Closing the Engagement Gap

As the students enter their classroom, they are alive with conversation and exuberant behavior. Most of the students are carrying their supplies, but a few are empty-handed. Several students are checking their cell phones, while two others have in ear buds listening to music. One boy is playing a hand-held video game while another stares out the window with a sullen look on his face. One girl looks like she’s been crying while three other students are talking about a hallway altercation between several boys that had happened earlier in the day. Three non-English speaking students who are new to the class look a bit trepidatious and nervous. Some students are in their seats, some are still standing, and at the sound of the bell, four students quickly enter the classroom.

This scenario is a typical class on a typical day in a typical school. As the teacher looks around her room, she knows she is charged with teaching each and every one of these young people. She is well aware of the difficult task of closing the achievement gap. She also knows that this goal cannot be achieved until she addresses the engagement gap. As a result, her mission, should she accept it (and she does!), is to capture the attention and maintain the involvement of all her students in their learning endeavors; then, and only then, can the achievement gap be reduced.

As today’s practitioners fully understand, teaching is a complicated, multi-faceted, and potentially exciting endeavor. When ideas click and plans come together, it is a memorable experience for students and teacher alike. As they make their unit and daily lesson plans, teachers know that they need to keep these key questions at the forefront of their thinking:

  • What are the ways in which I can create a safe, non-threatening yet challenging environment that respects and responds to learner needs?
  • How can I enable my students to engage in relevant and rigorous applications of learning?
  • How does active learning and engagement promote the development and use of 21st century skills?

The purpose of this newsletter is to investigate the concept of engagement from different perspectives with the outcome being that teachers can add new ways of thinking to the development of their plans and the execution of their lessons.

Student Engagement is More Than Having Fun
When students are engaged, they are usually responsive as indicated by their excited voices and animated expressions. Students often have fun and truly enjoy themselves as the lesson progresses. In her EduBits blog, researcher and educator Kristin Phillips provides insights that can help teachers move beyond fun to creating situations where high student engagement occurs. In order to surpass the “just fun” factor, she suggests the following practices to keep the flow of the class moving in the right direction:

  • Avoid potential confusion and down time by ensuring that students have sufficient background knowledge in order to complete the task at hand.
  • Create “conditions of wonder” as students work by encouraging curiosity and/or student questions that may temporarily deviate from the lesson content.
  • Devise group interactions where students refine their own thinking by engaging in a free exchange of ideas, especially ones that may not have one clear answer.
  • Present information in story form that helps students create mental images, and thus, a deeper connection to content.
  • Plan experiences that transcend busy work or “cool” activities to lessons in which students know they are engaging in important topics and developing their skills. 

Student Engagement is Multidimensional
The Glossary of Education Reform, created by the Great Schools Partnership, defines engagement as “the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education.” Additionally, “learning improves when students are inquisitive, interested, or inspired and learning tends to suffer when students are bored, dispassionate, disaffected, or otherwise disengaged.” Further, the partnership elaborates on the varying “complex forms” that engagement can take by describing the five different types of engagement teachers can consider along with strategies to address each type:

  • Intellectual engagement: Teachers can give students a choice of the topic they wish to investigate, a problem or question they can explore, or the different ways they can demonstrate what they have learned.
  • Emotional engagement: Teachers can employ a wide variety of strategies that elicit positive student emotions, promote a secure learning environment, minimize negative behaviors and eventually lead to academic success.
  • Behavioral engagement: Teachers can establish routines or use cues to help students stay on task; they can also break up potential monotony by having students work in groups or move about the classroom to complete tasks.
  • Social engagement: Teachers can place students in pairs or small groups where they discuss societal issues, present their work to their peers, or engage in friendly competition.
  • Cultural engagement: Teachers can proactively make students from different cultures feel welcomed, valued and safe; as well they can plan learning experiences that “reduce feelings of confusion, alienation, disconnection, or exclusion.”

Student Engagement and Student Entertainment Are Not Synonymous
Although we want to stimulate student immersion, fascination, and even enthrallment in our lessons, a YouTube clip I recently viewed contrasted the difference between entertainment and engagement. It is an important distinction to make especially when we consider the outcomes we want to achieve for our engagement. The contrast is illustrated below:

EntertainmentEngagement
PassiveActive
For enjoymentFor learning
Short-livedLong-term results
Doesn’t require relevanceMeaningful and applicable
Escape from problemsSolving problems
Using the creativity of othersUsing the creativity of the learner


Student Engagement Involves Activity and Ownership
Mike Schmoker, in his book Results Nowmakes a strong case for the importance of active learning. He states, “If true learning is to occur, then students have to be at the very least participants in the process, and not merely products.” He distinguishes between teacher-directed learning and student-directed learning both of which may occur in a typical lesson. In his many classroom observations, Schmoker notes that although teachers may be working very hard to maintain student attention and engagement, “if a teacher wants to increase student engagement, then the teacher needs to:

  • Ask students to do something with the knowledge and skills they have learned.
  • Break up the lecture with learning activities.
  • Let them practice.
  • Get them moving.
  • Get them talking.
  • Make it so engaging that it will be difficult for students not to participate.”

