Research proof points: Better student engagement improves student learning

Research shows that using formative assessment can improve student learning. One of the ways formative assessment does this is by improving student engagement, a challenge for any teacher.

Research has historically indicated strong correlations between student engagement (typically defined as attention to the area of focus, active participation in learning, and time on task) and student achievement. These correlations remain strong for all levels of instruction, across all subject areas, and for varying instructional activities. Let’s explore some research that shows this correlation.

A review of the research

In “Attitudinal and intellectual correlates of attention: A study of four sixth-grade classrooms,” Henriette Lahaderne shares findings of research conducted in the 1960s. Researchers rated student attention in sixth grade after observing four classrooms. Ratings were positively correlated with student performance on a standardized achievement test, showing that “the pupil who paid attention gained the most from his instruction” (p. 322).

A few years later, in 1972, Joseph Cobb investigated the relationship between peer conversations and academic performance. More than 100 fourth-grade students in two schools were observed for nine days. The findings, published in “Relationship of discrete classroom behaviors to fourth-grade academic achievement,” indicated that the level of attentiveness to classroom activities and engagement in peer conversations about appropriate academic material correlated to performance across subject areas.

In 1974, Jay Samuels and James Turnure reported consistent results for first graders during reading instruction in their article “Attention and reading achievement in first-grade boys and girls.” The attention of 88 first-grade students was observed during reading instruction. The authors found that as attention increased, word recognition rates also increased.

Lawrence Hecht examined whole-class instruction in high school mathematics in 1978. During a six-week period, observers recorded participation. The article “Measuring student behavior during group instruction” shares their findings: the amount of time on task had a positive correlation with student achievement.

More than a decade later, Ellen Skinner, J. G. Wellborn, and J. P. Connell published “What it takes to do well in school and whether I’ve got it: A process model of perceived control and children’s engagement and achievement in school.” The engagement of 200 elementary students, defined as participation and emotional tone, was assessed by their teachers. Path analyses were performed to examine the model of teacher behavior, perceived control, engagement, and academic outcomes. The predicted relations between engagement and grades/achievement (higher engagement leads to higher academic performance) were obtained.

Then, in 1995, Jeremy Finn, Gina Pannozzo, and Kristin Voelkl shared their research. “Disruptive and inattentive-withdrawn behavior and achievement among fourth graders” explains that the researchers found that students who are inattentive, withdrawn, and disengaged in the classroom have poorer academic performance when compared to engaged students. Teachers rated the classroom behavior of 1,013 fourth-grade students using a participation questionnaire. Results indicated that engagement (defined as effort and initiative taking) were positively correlated with grades from the end of the previous year and achievement test scores while inattentive or disengaged behaviors were negatively correlated with these measures.

Finally, in “Academic success among students at risk for school failure,” J. D. Finn and D. A. Rock analyzed data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988 and focused on understanding the behavior of 1,803 low-income minority students in grades 8–12. The authors found that students who displayed engagement as measured by coming to class on time, being prepared for and participating in class work, and making the effort to complete assignments and homework were more likely to be academically successful, have passing grades throughout high school, and graduate on time.

Improve engagement

In general, it is not uncommon to find a classroom where a few highly motivated students monopolize classroom discussions. To ensure learning for all students, opportunities to actively engage everyone in meaningful ways must be provided. The following articles can help you focus on student engagement in your classroom this year:

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