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Improving student engagement

Leah Taylor
Jim Parsons
Leah Taylor is an educator, researcher, and writer working for WestJet Airlines Ltd. Professor Jim Parsons is Director of the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement. He is based at the Department of Secondary Education, University of Alberta.

This article is adapted from the authors' paper of the same title published in Current Issues in Education Volume 14 Number 1, 2011.

Although educators want every student to succeed, in reality a number of students disengage from schooling. The issue of student engagement has therefore been of interest to educators for decades.

This article reviews selected research literature on student engagement published over the last 10 years. The authors initially examined articles available through the ERIC database, then, using a snowballing technique, looked through reference lists from the most seminal articles to identify further relevant articles. In total, more than 100 articles were reviewed.

Historically, attention to student engagement was seen as a way to re-engage or reclaim a minority of predominantly socio-economically disadvantaged students at risk of dropping out of high school, by encouraging achievement, positive behaviours and a sense of belonging at school (Willms, Friesen & Milton, 2009). Over time, student engagement strategies were further developed and more broadly implemented as a way to manage classroom behaviour. More recently, student engagement has been built around the goal of enhancing all students' abilities to 'learn how to learn' and become lifelong learners in a knowledge-based society (Gilbert, 2007, p. 1). This general interest in engagement for learning informs the current article.

The article summarises key recommendations from research studies and then examines implications for pedagogy, curriculum and assessment.

Recommendations from the literature

A number of recommendations emerge from the literature. They have been summarised by Windham (2005, pp 5.7–5.9) and are now discussed under the headings she developed: interaction, exploration, relevancy, and multimedia and technology.


Respectful relationships and interaction – both virtual and personal – are shown to improve student engagement.

Students today are intensely social and interactive learners. For example, students surveyed by Willms, Friesen and Milton (2009, 36) stated that they want to interact with people both within and beyond the classroom and school environment. These researchers found that:

  • Students want stronger relationships with teachers, with each other and with their communities – locally, provincially, nationally and globally.
  • Students want their teachers to know how they learn. They want their teachers to take into account what they understand and what they misunderstand, and to use this knowledge as a starting place to guide their continued learning.
  • Students want their teachers to establish learning environments that build interdependent relationships and that promote and create a strong culture of learning.

Facilitating such expanded relationships requires a shift in the teacher's identity. No longer the 'sage on the stage', the teacher now learns alongside students, helping them actively construct their learning experiences and knowledge (Claxton, 2007).

An important aspect of this process is the development of young people's social and emotional competencies, particularly as they confront the new challenges in the middle and secondary years.


Classroom practices reported to engage learners are predominantly inquiry-based, problem-based and exploratory (Willms, Friesen & Milton, 2009; Brown, 2000; Hay, 2000; Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005; Barnes et al., 2007). These findings are supported by the current authors' longitudinal research in Alberta about the efficacy of problem-based learning (Parsons, McRae & Taylor, 2006).

At times, this exploratory learning moves beyond the classroom. Students often ask to take their research and learning into the larger community and into the fields they are studying.


Today's learners ask that their learning apply to real-life scenarios whenever possible. Working with authentic problems or community issues engages students and builds a sense of purpose to the learning experience (Claxton, 2007; Dunleavy & Milton, 2009; Willms, Friesen & Milton, 2009).

Multimedia and technology

When it is simply not possible to move past the classroom to speak with and learn from experts in the field, technology helps students interact globally with people and events.

In the literature examined, both students and researchers called for new tools in the classroom toolbox, expanding beyond standard computer stations and overhead projectors to facilitate deeper research and learning, and to build relationships among learners and experts (Brown, 2000; Parsons, McRae & Taylor, 2006; Kvavik, Caruso & Morgan, 2004; Project Tomorrow, 2010; Barnes, Marateo & Ferris, 2004). Barnes, Marateo and Ferris (2007a) synthesised a list of multimedia tools from the literature. Their list includes WebQuests, blogs, wikis, YouTube, video documentaries and a variety of other multimedia projects. These represent only a few of the technological methods that can help students engage their learning and explore and construct new knowledge.

Implications for pedagogy and curriculum

The findings may also be explored in terms of their implications for pedagogy and curriculum.

