Thursday, January 3, 2013

Can We Assess Student Engagement?

A young and creative-minded teacher recently sent me the following email:

One of the things that I have been working on this year was creating a more engaged classroom atmosphere. [My Principal] wants me to come up with ways of assessing my ability to engage the students and come up with areas of growth that will lead to sharpening these skills. Aside for observations I have not come up with any other meaningful way to measure my engagement capabilities and level and I need assistance in developing a plan to enhance this skill. 

While I normally aim to respond to such emails within a day or two, this one took me some time.  At times I thought that I had too much to respond, while at other points it seemed like I was not sure if there was a definite and concrete answer to his question.  After roughly a week of pondering, I responded as follows:


Your question is a good one, and a difficult one to answer.  While student engagement is the holy grail (or one of them) of teaching, it is not always easy to know when students are engaged.  The easy way is to use test scores, although we know that that really only gauges their ability to cram in information the night before a test.  Looking at how many students have their hands up during class or otherwise participate is a bit better, although that is difficult to chart during class, and it does not tell us for how much of class those students were actually engaged - for all we know they are spacing out most of the time and then snap to attention for 10 minutes and participate heavily during that time.

It could be that the question is fundamentally flawed.  Perhaps not so much flawed as in need of redirection.  To the extent that the class is focused on the teacher, we are forever searching for the elusive way to quantify and assess engagement.  On the other hand, if we make the class more student-centered, with accompanying measures of accountability, then the students will be engaged in their learning for much of the time, as goofing off will not even result in an appearance of learning (something that spacing out can accomplish).  That is the flaw - are we looking for students to be engaged in the teaching (done by the teacher) or in the learning (done by them)?  I think that the more that we can make the latter our goal, the less we will even have to ask the question in the first place.

Of course, making the shift is in no way simple and takes a lot of work.  My advice to teachers in general is to pick a lesson a week or two away and think about how it can be done in a non-frontal manner.  You would likely need to be ready with support material and a willingness to adjust on the fly (and even to fail once or twice!), but in the long run it is amazing to see how much the kids can do on their own with your guidance.

What are your thoughts on the issue?  Please respond in the comments.

1 comment:

Tzvi Pittinsky said...

Your point about non-frontal teaching is well said. I think one measure of student engagement along these lines, albeit not a very scientific one, is to measure how involved students will remain in the material even if you have to walk out of class for a few minutes.

I know teaching high school there are moments I might leave my students in class unattended. If I walk back and can hear the sound of learning coming from the room as I am walking down the hall then I know the students are engaged.

This measure probably won't work in an elementary school where you really cannot leave a class unattended but gets to the crux of the question. How engaged are students in the learning process?