Cultivating student engagement - Part 2

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 engaging pedagogies. As Goss, Sonnemann and Griffiths (2017) observe:

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.

In Part 2 of ‘Cultivating student engagement’ we examine the contributions of assessment, spaces/places, curriculum and school cultures to student engagement.

Engaging assessment

The use of particular modes of assessment can be highly engaging. Barron and Darling-Hammond (2010) note that exhibitions, projects and portfolios provide occasions for review and revision to help students examine how they learn and how they can perform better. Student presentation of their work to an audience – teachers, visitors, parents, other students – can be an excellent way of learning. This approach to assessment can be used to assess students' mastery. Presentations of work, particularly public presentations, can signal to students that their work is significant enough to be a source of public learning and celebration. This can contribute to student engagement in a task and in school. It can provide opportunities for others in the learning community to engage with student work. Performances can embody representations of school goals and standards so that they remain vital and energising, and develop important capabilities.

Good performance tasks are complex intellectual, physical and social challenges that stretch students’ thinking and planning abilities while also allowing student skills and interests to serve as a springboard for developing capabilities (Barron and Darling-Hammond, 2010). The challenging nature of exhibitions, projects and portfolios, and their formative nature (assessment as and for learning) demands greater investment of students, contribute to task engagement and in turn school engagement.

Engaging spaces

The OECD suggests that a ‘learning environment’ is an organic, holistic concept - an ecosystem that includes the activity and the outcomes of the learning. The key elements and dynamics at the heart of each learning environment are termed the ‘pedagogical core’. This is composed of four elements: learners, educators, content and resources (digital and learning spaces). Organisational dynamics and choices connect these core elements (OECD, 2013; OECD, 2015).

A learning environment combines a focus on arrangements for teaching and learning and on the organisation of these arrangements. The familiar triangle learners (who?), teachers or educators (with whom?), and content (what?) – provides the starting point for defining the environment’s core. As learning environments are concrete, resources (with what?) are added as a fourth key element. With the focus on learning, such resources are essentially those that can be directly exploited in learning. That is, physical resources (buildings, facilities, infrastructure) and learning materials. Two resource elements are learning spaces and digital resources (OECD, 2013; OCED, 2015).

On this account, engaging learning spaces are those that contribute to and facilitate engaging learning environments and in particular engaging pedagogies. The underlying principle in this approach is that pedagogies drive the learning space and not vice versa.

Innovative learning environments functioned best when students were able to take ownership of their learning, work with some autonomy and interact directly and indirectly with peers, teachers, technologies and the physical environment (Cleveland, 2011).

As well as contributing to an innovative learning environment, spaces can be engaging in themselves. For example, some identify colour as an important factor for engagement, where certain colours can cause detachment or sleepiness whereas others can increase alertness or activity (Price Waterhouse Coopers, 2017).

Blackmore and colleagues argue that the focus should be on people and learning places and not spaces. Place attachment and spatial identity is critical to learning. Research shows that it is ‘actually a notion of place which frames interactive behaviour’. Place attachment can be produced through how learning spaces are designed and used. It is place attachment and various bounded places that impact on social interactions critical to student engagement and learning. (Blackmore, et al., 2011).

Learning spaces as learning places are highly significant for cultivating big E Engagement (Stevens et al., 2018) which involves cultivating in students the responses such as ‘school is a place for me’, ‘school is a place where we discuss our ideas’ and ‘I am a kid from here going somewhere’.

Engaging curriculum

Curriculum is engaging to the extent that it supports engaging pedagogies by emphasising the philosophical: the problematic and controversial – the thought provoking. As Matthew Lipman notes,

For insofar as academic disciplines take themselves to be non-problematic, the instructional approach they favour is that their students must learn what they are taught, whereas the more problematic the image these disciplines have of themselves, the more they will favour an instructional approach of joint, shared inquiry by teachers and students alike. . . It is when a discipline conceives of its integrity to lie in ridding itself of its epistemological, metaphysical, aesthetic, ethical and logical considerations [the philosophical, in short] that it succeeds in becoming merely a body of alienated knowledge and procedures (Lipman, 1991, pp. 33-34).

Curriculum is engaging or not depending on the degree to which it supports engaging pedagogies.

Engaging culture

Goss et al. (2017) identify ways in which schools can prevent disengagement through a positive school and classroom culture.

High expectations for every student

Effective teachers instil in every student an expectation of success and recognise that student motivation, engagement and self-belief can drive achievement which can lift self-esteem and enable the students to become more engaged.

Good teacher-student relationships

Students who have a good relationship with their teacher(s) tend to succeed at school and teachers can also more effectively intervene when problems arise. The skills of self-discipline need to be taught and reinforced, and teachers can do this by providing opportunities for practice and positive reinforcement.

Clarity and structure

Teachers provide clear and consistent expectations about what students are to do as well as teaching them how to do it. Students respond well to rules and routines when teachers explicitly state the learning goals, define classroom procedures, direct activities and minimise distractions. The best teachers also become role models of the behaviours required.

Encouragement and praise

Specific and genuine praise, and positive attention and genuine encouragements can also be effective. Giving rewards is most effective when both given for positive behaviour and withheld or withdrawn for negative behaviour.

