BECOME A MEMBER! Sign up for TIE services now and start your international school career


Improving Student Engagement in High-School Classrooms

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “Reflectiveness, Adaptivity, and Support: How Teacher Agency Promotes Student Engagement” by Kristy Cooper, Tara Kintz, and Andrew Miness in American Journal of Education, November 2016 (Vol. 123, #1, p. 109-136),; Cooper can be reached at
“Student engagement in school is fundamental to positive educational and life outcomes, including learning, achievement, graduation, and persistence in higher education,” say Kristy Cooper, Tara Kintz, and Andrew Miness (Michigan State University) in this American Journal of Education article.
“By contrast, disengagement can be a precursor to negative outcomes, including low achievement, social and emotional withdrawal, and dropping out.” What are the key variables in capturing and maintaining students’ engagement?
To answer this question, Cooper, Kintz, and Miness worked for three years in a diverse suburban Texas high school that had made student engagement its main priority. Each year, the researchers surveyed the school’s 2,380 students on their perceptions of engagement and other classrooms factors, and also conducted PD sessions sharing research on engagement and helping teachers interpret their student survey data.
In preparation for their work in the school, Cooper, Kintz, and Miness synthesized research on factors that produce high student engagement in classrooms, starting with three broad categories:
- Behavioral engagement – participating, staying on task, and completing assignments;
- Emotional engagement – feeling happy, interested, and comfortable in class;
- Cognitive engagement – exerting mental effort to learn.
- Classroom climate – Students have a sense of belonging in a caring, structured learning environment with high, clear, and fair expectations.
- Teacher support – In their relationships with teachers, students form an emotional connection to the teacher and content.
- Academic rigor – There is an academic tone, high cognitive demand, and students are pushed to work hard.
- Lively teaching and active learning – Students have opportunities to learn in groups and work on projects that have real-life relevance.
- Efficacy – Students feel competent and have a degree of autonomy in the classroom.
None of this is new to most educators, which made the researchers wonder why some classrooms still have low student engagement. Perhaps, they speculated, “the problem rests in getting necessary information to teachers, framing that information in actionable steps for increasing engagement, and finding way to penetrate teachers’ existing belief systems so that new information impacts teachers’ practice.”
In the Texas school, that’s where the student surveys and PD sessions came in. Cooper, Kintz, and Miness surveyed all students in November of each year (2011, 2012, and 2013) and shared the results with teachers at a February PD session. Teachers got their results in a sealed envelope at the end of the meeting (the data were not given to administrators).
Following each year’s PD session, the researchers conducted focus-group discussions with several groups of 5-8 teachers to assess their reactions to the survey and discuss what it told them about student engagement in their classrooms. Teachers weren’t asked to divulge their personal student-survey results; rather, the discussion focused on classroom engagement research and possible changes in their instructional practices.
Over the three years, student engagement (as measured on a 5-4-3-2-1 scale) improved slightly, from 3.52 to 3.84. The percent of students who reported being highly engaged went from 17% to 31%, those saying they were moderately engaged decreased from 33% to 22%, and those who said they were slightly engaged dropped from 10% to 6%. Since there were several initiatives being implemented in the school (including Schlechty’s Working on the Work), it was hard to pinpoint which factors were most important.
The researchers analyzed transcripts of all the focus-groups to compare the responses of teachers whose students rated them high and low on engagement. The differences were quite striking. High-engagement teachers were:
- Much more open to information from the PD sessions and student surveys and much more likely to integrate it into their practice;
- More likely to notice students’ level of engagement on their faces and modify classroom strategies or make sure troubled students saw a counselor;
- More likely to tune into students’ outside-of-school problems and address them in class or in private conversations;
- More likely to prioritize the Texas curriculum standards and work to make them engaging;
- More reflective about instruction, open-minded, inquisitive, and adaptive, with a stronger sense of agency. “There are things you can do to change engagement,” said one teacher. “It’s not just luck, or happenstance.”
By contrast, teachers who were rated lower on engagement by their students were:
- More likely to see survey results as confirming what they already believed rather than sparking reflection;
- Less likely to see students’ responses as providing guidance for improving their teaching;
- More removed, abstract, and theoretical when talking about their teaching, using phrases like “teachers should do” rather than “I do”;
- More likely to feel overwhelmed by the Texas curriculum standards and see them as impossible to get through and engage students;
- Lacking in a sense of agency about being able to change and improve student engagement, often ascribing students’ lack of engagement to negative factors outside the school or just the way students were.
“There’s a pattern in the family, you know,” said one teacher. “Brother dropped out. Now younger brother’s gonna say, ‘Look, why should I care?’… How do you teach this kid?” Another teacher said, “The motivation for education comes from the home.”
The researchers drew several major conclusions from their intervention and analysis of the data:
First, all teachers in the study said they believed student engagement was important in their classrooms. They heard the administration’s emphasis on engagement loud and clear and at least gave lip service to the issue.
Second, despite the availability of student survey data and the three PD sessions on engagement, there was almost no change in the level of student engagement in different teachers’ classrooms – that is, teachers whose students reported high engagement at the beginning of the study were still rated high on engagement three years later, and teachers whose students rated them lower in engagement were still that way at the end.
“These consistencies,” say Cooper, Kintz, and Miness, “suggest that broad increases in engagement are unlikely to come from the type of PD and survey data we used alone.” This might have been because the administrators in the Texas school presented the PD and survey results without requiring teachers to make changes in their classrooms, perhaps believing that the information by itself was enough to spark improvements.
Third, there was a striking difference in how high-engagement and low-engagement teachers used the information they received in the PD and surveys. “High-engagement teachers,” say the authors, “certainly encountered the same obstacles as low-engagement teachers (such as those from the accountability system and students’ lives outside school), but they persisted in facing these challenges and believed they could increase engagement. By contrast, low-engagement teachers were more likely to view obstacles as insurmountable and to feel unable to engage students who faced those obstacles, despite the teachers’ desire to do so.”
Fourth, what distinguished the two groups was teachers’ sense of agency. High-engagement teachers clearly had a growth mindset, believing they could change and their students could change. Low-engagement teachers had a fixed mindset – much more fatalistic about the way people are and will be.
Fifth, Cooper, Kintz, and Miness believe it’s possible to change teachers’ sense of agency through a somewhat different intervention. While some teachers are naturally inclined to use information from PD and student surveys to fine-tune their teaching, others need more personalized support and direction through one-on-one coaching or collaborative groups.
The researchers also believe PD should explicitly address mindsets and agency, using the work of Carol Dweck and others to address teachers’ thinking and nudge them into a more reflective, adaptive approach to their students. Finally, supervisors and instructional support staff should get teachers to try different approaches, notice students’ reactions, and develop a sense that they can actually change results.

Please fill out the form below if you would like to post a comment on this article:


There are currently no comments posted. Please post one via the form above.