Reflecting on the Importance of Student Engagement

Looking back through the journal I kept as a high school English teacher, I came upon an entry in which I wrote about a conversation I had with one of my students.

“I’m done, Miss.”

“Done with what, Alex?”

“School. I can’t do it anymore.”

“But Alex, you’ve worked so hard! Why quit?”

“I’m tired of this game. I’m a third-year freshman and I’m sick of it. I already have a job, so what’s the point?”

“We’ve talked about this – you know the point is to get a high school diploma, to get a better job, and to have a better chance for success in your future.”

“I’m fine with my job and I’m not going to college, so why read Shakespeare, study cell parts, or learn algebra? How is that going to help me find a better job?”

“Your education…”

“Stop, Miss. It’s okay. I’ve already had my answer for the last three years: It’s not going to help. I’ve gone as far as I can go.”


“Don’t worry about me, Miss. I’ll be fine.”

This conversation didn’t occur out of the blue, but after two years of working with Alex and trying to do everything I could to support him. I wish it had gone differently and I wish I knew then what I know now about student engagement and dropout prevention. Through my subsequent studies in educational psychology and my work on Check & Connect, I’ve learned that we cannot simply tell students that education is important like I did in the conversation above – we need to promote their engagement in school and with learning.

Student engagement has been found to be the key to preventing dropout (Alexander, Entwisle, & Horsey, 1997). We know from research that engaged students:

  • earn higher grades,
  • perform better on tests,
  • report a greater sense of belonging,
  • can set and meet personal goals,
  • persist on tasks,
  • expect success, and
  • value educational outcomes (Christenson et al., 2008; National Research Council, 2004).

If we could meaningfully engage all students in their learning and school, we would be well on our way to solving the dropout problem.


What is student engagement?

In Check & Connect, student engagement is defined as the student’s active participation in academic and co-curricular or school-related activities and commitment to educational goals and learning (Christenson, Stout, & Pohl, 2012). We all know engaged students when we see them. They’re the students arriving to class on time, prepared to learn, who participate in class, complete their schoolwork, and earn good grades.

Graphic of engagement subtypes

Four engagement subtypes

These observable indicators of engagement are examples of academic and behavioral engagement.

  • Academic Engagement refers to students engaging in instruction and academic work. It can be observed through such indicators as credits earned, homework completion with accuracy, time on task, and standards met.
  • Behavioral Engagement refers to students participating in classroom and extracurricular activities and behaving appropriately. It can be observed through attendance, extracurricular participation, behavior/office referrals, suspensions, effort, and persistence.

The other two types of engagement are less observable, but critical to school success: cognitive and affective engagement.

  • Cognitive Engagement refers to students’ belief that schoolwork is relevant to their life and future goals. It is also about setting academic goals, using effective study strategies, and being motivated to learn. Students who are cognitively engaged feel that they can and want to succeed in school.
  • Affective Engagement refers to students’ sense of belonging and identification with school, their relationships with peers and adults in the school, and their perceived support for learning. Students who are affectively engaged feel that they belong in the school community.

These four subtypes of student engagement are interrelated – students’ perceptions about the relevance of school or their sense of belonging at school impact their participation in school and their academic performance. This means that when we as mentors or educators work to engage students, we need to focus our efforts on each of these areas – not just changing students’ behavior, but helping students to integrate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to be more successful in school.


What are some strategies for engaging students in learning?

In my above conversation with Alex and in our many previous conversations, Alex was telling me and showing me how to help him, if only I had paid attention to the signs. As educators and as mentors, we can recognize indicators of disengagement like those evident in Alex’s words and actions, and we can change our practices so that we address them.

Strategies for promoting cognitive engagement

Alex told me that he saw no value in what he was being taught – it was not relevant to his interests or to his future. As his teacher and mentor, I could have tried the following strategies to help promote his cognitive engagement:

  • Helped him identify his long-term goals and then set short-term goals to help him reach those long-term goals.
  • Discussed the connection between each task I assigned and his goals so that he would begin to value learning and education and see the relevance of it.
  • Taught him the skills he needed to be a self-regulated learner – such as planning, using study strategies, managing time, monitoring progress, reflecting on performance, and learning from mistakes – rather than just my English content, so that he would have the skills he needed to be more successful in all of his classes.

Strategies for promoting affective engagement

Alex was also telling me that the school’s current practices, such as putting students who had failed back into the same classes expecting different results and retaining students, were not working and were in fact alienating to the affected students. I observed many times that Alex had few friends in the school and few adults he was connected with, and that he did not participate in any school activities. All of these were signs of a lack of affective engagement. I could have helped promote Alex’s affective engagement through strategies such as:

  • Brought the policies and practices of the school that were systematically alienating to Alex and students like him to the attention of administrators so that something could be done to change them.
  • Connected Alex with positive students in my classes.
  • Connected Alex to other caring adults in the school so that he felt supported and valued.
  • Identified Alex’s interests and then facilitated participation in school and community activities related to those interests.

Implementing these strategies may have helped Alex to internalize the messages “I can succeed in school,” “I want to succeed in school,” and “I belong in school,” which in turn would have led to academic and behavioral engagement, and may have kept him in school.

In Closing

I wish I would’ve known more about how to engage students at that time, but I’m thankful I’ve learned so much since then and have this opportunity to share what I’ve learned about student engagement through this blog and through my work on Check & Connect. Continue to follow our blog for new ideas for engaging students.

Also, I look forward to learning more from all of you who are working to engage youth in school and learning. I’d love to hear about what strategies have worked for you. Please use the comment feature below to respond to the question(s):

  1. What are some strategies that you have implemented that have worked to engage students in school and learning?
  2. What are some success stories you can share from implementing these strategies?


Alexander, K. L., Entwisle, D. R., & Horsey, C. S. (1997). From first grade forward: Early foundations of high school dropout. Sociology of Education, 70(2), 87-107.

Christenson, S. L., Reschly, A. L., Appleton, J. J., Berman-Young, S., Spanjers, D. M., & Varro, P. (2008). Best practices in fostering student engagement. In A. Thomas and J. Grimes (Eds.), Best  practices in school psychology V (pp. 1099–1119). Washington, DC: National Association of School Psychologists.

Christenson, S. L., Stout, K., & Pohl, A. (2012). Check & Connect: A comprehensive student engagement intervention: Implementing with fidelity. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration.

National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine. (2004). Engaging schools: Fostering high school students’ motivation to learn. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

About the Author: Angie Pohl, Ph.D. provides training nationally and internationally on Check & Connect, serves as an investigator on several Check & Connect research projects currently underway, and is one of the authors of the 2012 Check & Connect manual, “Implementing with Fidelity”.

© 2013 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.
The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.

3 thoughts on “Reflecting on the Importance of Student Engagement

  1. Pingback: Blog 5 – Blurring lines, digitally | Leah Gauci

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