Cultivating student engagement - Part 1

What is engagement?

What is student engagement?

Trowler (2010) defines student engagement as being ‘concerned with the interaction between the time, effort and other relevant resources invested by both students and their institutions intended to optimise the student experience and enhance the learning outcomes and development of students and the performance, and reputation of the institution’ (Trowler, 2010).

Engagement can also be seen as a sense of connection with what you are doing or with a place (a sense of belonging).

Why is engagement important?

Cultivating engagement is part of the purpose of the NSW Department of Education. The department’s purpose is ‘to prepare young people for rewarding lives as engaged citizens in a complex and dynamic society’ (NSW Department of Education, 2018). A Departmental goal is that ‘every student is engaged and challenged to continue to learn’ (NSW Department of Education, 2018).

Engagement in teaching and learning is a prerequisite to success. A student is not as likely to succeed in learning if they or their school are not invested in their learning. Disengagement, by definition, is a form of alienation from what you are doing or where you are. Alienation does not feel good and, by definition, is inimical to functioning well. It thus is inimical to one’s wellbeing. Positive psychologist, Martin Seligman, sees engagement as one of five elements of wellbeing. The five elements are: Positive Emotion; Engagement; Positive Relationships; Meaning; and Accomplishment (PERMA) (Seligman, 2011). Seligman sees engagement as being ‘about flow: being one with the music, time stopping, and the loss of self-consciousness during an adsorbing activity’ (Seligman, 2011).

Flow is an unusually deep sense of connection with what you are doing.

Types of engagement

School and task engagement

A distinction is often made between school and task engagement. Munns and Martin (2005) make a similar distinction between ‘big E’ engagement and ‘little e’ engagement.

‘Big E’ engagement is engagement with school – ‘it is a sense among students that “school is for me”…This means that students have a sense that school is a place that works for them and education is a resource that they can deploy in the present and the future’. It involves a sense of connection or belonging to a place – school.

‘Little e’ engagement involves ‘the daily “e”ngaging experiences in classrooms that provide opportunities and support for students to think hard (high cognitive), feel good (high emotional) and actively participate (high behavioural)’. It involves a sense of connection to what students are doing. These experiences ‘build to the more powerful “school is for me” relationship’ (Munns & Martin, 2005).

Geographical engagement

To Munns and Martin’s cognitive, emotional and behavioural engagement Cleveland adds ‘geographical engagement’. He defines this as ‘associated with students’ affinity for their surroundings and the sense of place that they feel in connection with their school learning environments. Geographical engagement involves students’ ownership and mastery of their environment (including the resources and materials that are contained within)’ (Cleveland, 2011). Geographical engagement relates closely to school engagement and the sense that ‘school is a place for me’.

Preventing disengagement

Engaging pedagogies

Recognising that teaching and learning is work for teachers and students alike, and that the education industry involves the division (or better, combination) of labour (Connell, 1985), allows pedagogies to be seen as tools to achieve the goals of education.

New pedagogies emphasise a focus on the relationship between students and teachers in a proactive learning partnership to promote a balance between the teacher’s role as a ‘guide on the side’ and the ‘sage on the stage’ (Fullan, 2013) – the spectrum of student-centred and teacher-centred philosophies. This is a ‘work’ partnership, one in which ‘student labour’ involves students helping teachers with technology, helping fellow students as co-learners, and helping themselves by taking on a greater share of learning as partners.

Pedagogies, then, can be understood as a particular combination of labour between teachers, learners and technology in which specialised skills, tools and production operations are combined into an organised system.

People learn through activities such as: reading; writing; listening; discussing; experimenting; modelling; designing; making. Pedagogies can be seen to consist of combinations of these learning activities, and can be distinguished by the activity they give emphasis to. An activity-centred approach to the design and analysis of learning situations views activity as a mediator between tasks, tools and resources, interpersonal relationships and learning outcomes (Goodyear & Carvalho, 2014).

While it cannot be claimed in any absolute sense that one pedagogy is better than another (it depends what it is used for), it can be argued that some pedagogies are more engaging than others.

