Education Matters

Student engagement: what do they really mean?

Posted by Trinity Grammar School on Oct 29, 2018 6:00:00 AM

By Deborah Williams, Academic Dean, Trinity Grammar School

Student engagement: what do they really mean?It has become common place to talk about the importance of engaging young people in learning, but it is perhaps equally as common to find very different ideas about what student engagement actually means, and who is responsible for it.

The Organisation for Economic and Cultural Development (OECD), the leading body in global educational research such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and a range of learning innovation projects, talks about emotion and motivation being the gatekeepers to learning engagement:

“Motivation ensures that students acquire knowledge and skills in a meaningful way. Like emotion, the presence of positive emotion towards a learning task markedly increases the likelihood that students will engage in deep learning. Helping students become aware of their motivation systems and how that influences learning leads to them becoming more effective learners … teachers should provide time, space and support for students to reflect on the learning strategies they have used and how these have affected what they have learned.”

Motivation and reflection then, might be considered important aspects of the concept of ‘engagement’.

Professor Andrew Martin’s work on the Motivation and Engagement Wheel is another helpful way to understand student engagement, and one that we make use of at Trinity Grammar School. All our boys complete the Motivation and Engagement Scale regularly across their time in the Primary, Middle and Senior Schools. This framework identifies factors such as self-belief, learning focus, planning, task management and persistence as positive attributes for engagement: when we can foster these dispositions within students we are again setting them up to be successful learners in moments and periods of challenge.

Yet another framework developed by researchers such as Professor Ruth Deakin Crick at the University of Technology, Sydney identifies the following qualities as central to engagement: curiosity, creativity, belonging, collaboration, mindful agency and openness to change. Of these, mindful agency, or the capacity to deliberately reflect, set goals and strategise critically, is understood as key. This framework is named ‘CLARA’ standing for Crick Learning as Resilient Agency. Here is another important clue to what we mean by engagement: it must be a capacity that students are empowered to develop themselves. Professor Deakin Crick argues that engagement cannot be imposed upon learners; rather, it is best understood as a kind of energy that a student chooses to mobilise, and can successfully mobilise, because they understand the strategies they have developed for themselves and can use them in a diverse range of learning situations.

Engagement for learning, then, is more complex than completing set work or studying hard or even the notion of ‘effort’, although undoubtedly these factors are significant pointers towards what we mean by engagement. It is also quite different to any kind of short lived interest students might display in a novel idea or piece of technology. Importantly, engagement is also much less about teachers and much more about learners themselves. Teachers’ responsibilities are about making explicit the kind of dispositions and skills required by different learning demands, as well as the provision of opportunities to learn about oneself as a person who makes choices to deliberately mobilise the capacities they possess.

One of the important questions being addressed by Trinity is how we can provide feedback on the progress students are making in their ability to engage with their learning. How can we make transparent to boys what it means to be an engaged learner at Trinity? How might we make visible and celebrate their progress in developing these dispositions and skills? How might we include our students’ own reflections on their engagement and listen to the goals they are setting for themselves? How can we acknowledge boys who deliberately approach their learning in ways that demonstrate this kind of engagement?

Deep engagement in learning is a function of a complex combination of learners’ identities, dispositions, values, attitudes and skills. When these are fragile, learners struggle to achieve their potential in the classroom and in assessment, and critically, are not prepared for the novelty and complexity of the challenges they will meet beyond school. Conversely, when learners are expected and supported to be focussed, responsible, reflective, set goals, take responsibility and deliberately mobilise the skills required to master often difficult learning situations, they are fully ‘engaged’.


 For over a hundred years Trinity has educated boys in mind, body and spirit, and we are constantly evolving our teaching methods to ensure our boys receive the best education possible. Fuelled by a pastorally aware culture with exceptionally high levels of individual student attention, we aim to know, understand and nurture every student to help them realise their potential, passions and purpose in life. 

To learn more about the Trinity difference and to discover why we’re one of the best independent schools in Sydney, download our prospectus.

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Topics: Raising boys, Academic excellence, Improve learning, Mental health