Student Engagement: Deep vs. Surface

engaged student

While deep engagement is the ultimate goal for educators, surface engagement is where it starts. As Edutopia put it, “Before students can think critically, they need to have something to think about in their brains.” We have to start at the bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy Pyramid (understanding, remembering) before we can get to the top (analyzing, evaluating).

Getting to a deeper level of learning takes effort from both the teacher and the student. Coercing students to be active is far more work than allowing them to be passive—in the short term.  However as with any skill, you need the building blocks before you can build something truly meaningful. Take baseball, for example. The synchronization of an entire team pitching, fielding balls, and tagging out runners is a far cry from the basic skills of throwing, catching, or hit. But anyone’s who’s seen all those separate skills come together knows there’s really nothing quite like the game of baseball.

Let’s take a look at the characteristics of each and how to do it in your classroom.


Surface engagement

Deep engagement

rote learning, formulas

looking for central arguments, concepts

memorizing, recognizing patterns

distinguish between argument and evidence

learning foundational information, or building blocks

linking content to real life

Ideas for Increasing Engagement in Your Classroom

Here are some of the best ideas we’ve seen for student engagement, starting with some easy ones and progressing to the deeper engagement with students that we all strive for. Be sure to check out our ProTips on student engagement so far:

Have you tried…


Incorporating rap into lessons engages [students] on their home turf, making the subject matter tangible rather than abstract. Think of it as dialoguing in a language that may be easier for them to understand, not to mention more exciting.


According to Teachers College, gamification is the use of game mechanics and dynamics like badges, leaderboards, and actions to improve motivation and learning in informal and formal settings.

Gamification engages and motivates students while developing problem solving skills and a sense of accomplishment thanks to continuous feedback and rewards.

Flash cards

They’re helpful for understanding new concepts in a shorter period of time than it’d take to get a complete handle on the larger picture.

Going further…

Track your students

I saw immediate changes in student investment after I started tracking in my classroom. My students were empowered to analyze their strengths and growth areas and set individualized academic goals. They learned to articulate which classroom and study habits contributed to success as well as how to calculate their growth percentage over the course of a unit.


Increase relevancy

When opening with seemingly dense texts, Shepherd would start with relatable questions to involve students right off the bat. For instance, when it came time for Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Shepherd opened the class with the question, “How many of you have ever been stabbed in the back by someone you thought was your best friend?”

Channel your enthusiasm

Some professors can make a subject sing, and their courses are not just a credit but an event…

In inventive teaching, students are not just sponges soaking up content.

We’d love to hear your best tips and tricks for engaging your students.  Share an idea below in the comments.

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