For example, Socratic pedagogy may involve stimulation by a question asked by a student, a current news story, a picture book for younger students or a short film clip. Children are invited to say whether anything interested them or puzzled them about the stimulus. From this, a whole class discussion ensues relating to life’s big questions. Students learn how to respectfully disagree because the focus is explicitly on taking issue with a claim rather than taking issue with a person: ‘I disagree with your argument’ rather than ‘I disagree with you’ (Jensen & Kennedy-White, 2014). The lesson may move from whole class discussion to break-out groups and reporting back (Limpan, 2003; Cam, 2008; Chesters, 2012).

Direct/explicit instruction may involve learning by listening and watching, for example a lecture. A presentation, of course, may be highly engaging and entertaining. Socratic pedagogy engages more in the sense that it involves more than listening and watching. It intrinsically involves dialogue and discussion rather than listening to a monologue.

Socratic pedagogy involves practising oracy and at the same time, creative and critical thinking (generating ideas, and evaluating them). It involves learning by listening and discussing.

Socratic pedagogy demands more of students than direct instruction. It is more challenging. It demands greater investment by students in their learning, by inviting students to contribute their own ideas. In a sense, students invest more of themselves in their learning by engaging in dialogue. Socratic pedagogy certainly provides opportunities and support for students to think hard and actively participate.

Any pedagogy involving a community of inquiry, such as project-based learning, will be similarly engaging. As Goss, Sonneman and Griffiths have noted

Student participation is a critical part of effective teaching and learning. Without opportunities to speak, problem-solve and work with others, students may quietly disengage or become restless – and teachers may not know if those students are learning… Opportunities to collaborate with peers and do group work also improve a student’s achievement, interpersonal relationships and attitudes to learning (Goss, et. al., 2017).


Engagement is a sense of connection with what you are doing or where you are: a sense of belonging – ‘school is a place for me’. Engagement in teaching and learning is a prerequisite to success. A student is not as likely to succeed in learning if they or their school are not invested in their learning. Engagement is a significant element in wellbeing.

Fundamentally, students engage with schooling and what they are doing through participating in engaging pedagogies – though engaging assessments, engaging spaces, engaging curriculum and engaging school cultures all contribute to engaging pedagogies. In Part 2 of this article we examine the contributions of assessment, spaces/places, curriculum and school cultures to student engagement.


Cam, P. (2008). Dewey, Lipman and the tradition of reflective education. In M. Taylor, H. Schreier, & P. Ghiraldelli, Jr. (Eds.), Pragmatism, education and children: international philosophical perspectives (pp. 163-182). New York: Rodopi.

Chesters, S.D. (2012). Socratic pedagogy: philosophical inquiry through dialogue. In S.D. Chesters (Ed.), The Socratic Classroom: reflective thinking through collaborative inquiry (pp. 11-40). Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

Cleveland, B.W. (2001). Engaging spaces: innovative learning environments, pedagogies and student engagement in the middle years of school. (Doctor of Philosophy), The University of Melbourne, Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning.

Connell, R.W. (1985). Teachers’ work. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Fullan, M. (2013). The new pedagogy: students and teacher as learning partners. Learning Landscapes, 6(2), 23-29.

Goodyear, P. & Carvalho, L. (2014). Framing the analysis of learning network architectures. In P. Goodyear & L. Carvalho (Eds.), The architecture of productive learning networks (pp. 48-70). New York: Routledge.

Goss, P., Sonnemann, J., & Griffiths, K. (2017). Engaging students: creating classrooms that improve learning. Melbourne, VIC: Grattan Institute.

Jensen, B. & Kennedy-White, K. (2014). The case for philosophical inquiry K-12 classrooms. Scan, 33(2).

Lipman, M. (2003). Thinking in education. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Munns, G. & Martin, A. (2005). It’s all about MeE: a motivation and engagement framework. Paper presented at the Australian Association of Educational Research Conference 2005, Paramatta, New South Wales.

NSW Department of Education. (2018). Strategic plan 2018-2022.

Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish. Sydney, New South Wales, Australia: William Heinemann Australia.

Trowler, V. (2010). Student engagement literature review. The Higher Education Academy.

How to cite this article – Stevens, R., Cronley, T., Eckert, A., Kidd, M., Liondos, N., Newall, G., Pilkington, M., Rekic, B., & Ructtinger, L. (2018). Cultivating student engagement – Part 1. Scan 37(9).

Return to top of page Back to top