Schmoker realizes that establishing such learning environments is a bit “risky,” but he encourages us to “keep trying, improving, and enhancing until we get it right.”

 

Student Engagement Requires Careful Planning
The teacher described in the opening paragraph fully understands that learning will not occur unless students are invested. They may cooperate for the moment so they can “pass the test” but learning will not last if students are not truly engaged. As the teacher made her plans, she might ask herself are:

  • Surprise them with an introductory attention-getter
  • Use props such as costumes, unusual materials, or creative use of technology
  • Pose an intriguing question to get students thinking
  • Connect the content to the world beyond the classroom
  • Involve students in group work where they will discuss, reach conclusions, answer, or create products
  • Have students move around the classroom in a purposeful, content-related activity
  • Monitor the work of student groups by asking them thought-provoking questions and providing feedback on their work to date
  • Ask students to read and react to a relevant and timely article
  • At the end of class, direct students to complete a brief writing assignment summarizing what they had learned during the class
  • Have students form an opinion based on data and present their findings to their group

As student engagement thrives and student learning improves, teachers will realize the satisfaction that their hard work and deliberate planning can deliver. How exciting, and even enthralling, that sense of accomplishment can be. Not only will the classroom be a place full of excitement and enthusiasm, but the teacher will be able to point to concrete evidence of student learning and achievement.

Resources and References

Delafosse, Sonja. “Teaching in the 21st Century.” Posted 2012. Access at www.youtube.com/watch?v=075aWDdZUlM.

Great Schools Partnership. “Student Engagement.” The Glossary of Education Reform. Posted April 28, 2014. Access at edglossary.org/student-engagement/

Johnson, Ben. “How Do We Know When Students Are Engaged?” Edutopia. Posted November 2013. Access at www.edutopia.org/blog/student-engagement-definition-ben-johnson

Phillips, Kristin. “Student Engagement is More Than Having Fun.” Posted October 24, 2014. Access at educationbits.wordpress.com/2014/10/24/student-engagement-is-more-than-having-fun/

Powell, Marcia. “Five Ways to Make Your Classroom Student-Centered.” Ed Week Teacher. December 2013. Access at www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2013/12/24/ctq_powell_strengths.html

Rutherford, Paula. Active Learning and Engagement Strategies. Alexandria, VA: Just ASK Publications, 2012. Access information about this book at www.justaskpublications.com/products/books/active-learning/

_____________. Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners. Alexandria, VA: Just ASK Publications, 2010. Access information about this book at www.justaskpublications.com/products/books/meeting-the-needs-of-diverse-learners/

Schmoker, Mike. Results Now. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2006.

“Student Engagement: Resource Roundup.” Edutopia. Posted December 9, 2014. Access at www.edutopia.org/student-engagement-resources.

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this blog post for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “Closing the Engagement Gap.” gotLearning. Reproduced with permission of Growth Over Time Learning (gotLearning). © 2022 gotlearning. All rights reserved. Available at www.gotlearning.com

Growth-Producing Feedback

“Bruce Oliver, a gotLearning 
Contributor lives in Burke,
Virginia USA. He uses the 
knowledge, skills, and 
experience he acquired as a 
teacher, professional 
developer, mentor, and 
middle school principal 
as he works with school 
districts across the USA.” 

NOTE: At the end of this post you will find a Growth-Producing Feedback Discussion Tool, which lists examples of teacher comments about student work. Use this tool to promote in-depth staff discussion about how to increase the effectiveness of their feedback.

Feedback is another topic that is a repeated focus in the literature. It is an incredibly powerful tool that teachers have at their disposal; it can make a huge difference in student achievement. Grant Wiggins writes that when feedback is given to students properly, most students can achieve at the same level as the top 20% of students. He also asserts that feedback has a positive relationship with the rate that students are engaged. Put quite simply, students who are given specific information about the accuracy and quality of their work will spend more time working on their academic assignments. However, many teachers do not follow the suggestions set forth in research on the topic of feedback. So often, teachers simply follow practices which they inherit or which they have fallen into the habit of using. It is important for school leaders to provide their teaching staffs with the most up-to-date research. If we want students to improve their achievement, it is important for teachers to follow specific practices. Many books and articles have been published that provide educators with the best ideas to increase student achievement. The ideas contained in these publications are wide and varied. Some of the most popular topics include reaching the underachiever, unit and lesson design, differentiation of instruction, and assessing student learning.

