Engaged vs On-Task: How Mentors Can Support Students and Teachers

The goal of Check & Connect is to intervene when a student shows early warning signs of disengagement from school. The focus is on the student, yet Check & Connect acknowledges that family, community members, teachers, and other school personnel are important, too. The student, after all, does not exist in isolation; they are part of a larger system that must be considered. Furthermore, users of Check & Connect address multiple dimensions or subtypes of engagement including academic, behavioral, cognitive, and affective.

study education, woman writing a paper, working women

The Check & Connect mentor plays a central role in the process of re-engaging students, and one point of contact, when considering academic engagement, is the student’s teachers. Therefore, the focus of this post will be on sharing the perspectives and experiences of teachers as they plan and reflect on academic engagement. Awareness of teacher experiences and how they think about and view student academic engagement will hopefully give mentors a new perspective as they work with students who are struggling to stay academically engaged in learning and school. Furthermore, mentors, within the defined role of Check & Connect, may draw upon a comprehensive resource, if teachers request information on increasing student engagement.

How Teachers Think About Academic Engagement

When teachers discuss academic engagement, they inevitably relate stories about students who exhibited behaviors that led the teachers to believe the students were engaged in learning, only to discover later that the students were disengaged for much of instruction. Teachers might say, “But they (the students) were looking at me and nodding their heads throughout the lesson; I thought they got it until I saw their follow-up assignment/test results.” Conversely, many teachers can share instances of students appearing off-task for large portions of instruction, yet when asked to show understanding, made accurate, in-depth, salient contributions to discussions and/or some type of assessment.

Relatedly, many teachers, when describing an engaged student, will list a variety of behaviors:  looking at the teacher, taking notes, on-topic conversations with peers, etc. Although these behaviors are easily observable and could be indicators of engagement, upon further discussion, many teachers begin to realize that what they are seeing may or may not be engagement, after all. At this point, many teachers start to make the distinction between being engaged and being on-task.

A Resource for Teachers

As teachers begin to think about the differences and similarities between being engaged and being on-task, they often look toward or are directed to consider a professional teaching framework, such as Charlotte Danielson’s Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching (2011). Danielson states, ”When students are engaged in learning, they are not merely ‘busy,’ nor are they only ‘on task.’” Academically engaged students are not, in the broadest sense, just going through the motions of “playing school.” They are cognitively trying to make sense of and incorporate new knowledge. It is this internal process, this thinking, however, that is not as easily observable as on-task behaviors, and this presents a challenge to teachers. The question for teachers then becomes: If I can’t always see academic engagement, how do I know it’s happening?

In an effort to help teachers realize the importance of student engagement and to assist them in planning lessons, Danielson emphasizes student engagement as the “centerpiece of the framework.” In fact, all other components of the framework contribute to student engagement, and are, it could be argued, affected by the amount of attention given engagement when teachers create a comprehensive lesson plan.

Danielson lists four elements that directly affect the academic engagement of students:

  1. activities and assignments;
  2. grouping of students;
  3. instructional materials and resources; and
  4. structure and pacing.

Much like the alterable predictors of dropout, which are amenable to intervention, the elements of engagement can be modified by the teacher. For example, when teachers consider grouping of students, they have several options: random grouping, grouping by ability and/or interest, large groups, small groups, etc. Each configuration has its pros and cons, and teachers consider all of these factors as they think about instruction. Through careful consideration of each element as they plan lessons, teachers increase the chances students will be engaged in learning and decrease the opportunities for disengagement.

Working with Teachers and Students

Given this information, Check & Connect mentors, for example, may see or hear from their students about instances where the grouping of students is contributing to academic disengagement. At this point and before proceeding, mentors must remember one of the parameters of the role: It is not the job of the mentor to change the practices of teachers. Even a well-planned lesson in which the teacher has considered and planned all the elements of engagement can go awry, so mentors should proceed cautiously. Taking the lead from the teacher, in terms of their willingness to discuss the aftermath of a lesson, could be an indicator that a teacher is open to sharing some thoughts on teaching.

The willingness to discuss and reflect on a lesson may, in fact, have teachers asking mentors for advice or suggestions. While the mentor does not advise the teacher on teaching, the mentor has a resource in Appendix 10 (pp. 120-127) of the Implementing with Fidelity manual. Grouped according to the subtypes of engagement (academic, behavioral, cognitive, and affective), the appendix provides multiple strategies to increase student engagement for all students, not just students being served by Check & Connect.

Some examples of academic engagement strategies listed in Implementing with Fidelity include:

  • Vary lesson format (lecture, video, class discussion).
  • Maximize opportunities for students to respond and actively participate in lessons.
  • Use a buddy system to help on difficult assignments (Algazzine, Ysseldyke, & Elliot, 1997).
  • Allow students choices within course selection and assignments.
  • Encourage revision of unacceptable work rather than quitting or starting over.
  • Consider reducing the length or difficulty of assignments according to student need.

The Complexity of Teaching

Teaching is a complex act filled with innumerable opportunities to make decisions even before the teacher begins the actual lesson. Mentors will no doubt witness many thoughtfully planned, top-notch lessons in which students successfully demonstrate academic engagement. On the other hand, mentors may witness the same lesson during a subsequent period or following day, and see very different results. Such is the unpredictability of teaching and learning. However, through teacher-initiated conversations about the academic engagement of students served by Check & Connect, the mentor may offer a resource for those teachers in search of suggestions for engaging all students.

What do you think?

In your role as a Check & Connect Mentor, how might you talk with a teacher who asked for advice on engaging students in learning? How might you talk to a student who is not academically engaged? What might be some talking points?

Share your thoughts in the Comment area below and/or on our Facebook post.


Algozinne, B., Ysseldyke, J., & Elliot, J. (1997). Strategies and tactics for effective instruction. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.
Danielson, C. (2011 Revised Edition). Enhancing professional practice: a framework for teaching.  Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Ysseldyke, J., & Christenson, S. L. (2002). Functional assessment of academic behavior. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

About the Author: Joseph Angaran is a national Check & Connect trainer at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota. 

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The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.

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