Teaching and Teachers Are Central to Engagement | Steve Barkley

Teaching and Teachers Are Central to Engagement

An elementary art teacher instructs second-grade students attending in person and remotely at Wesley Elementary School. <br />

The title of this blog is one of the proposals shared by Nick Zepke and Linda Leach in a research article titled Improving Student Engagement: Ten Proposals for Action.

They use these definitions for engagement:

  • Students’ cognitive investment in, active participation in, and emotional commitment to their learning.
  • Students’ involvement with activities and conditions likely to generate high-quality learning.

Their research review identified several teacher engagements encouraging attitudes and behaviors:

  • If the teacher is perceived to be approachable, well prepared and sensitive to student needs, students are committed to working harder, get more out of the session, and are more willing to express their own opinions.
  • Students are more likely to engage if they are supported by teachers who establish inviting learning environments, demand high standards, challenge, and make themselves freely available to discuss academic progress.
  • Improvement in academic performance was significantly more likely among students who felt they had academic support from teachers than those who did not.
  • Teachers who provided deep learning experiences promoted student engagement. ‘Disengaged’ students appear to take a ‘surface’ approach to learning – copying out notes, focusing on fragmented facts and right answers, and accepting those.
  • Engagement with information technology is positively associated with academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, and deep learning experiences.

Zepke and Leach concluded, “Clearly teaching and teachers are central to engagement and deserve to be valued and acknowledged within institutions for their contribution.”

While Zepke and Leach conducted their research with a focus on college students, the alignment with feedback that I recently received from high school teachers and students who have been learning virtually for almost one year was quite strong.

Approximately 25 teacher leaders and 35 students in a 6-12 school were asked to respond to two open statements:


  • I get the most engagement in virtual learning when…
  • I struggle the most with engagement in virtual learning when…


  • I tend to get most engaged in virtual learning when…
  • I find it most difficult to engage in virtual learning when…

Here are connections I found in the teachers’ and students’ responses which align with Zepke’s and Leach’s conclusions:

Teachers shared that they were most successful engaging students when they…Two friends study together at home as part of their school’s remote learning group. <br />

  • Plan lessons most relevant to students.
  • Initiate discussions that are relevant and distract students from their current situations.
  • Structured class discussions and connected participation to grades.
  • Used breakout rooms for projects or small group discussions.
  • Asked students to share screens and share work from breakouts.
  • Encouraged students to write in chat rather than unmute.
  • Incorporate games.

Students tended to reinforce these teacher responses, stating that they were most engaged when…

  • Teachers used outside sources.
  • Teachers made a lesson fun.
  • Teachers had new, different, unique projects and assignments.
  • Teachers encouraged participation, questions, and open discussions.
  • Teachers showed their interest in the content.
  • We worked with classmates in breakouts.
  • Students were incorporated into the lesson.
  • Teachers planned and presented sufficient examples, continued to check-in, and provided support when needed (not introduce and send us off to do).

Looking at the social-emotional environment, teachers said that they were most successful engaging students when they…

  • Prompted students with non-academic questions.
  • Used comments such as, “It’s ok that you are behind, I know you will catch up, I am so glad that you are here.”
  • Asked for volunteers in advance so students could prepare.
  • Praised students for participating.
  • Shared their thoughts first to break the ice.

Students reinforced these teacher comments when they noted that they were more engaged when…

  • Teachers showed interest in students’ everyday lives — used unconnected (to the content) questions/discussions to start class, making us feel less alone.
  • Teachers asked students for feedback.
  • Teachers remained optimistic and encouraging.

Ben Johnson writing about the power of urgency in motivating engagement, prior to the pandemic, listed these strategies for engagement, which have increased importance today in planning for learning engagement in virtual and hybrid settings.

  1. Provide a reason to learn — make it relevant.
  2. Establish realistic products the students will create as a result of the desired learning.
  3. Bring in an expert who can give the students real-life problems they need to solve using the desired knowledge.
  4. Allow students to choose among different methods, not just levels of difficulty or depth.
  5. Give students an opportunity to present or publish their work outside of class.
  6. Make connections with the other subjects the students are learning about.

“The very first factor is that we have to be on fire before we will kindle any fire in our students. We set the mood with our expressions, the way we walk, and the tone of our voice,”
– Ben Johnson

Photos by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

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