learn, improved relationships with peers, and a deeper connection to their school. 

More and more teachers understand SEL and the role it plays in learning. Schools and districts are increasingly prioritizing SEL. Illinois and Kansas are among states that have implemented free-standing social and emotional student learning standards, while others have emphasized the teaching of social and emotional skills across subject areas. 

It’s clear how SEL skills like knowing and controlling emotions, teamwork, and making positive choices support success in life and school. Another key skill is self-management and the ability to control and regulate emotions and behaviors. This includes the ability to persevere through challenges to reach personal and educational goals—like better test scores. 

In order for students to be engaged, they must first have basic faculties of their social and emotional skills. Explicit instruction in these areas can directly impact student engagement and, subsequently, student achievement.

Perseverance—the “X” factor in engagement and achievement

Like it or not, better test scores are a top priority. We’re constantly seeking ways to move the needle and improve student achievement. Will test scores go up if students are engaged? 

This is where growth mindset comes in. According to Stanford researcher and author Carol Dweck, when students have a growth mindset, they remain engaged in the task of learning, and they enjoy it. They are better able to break through limitations that are holding them back. When they have a fixed mindset, they are likely to give up when they encounter struggles or difficulties. 

Dweck believes that students who embrace a growth mindset see intelligence as something that can be increased through hard work and personal belief and that anyone has the potential to learn and master any subject. 

If your students believe they can learn anything and don’t fear failure, they are more apt to dive head-first into a lesson and explore it from every angle. Consider the engagement and effort some students put into tasks outside of school such as skateboarding or video games. They’ll spend hours upon hours working on a new trick or mastering the next level because they have a growth mindset that fuels engagement and breeds success. If students are facilitators of their own learning, they can work with you to find relevant topics they care about. When this happens, they apply that growth mindset to school, and anything is possible—including better test scores.

The bottom line

Every day you face the daunting challenge of reaching and teaching all different kinds of learners. Unfortunately, too many of those learners would rather be anywhere than in your classroom. You are at war for their attention as their minds fill with millions of distractions—some as trivial as not liking what’s on the lunch menu, some as grave as knowing there’s not enough food to eat tonight. This may make ensuring academic success for all feel like mission impossible, even if you have decades of teaching experience. But their success demands that we make the effort to break through those distractions and give them content worthy of their attention.

It may be time to re-think what you’re doing. To make engagement a priority in your classroom, follow these simple guidelines:

  • Connect your content to engaging, real-world problems that students relate to.
  • Bring in experts from industry to lend credibility and authentic perspectives.
  • Give students an authentic audience to present their learning to.
  • Provide opportunities to collaborate with other students in your school, your state, and the world!
  • Present thought-provoking, time-consuming projects that require critical thinking and perseverance.
  • Give students voice and choice whenever possible.
  • Make sure you have a good answer for, “Why should I learn this?”

It’s not always easy to prioritize engagement, but the rewards are limitless. Not only is it proven to increase student performance and achievement, it makes learning fun and exciting for you and your students. And it just might solidify you as the teacher students remember for a lifetime.

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