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Differentiating Student Engagement: Not All Engagement is Created Equal

Student engagement is a hot topic in schools these days.

Students who are bored or disinterested tend to zone out in class, which zaps their enthusiasm for learning—or, so the thinking goes. On the other hand, students who feel inspired and energized in school perform better.

A nice sentiment—but is it true?

Former school principal and education leader Eric Sheninger has a new book out called, “UnCommon Learning: Creating Schools That Work for Kids.” In it, he says educators should be careful: Engagement doesn’t always translate to learning, especially when it comes to the integration of school technology.

Mind/Shift recently published an excerpt from Sheninger’s book.

I have observed numerous lessons where students were obviously engaged through the integration of technology, but there was no clear indication that students were learning…Technology should be implemented to increase engagement, but that engagement must lead to support, enhancement, or an increase in student learning.

Sheninger says the key to a strong technology implementation is to establish clear measures and “observable evidence” that learning has actually occurred—and he outlines several questions school leaders should consider.

Here are just a few:

What are the learning objectives or outcomes?
Setting clear goals up front is the first step toward effectively measuring student learning. Teachers should have a clear vision of what they want students to accomplish—and any technology included in a lesson should support those goals. Fail at this, and any attempt at measuring academic impact is futile.

Are students creating a learning product or artifact?
What is the final outcome of the lesson? Will students create something they can refer back to later on? Lessons that encourage students to exercise creativity in pursuit of real-world solutions often spur the most productive engagement, writes Sheninger. Giving students an opportunity to explain their work and to dive deep into a project is a great way to demonstrate learning and comprehension.

What assessments are being used to determine standard attainment?
In other words, how are you testing students’ knowledge? Standardized tests and assessments have come under the microscope lately—and for good reason. But you still need a system and a process for assessing student learning.

How are students being provided feedback about their progress?
Do students understand the progress they’ve made—and what they still need to work on? It’s easy to give students a simple “Nice job” or “Needs work.” But you need a system for checking in with students along the way to a) make sure they are engaged and b) make sure that engagement is translating to real learning.

Bottom line: Student engagement is important. But it has to be effective student engagement.

Just because students are having fun with a new learning game or are enamored with a new device, doesn’t mean they’re acquiring more knowledge.

What steps do you take to ensure engagement translates into learning in your schools? Tell us in the comments.

Want to know what technologies and learning techniques excite students and capture their attention in real, meaningful ways? It never hurts to ask. Here’s a few ideas for how to do that.