The research supports a move from didactic to constructivist pedagogy. Constructivist instruction requires strong respectful relationships and safe learning environments, especially as teacher-student relationships shift from expert-disciple towards peer-based collaborative learning.

Several authors note, however, that this shift might be uncomfortable for some educators. Given the freedom and sense of safety to do so, students 'can find material that challenges the faculty member's worldview and expertise; they can uncover stories and research results that the faculty member has never heard about. It can be uncomfortable when the instructor no longer controls the subject matter the students will use' (Windham, 2005). Although moving to these 'conversational pedagogies' (Parsons & Harding, 2011) is new, the positive relationships built between teachers and students, and the advanced student efficacy, both promise further learning.

In terms of curriculum, research shows that students prefer to be held to high expectations. Students' desires for instructional challenge were reported by the majority of authors reviewed, including Willms, Friesen and Milton (2009); Dunleavy and Milton (2009); Oblinger and Oblinger (2005); Windham (2005); Parsons, McRae and Taylor (2006); Barak and Doppelt (2002); Shernoff, Csikszentmihalyi, Schneider and Shernoff (2003); and Barnes, Marateo and Ferris (2007).

The research also indicates that students tend to prefer an interdisciplinary curriculum that allows them to explore topics across subject areas, and develop what are often referred to as '21st Century skills'.

Changes in curriculum referred to in the literature also include the addition of new 'literacies'. New literacies and skills are required – critical thinking, interpersonal relationship skills, creativity, information, media and technology skills – all infused into core content as both process and outcome. For example, the call for rigorous instruction in 'Information Navigation' (Brown, 2000) or 'digital information literacy' (Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005; Windham, 2005; Barnes et al., 2007) shows up repeatedly in the research.

The pursuit of student engagement does not mean core knowledge and traditional literacy (the '3Rs') should be discarded; instead, students want to learn these in more engaging ways, while also learning how to learn. They desire quality instruction delivered in socially, emotionally and intellectually engaging ways.

Assessment for learning (AfL) supports these approaches to teaching and the curriculum. AfL calls for teachers to use formative assessment practices to monitor student success and engage in regular sharing conversations with students about how they are learning. AfL is noted to increase student engagement and is more about 'learning for further development' and less about 'marking to standard expectations' or meeting externally dictated accountability measures.

Summing up

Research suggests that successful, student-engaging classrooms share five aspects. First, learning is relevant, real and intentionally interdisciplinary – at times moving learning from the classroom into the community. Second, engaging classrooms tend to be technology-rich learning environments, where students have access not just to computers, but to varied types of technology, including scientific equipment, multimedia resources, industrial technology and various portable devices (Project Tomorrow, 2010). Third, the learning climate in an engaging classroom is positive, challenging and open; it encourages students to take risks and set high expectations of themselves. Students are involved in assessment for learning and of learning. A fourth element is respectful collaboration between students and teachers; and a fifth, closely related, is the facilitation of a culture of learning, in which teachers are understood to be learning alongside students, and language, activities and resources focus on learning and engagement first.


Barak, M. & Doppelt, Y. (2002). Pupils Identify Key Aspects and Outcomes of a Technological Learning Environment. The Journal of Technology Studies. 28(1/2), 22–28. Retrieved December 2010 from ProQuest Education Journals #EJ670883.

Barnes, K., Marateo, R. & Ferris, S. P. (2007a). Teaching and Learning with the Net Generation. Innovate Journal of Online Education, 3(4). Reprinted in The Fischler School of Education and Human Services at Nova Southeastern University; Pennsylvania. Retrieved December 2010 from: http://www.innovateonline.info/pdf/vol3_issue4/Teaching_and_Learning_with_the_Net_Generation.pdf

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Parsons, J. & Harding, K. (2011). Research Reflections About When Schools Work Well: Twenty-one Specific Activities for Improving Schools. e-Journal of Organizational Learning and Leadership, 9(1), 97–108.

Parsons, J., McRae, P. & Taylor, L. (2006). Celebrating School Improvement: Six Lessons from Alberta's AISI Projects. Edmonton: School Improvement Press.

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Subject Headings

Student engagement
Teacher-student relationships
Curriculum planning
Teaching and learning