The first step in improving how and when feedback is provided to students is to understand a clear definition of what good feedback is. Wiggins says that feedback is not about praise or blame, approval or disapproval. Good feedback describes what a student did or did not do for the purpose of changing or maintaining a behavior or performance. Robert Marzano and associates concur that effective feedback should provide students with an explanation of what they are doing correctly and what steps they must take to continue to make progress.

Typical feedback often includes such comments as “Nice work,” “Unclear,” “You need to improve your study habits,” “C+” or “75%.” These types of statements or grades show either an approval or disapproval of what a student has done, and it is evaluative in nature. Research has shown that this type of feedback to students has very little effect on student learning and can have a negative impact on student motivation to learn. Put simply, students tend to ignore comments when they are accompanied by grades or numerical scores. However, students pay much closer attention to written comments when they are not accompanied by a grade. Stephen Chappuis and Richard Stiggins found that “replacing judgmental feedback with specific, descriptive and immediate feedback benefits students.” Productive feedback tells students what they are doing right, pinpointing strengths, and helping learners develop those strengths even further.

The purpose of feedback is to enhance student achievement by emphasizing progress rather than deficiencies. In order for feedback to be meaningful, it is important for teachers to provide it in a timely manner. The sooner students receive feedback on their work, the greater the likelihood that they will learn and grow from the feedback that is provided. Teachers can give feedback through one-on-one conversations, or by circulating around the classroom and commenting on the student work that they see. Marzano has written that “the best feedback involves an explanation as to what is accurate and what is inaccurate in terms of student responses.” In addition, asking students to keep working on a task until they succeed will enhance achievement.

It is also important for feedback to be specific toward a standard or a benchmark. A student must know how closely he or she is coming to mastering the required learning. The teacher should let a student know the specific skill level or knowledge that a student has displayed, and what needs to happen to keep the student moving along the continuum to mastery. In order for feedback to be effective, the teacher should give guidance on how a student can make improvement.

Giving students effective feedback without letting them respond to the feedback by improving their work is an exercise in futility for both the student and the teacher. Students must have the opportunity to listen to what their teacher has said, to make adjustments in their work and to resubmit their assignments for further comments. It can be a matter of personal fulfillment for everyone involved in the learning process when a teacher can see the results of his or her efforts to improve learning.

When teachers provide feedback in a specific and proper manner, there is an added benefit to student learning. When students are given information about their progress, they begin to develop the skill of self-assessment. They can actually articulate what they have learned and what they still need to work on. Ultimately we do not want students to be completely dependent upon their teachers to let them know if they are learning. Self-assessment is a great life skill we can teach our students. The result can be that our students will have greater aspirations to succeed in the future, enjoy greater satisfaction from their learning, and set future performance goals.

Please download the Growth-Producing Feedback Discussion Tool to use with your faculty.

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this blog post for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “Growth-Producing Feedback.” gotLearning. Reproduced with permission of Growth Over Time Learning (gotLearning). © 2022 gotlearning. All rights reserved. Available at www.gotlearning.com

2,295 Sources of Qualitative Learning Data

I was astonished. 2,295 was the total. It was 2016 and I had just calculated the total number of qualitative learning data that I had to manage as a classroom teacher. I consider myself fairly technical and organized but it took me so long to find things which I now realized was because I was drowning in data. 

Now, to be clear, the data that I am talking about was not my students test scores or grades. My school’s student information system took care of that data. The data I am talking about is the important, daily learning generated by my students and included the following:

Handwritten rough drafts Notes from informal conversations with students Teacher and Peer Feedback
Student self reflections Informal checks for understaning Google Docs/Microsoft Word files
FlipGrid videos Student created podcasts Presentations (videos also the slide decks) including Pear Deck
Parlay discussions/Jamboard Jams Emails Summarizers used at the nef of class about the day's learning
Test Quizzes Homework
Goal setting documents Assessment tools like continuums and roadmaps

The above shows 17 sources of data regularly generated from/for each of my students. I had 135 students. Multiply those two and the total is 2,295 sources. My experience is the daily experience of the classroom teacher; trying to manage all the disparate sources of data that are generated by students throughout the day, week or month. