Student engagement


This excellent research paper (10 pages) from Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership is very relevant to New Zealand schools. 

It takes a broad view of engagement, covering relationships, individual connections, behaviour, attendance, participation and classroom work. It could be used as a key reading for professional learning groups and senior leadership teams.

The paper examines the complexity of engagement and proposes three ways of distinguishing it, by separating out cognitive, behavioural and emotional engagement.

This is a very useful way of thinking about the issues and provides a framework for responding to students who are deemed at risk or defined as priority learners, as well as responding to those who are quiet or who just look as though they are working.

Cognitive engagement is difficult to measure but it aims to look at "something that goes on in young people’s heads". The paper describes that cognitively-engaged students concentrate, focus on achieving goals, are flexible and cope with failure.

Behavioural engagement ensures that students are physically ready and willing to learn. It is the most frequent style of reported engagement, however it tends to be used to comment on students’ negative behaviours only.

Emotional engagement refers to the relationships between student and their teachers, classmates and the school. As results from the Te Kotahitanga research show this can be particularly important for Māori students as well as students in general.

The paper says teachers might not be skilled at identifying the different kinds of engagement, but need to be because this understanding contributes to knowing which is really important to the learning outcomes of particular students.

There is a tendency for teachers to identify uncooperative and low-level disruptive disengagement, but not recognise larger groups of students who are quietly disengaged. Improvement in learning at all levels comes from identifying positive levels of engagement and then developing the teaching behaviours that develop them best.

The paper emphasises the importance of effective classroom observation. Individualised teaching is promoted as good, as are improved relationships with students and monitoring of students’ reactions. It is important that students feel free to make mistakes, join in discussions and are motivated to try again. This can lead to learning where the student can shape his or her own goals.

Reflective questions

  • Discuss as leaders what teachers are currently doing do now improve the engagement of students with their learning.
  • Discuss with your teachers the full meaning of "engagement with students". Ask what they do now to measure it, and in what ways they could extend it in their classrooms.
  • Discuss how classroom observations by and with teachers can be targeted to improve the engagement of students and their learning. Think about implementing observation in classrooms gradually, or as a trial with some teachers, or departments or areas first.
  • What parts of your school appraisal system just "fulfil administrative requirements" (p.10 of the article)? Discuss with your senior leaders how appraisal might be targeted to support student engagement.
  • What outcomes do you expect from improved student engagement? Discuss how it will improve achievement. For example, what do you expect them to gain – more discussion in the classrooms, better attendance, improved relationships, more positive results in qualifications or in recognition of your school, or …?


Engagement in Australian Schools: a background paper prepared by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. Accessed with permission from:

Further reading

Education Review Office (2013). Increasing educational achievement in secondary schools: National Report Summary, August. Wellington.

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