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Maximising impact: promoting student engagement

The terms ‘student engagement’ and ‘engaging students’ are often conflated, but what do these terms mean and how can we promote better engagement in learning?

Engaging students’ refers to what we as teaching staff and as institutions of education do to engage and involve students in their learning. ‘Student engagement,’ on the other hand, refers to what students do, such as the amount of effort they spend studying, the extent to which they are motivated to learn and their willingness to be involved and participate in lessons.  

Much has been written in terms of student motivation; debates surrounding the extent to which engagement is a result of intrinsic values, contextual factors, the culture and ethos of the school or learning setting and individual teacher effectiveness. Some of these factors can be challenging to tackle because they can be seen as ‘out of our hands.’ Below are 5 specific strategies we can employ in promoting better student engagement: 

Drawing on Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory (1988) and instructional design, our teaching should aim not to ‘overload’ students.  Cognitive overload makes learning more difficult and this is detrimental to student engagement-they will simply switch off. This is particularly crucial when working with students on intervention that are endeavouring to ‘catch up’ on missed learning or to address misconceptions. 

Sequencing and chunking are alluded to by Ofsted in their recent paper ‘What’s working well in remote education’ as methods by which students can be engaged effectively and which can be applied to all forms of tuition. ‘Chunking’ refers to the breaking down lesson content or information into smaller, manageable, bite-sized chunks. It’s not about reducing the amount or complexity of information that needs to be learned, but ‘sequencing’ that information into smaller segments so that it is more easily learned, understood, practiced, applied and assessed.  

Relationships fostered between teachers and their students are another key factor to consider in promoting engagement. This draws on John Hattie’s work; a connection with a class teacher, a belief that their teacher cares and wants them to succeed was identified as a factor that significantly enhanced engagement. 

Research suggests that if students can’t see the point or purpose of a task, they are less likely to engage or to disengage ebtirely (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004). Explicitly ensuring students can see the rationale and a meaningful purpose behind learning activities, making the effort to connect those activities with prior learning, knowledge or student experience and helping students to take ownership of their learning all support this. 

No one enjoys feeling overwhelmed or out of their depth and the same is certainly true for students. Researchers suggest that students experiencing success by effectively performing an activity can impact subsequent engagement positively (Schunk & Mullen, 2012). Ensuring tasks are only just beyond students’ current levels of proficiency and are scaffolded so that they can feel confident in completing a task that steps up their learning builds student confidence.  Encouraging students to demonstrate their understanding of the task, set their own success criteria and giving feedback that show clear next steps for progress are also effective strategies in building confidence.  

By no means are these the only effective methods for promoting engagement, but they do provide a tried and tested starting point.  

At Tute, we are always working on promoting engagement. If you’d like to hear about our successes, please take a look at what our partners say and what our students say about how Tute has worked for them.  

Dr. Sharon Smith
Impact and Evaluation Manager

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