Corrections and consequences

It is not appropriate for teachers to always jump straight to punishment without some warning which gives the student an opportunity to change their behaviour. If punishments are necessary they will have a clear learning purpose and teachers will explain why students are being punished and how their behaviour affects their learning and that of others. ‘Tactical ignoring’ of minor issues in combination with praise for appropriate behaviour can encourage better behaviour. Exclusionary practices are a last resort as sending a student away from class may reinforce negative behaviours if they are acting up to avoid school work. It can also damage teacher-student relationships and as well as the student’s own learning.

Goss et al. (2017) identify four steps that teachers can use to reduce behavioural problems in the classroom.

  1. Teachers must know their students and any behaviour issues or disengagement. Teachers need to know the conditions that prompt and reinforce behaviours so they can tailor effective and efficient responses.
  2. By being proactive teachers can alter or remove factors that trigger problem behaviour and if needed adapt instruction or learning activities to promote engagement.
  3. Teachers can increase appropriate behaviour and enhance a positive classroom climate by modelling and reinforcing good behaviour and highlighting this as teaching and reinforcing new skills.
  4. Teachers who collaborate with colleagues and experts to discuss problems as well as solutions have more success in managing difficult behaviours. Observing teachers who have created successful classrooms is also important. (Goss et al., 2017).

School-wide approaches are critical and teachers are more likely to create effective classrooms when their school supports a common approach. Each school can:

  • have common expectations, language and understanding of appropriate behaviour for learning;
  • have a behaviour plan that articulates the school’s philosophy and values as well as monitoring student attendance and instances of bullying and other behavioural issues;
  • provide a comprehensive induction program to help new teachers develop their practical skills and strategies;
  • encourage collaboration with colleagues for example working together with peers and experts on how to handle difficult situations;
  • share resources such as the tools to assess and improve their approaches so that new teachers don’t have to reinvent the wheel;
  • provide extra support for teachers confronted by serious misbehaviour;
  • provide extra support to teachers and students where needed;
  • clarify which problems can be managed at the school level and which can be managed at the classroom level.

Positive Behaviour for Learning

Positive Behaviour for Learning (PBL) is a whole-school approach to creating a positive, safe and supportive school climate in which all students can learn and develop. PBL provides a framework that enables schools to establish the social culture and learning supports needed to meet the learning and wellbeing needs of every student. As a framework or approach, it is a compilation of research-informed and effective practices, interventions and systems change strategies.

Positive Behaviour for Learning enables schools to design systems to meet the unique social, emotional and behavioural needs of every student. It is characterised by an effective problem-solving process that involves four critical elements.

Outcomes are locally determined, contextually and culturally relevant. These include academic, social-emotional and behavioural achievements for all students.

Practices are student-focused. In the area of school discipline, these practices embrace a positive, proactive and instructional approach.

Data is used to identify the status of current practice, support the need for change and evaluate the impact of interventions or practices and implementation fidelity.

Systems to support staff are essential to sustain the successful implementation of processes and practices. Systems include strategic and committed leadership and governance approaches; team structures that support the development of the continuum; professional learning and development; staff recognition; data systems that support easy collection and analysis; and other organisational supports for staff.

Schools begin PBL by designing school-wide systems for universal support that includes eight essential features:

  1. Developing a common language, vision and experience.
  2. Leadership for governance and implementation.
  3. Defining expected behaviour.
  4. Teaching expected behaviour.
  5. Encouraging expected behaviour.
  6. Responding consistently to problem behaviour.
  7. Review, data and ongoing monitoring.
  8. Effective classroom practices.

A team leads the implementation of these essential features.

The effective classroom practices address strategies for classroom management such as organisation of the physical environment, defining and teaching expectations for the classroom, developing procedures and routines, using effective positive reinforcement and using consistent corrective responses for problem behaviour. In addition there are four other classroom practices focused on instructional strategies that support quality teaching and promote student engagement. These are:

  • Active supervision
  • Opportunities to respond
  • Activity sequencing and choice
  • Adjustments for task difficulty

Schools can cultivate engagement by:

  • Engaging pedagogies – student centred and inquiry-based (Stevens et al., 2018).
  • Engaging assessments – these are formative (assessments for learning) and authentic (e.g. exhibitions, projects and portfolios).
  • Engaging spaces – spaces designed to facilitate engaging pedagogies.
  • Engaging school cultures – built around respect, rights, responsibilities, relationships as reflected for example in Positive Behaviour for Learning.


Barron, B. & Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). Prospects and challenges for inquiry-based approaches to learning. In H. Dumont, D. Istance, & F. Benavides (Eds.), The nature of learning: using research to inspire practice (pp. 199-225). Paris: OECD, Centre for Educational Research and Innovation.

Blackmore, J., Bateman, D., O’Mara, J., & Loughlin, J. (2011). The connections between learning spaces and learning outcomes: people and learning places. Literature Review. Melbourne, VIC: Deakin University, Centre for Research in Educational Futures and Innovation.

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.

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

Lipman, M. (1991). Thinking in education. New York: Cambridge University Press.

OECD. (2013). Innovative learning environments, educational research and innovation. Paris: OECD Publishing.

OECD. (2015). Schooling redesigned: towards innovative learning systems. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Price Waterhouse Coopers. (2017). Breaking down the walls.

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).

How to cite –Stevens, R., Cronley, T., Eckert, A., Kidd, M., Liondos, N., Newall, G., Pilkington, M., Rekic, B., & Ructtinger, L. (2018). Cultivating student engagement – Part 2. Scan 37(10).

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