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Student Engagement 101 for Teachers

classroom management in-person teaching mindset teacher life tech in the classroom Dec 21, 2021

OMG! Have you heard about *student engagement?!* It is supposedly all the rage in education right now!

Okay but really. Everyone is talking about student engagement and making lessons more engaging, but what the heck does that even look like? And how can we tell if our students are engaged? Or if our engagement is getting better? How do you measure engagement?

Today that is what we are focusing in on, so let’s do it!

What the heck is student engagement anyways?

According to, student engagement is defined as, “the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education.”

This is a lot of fancy mumbo jumbo to say that it’s all about how the students are feeling about what and how they are learning, which can, in turn, spark a curiosity in them about learning more about everything around them! 

Generally, this can be broken down into 3 main types or pillars: Behavioral Engagement, Cognitive Engagement, and Emotional Engagement. (I personally always imagine a 4th type, Social Engagement, being very important as well, but a lot of people lump this in with emotional or behavioral engagement)

Wait! There is more than one type!?

Oh my goodness, of course, there is! Stuff like this can’t just be EASY for teachers. 

So we have these 3 types:

  1. Behavioral engagement is all about the student being invested and active in their learning. This is the opposite of the “sit-n-git” mentality where students listen and teachers dispense information to them. When students are included in decision making (like helping create classroom expectations or a rubric), or in the learning process (like class discussions or learning circles) they become engaged because they can see that the knowledge they have is valuable to others. 
  2. Cognitive engagement is a bit more of the traditional engagement. It’s all about seeing those wheels turning. When students’ minds are busy learning, like asking questions, exploring a concept in order to find answers, or creating something to show off their knowledge, they are inherently engaged in their own learning and the outcomes of that learning. 
  3. Finally, emotional engagement is all about student emotions around learning and school. If they have had a terrible school experience previously, then they will view learning as a negative thing and, most likely, struggle to engage even though they may be at a new school or have a new teacher. Also, if the emotions of friends or family about school are generally negative, then that may extend to the student as well and they will be less likely to engage with any of the learning because they see it ALL as a bad thing. (This too is where intergenerational trauma around schooling can play a part in a student’s engagement level.) 

Don't you think a moment (or many moments like this) would stick in the minds of those who feel like school is not a place for them?

That’s all well and good, but what does it look like in the classroom?

Well, behavioral engagement is relatively straightforward. If students have school-appropriate behavior, meaning that they are attentive, listening, answering questions that you ask, and completing tasks, their behavior is showing that they are engaged. Routines and procedures as well as established expectations and norms are really helpful here, as students come to understand and expect what they are being asked to do, and this makes it easier for them to do it!

Cognitive engagement and behavioral engagement can get mistaken for each other, but just because a student is doing what you ask them to do, does not always mean that their brain is actively working. For cognitive engagement, you really want the students to be invested in the content and in the learning activities so this is whereauthentic learning, community-based learning, differentiation, personalized learning, project-based learning, and relevance” truly come into play. Focus on creating lessons and assignments with student choice in either task or content (meaning what they are learning about or how they are learning about it or showing that learning), student exploration, or problem-based learning. 

Finally, emotional engagement is all about helping students have a positive learning experience. This is where those foundational student relationships can truly make a difference for students. I have so many students who are engaged in class, not because the material is all that interesting to them or presented in a fun way, but because they know I will be disappointed in them for not at least trying, and that matters to them because of the relationship I have built with them. 

There are other things teachers can do once those relationships are formed in order to build emotional engagement. One thing I saw mentioned is redesigning your room to be a welcoming and inviting space and that is so fun and easy to do! I rearrange my room pretty often, mostly because I get sick of a single layout, but the students also seem to get excited about it too. You can also create a space where they see themselves represented. This kind of thing shows a student that others like them are successful and they can be too AND that we believe they can be successful, no matter who they are. 

This is just one part of my classroom with images of authors from all walks of life. 

Oh, but that won’t work for me because I teach ________.

I know this isn’t a question, but we have to address it.

Yes, it will. I don’t care what specialty, core content, advanced thing you teach. This. Will. Work.

Forming relationships can and should be done in every class. Thinking strategically about your room design definitely SHOULD be done in every class. (it’s on the CharDan rubric for crying out loud!)

My good friend Char, Charlotte Danielson, knows the importance of setting up a classroom to be a positive place for students. 

Even if you teach something like Math, you can totally give choice and make things engaging. You could have students learn about the different professions that need whatever type of math you are working on. I had a teacher friend have their students find a cookie recipe, figure out how many times they would have to multiply it to have enough for the whole school, and then do all the math to multiply the batch. It was a super cool project and then they all made some cookies! It was super cool! And the students would not stop talking about it all week.

Seriously, (and I am a tad bit passionate about this if you can’t tell) engagement is for every class, and this excuse needs to go in the garbage like right the f*#@ now.


Remember, we aren't asking teachers to be a one-woman show or a 3-ring circus. Engagement isn't about fun or games. It is about showing students the intrinsically motivating aspect of education and learning by making it enjoyable for them. I think that is something we all strive for as teachers but forget about sometimes. 

Next week we are going to look at measuring student engagement so be sure to check back!

And if you want a fun and easy way to create engagement with your students, check out the Student Choice Board Template I created! It can be used for any content area and any lesson! Just change a few things and you are set to go! Click here to get it sent directly to your inbox today!


Resources & References

Schindler, Laura. “Fig. 1 Conceptual Framework of Types and Indicators of Student Engagement.” ResearchGate, 1 Dec. 2017,

“Student Engagement Definition.” The Glossary of Education Reform, 13 Dec. 2013,

“The Five Simple Methods That Help Teachers Measure Student Engagement.” Poll Everywhere Blog, 23 June 2020,

“The Framework for Teaching.” The Danielson Group, Accessed 19 Dec. 2021.

“Tools for Schools.” Communities In Schools, Accessed 19 Dec. 2021.