What Student Engagement Looks Like

Student engagement is what happens when students care about what they’re learning. Teaching seems easier when students buy in and take ownership of their learning. As one teacher puts it: “I experience joy, and joy is a lot less tiring than the frustration that comes with student apathy.

So what does this look like? It may come to the surprise of many teachers that student engagement doesn’t come with angels playing harps. Actually it looks a lot like when adults are engaged. Think about your last professional development session. It turns out student engagement isn’t too far off from adult engagement. Here are some signs that your audience is engaged:


Caring enough about something to speak up shows that someone is invested in the topic. One strategy to elicit this type of engagement is presenting problems with multiple valid solutions. Having students make and defend their own choices put them in the driver’s seat. For example, a problem like this has at least three fundamentally sound solutions:

5 + 13 + 24 – 8 + 47 – 12 + 59 – 31 – 5 + 9 – 46 – 23 + 32 – 60

Can you (and your students!) find them all?


Working with others to accomplish a task means students want to get something done for the greater good, and not just for themselves. In addition to the greater good, students collaborating means that the classroom fosters a safe learning environment where shaming or belittling is not accepted. Students feel free to pitch their ideas and explore new solutions with each other.

Active listening positions


According to Elliott Witney, “Engaged learners Sit up; they Listen; they Ask and Answer questions; they Nod when it makes sense to nod; and they Track the speaker—whether that speaker is a fellow student or the teacher.” (Get it?) As I mentioned earlier, you’ve seen the disengaged body language: checking phones, looking around, zero reaction to anything the speaker is saying. Getting an audience’s attention opens up the floor for you to work your magic.

Asking questions

Asking questions is a great sign that a student is taking ownership of his/her learning. Raising a hand or actively seeking out an answer to something the student cares about. Of course, there are students who will raise their hands to score participation points, but that never really goes away.

Taking it outside the classroom

Students are drawing connections to aspects of their real life. They’re answering the question of “Why does this matter?” to give context to what they’re doing. When students make the connection of something they learned in school to outside of the classroom, it’s the ultimate form of engagement. After all, isn’t it all about empowering students to find out what they want to learn, using the tools from school?

For the rest of the month, we’ll be looking into shades of engagement, strategies for relevant lessons, and how real teachers engage in their classroom. What are some ways you’ve engaged students? Why is it important to you? to students? to learning? 

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