A student who shows up on time, listens respectfully and appears fully engaged to teachers might still lack emotional and cognitive involvement with the course material, according to survey results

More importantly for educators, the paper in Learning and Instruction suggests that student engagement—essential for success in school—is malleable, and can be improved by promoting a positive school environment. The result may lead to diagnostic tools for recognizing disengagement, as well as strategies for creating a school environment more conducive to student engagement. 

The authors sought to use data to explore a multidimensional approach to the question of student engagement. In the past, only behavioral measures of student engagement—such as class attendance, turning in homework on time, and classroom participation—had been evaluated when gaging student engagement. By conducting a study linking students' perceptions of the school environment with behavior, the authors have provided one of the first pieces of empirical research supporting the viability of the multidimensional perspective, which had previously been largely theoretical.

The scholars designed a 100-question survey that includes the evaluation of emotional engagement and cognitive engagement. Sample survey questions that tested emotional engagement in classes across all subject areas asked students to agree or disagree with statements such as "I find schoolwork interesting" and "I feel excited by the work in school." Sample questions concerning cognitive engagement asked students to provide ratings to questions like "How often do you make academic plans for solving problems?" and "How often do you try to relate what you are studying to other things you know about?"

"Enhancing student engagement has been identified as the key to addressing problems of low achievement, high levels of student misbehavior, alienation, and high dropout rates," said Ming-Te Wang, assistant professor of psychology in education at the University of Pittsburgh, who coauthored the study with Jacquelynne S. Eccles, Professor of Psychology and Education at the University of Michigan. "When we talk about student engagement, we tend to talk only about student behavior. But my coauthor and I feel like that doesn't tell us the whole story. Emotion and cognition are also very important."   

Using the survey, Wang and Eccles conducted a two-year longitudinal study, tracking approximately 1,200 Maryland students from seventh through eighth grade. The authors also measured students' perceptions of their environment by having them answer questions in five areas: school structure support, which gauged the clarity of teacher expectations; provision of choice, which assessed students' opportunities to make learning-related decisions; teaching for relevance, which evaluated the frequency of activities deemed relevant to students' personal interests and goals; students' perceptions of the emotional support offered by teachers; and students' perceptions of how positive their relationships were with fellow students.

The authors found that students who felt that the subject matter being taught and the activities provided by their teachers were meaningful and related to their goals were more emotionally and cognitively engaged than were their peers. Adding measures of emotional and cognitive engagement could broaden researchers' perspectives on student engagement in future work in this area.

Also among the paper's main findings is that the school environment can and, indeed, should be changed if it is impeding student engagement. A positive and supportive school environment is marked, Wang said, by "positive relationships with teachers and peers. Schools must provide opportunities for students to make their own choices. But they also must create a more structured environment so students know what to do, what to expect, from school." Wang also noted, however, that there is no "one size fits all" strategy to the problem of student engagement.

"Usually people say, 'Yes, autonomy is beneficial. We want to provide students with choices in school,'" Wang said. "This is the case for high achievers, but not low achievers. Low achievers want more structure, more guidelines."

As a result, Wang said, teachers must take into account individual variation among students in order to fulfill the needs of each student.

Wang's current work, undertaken in partnership with six Allegheny County school districts, focuses on developing a diagnostic tool that teachers can use to identify students who are disengaged from school, with a specific emphasis on math and science classes.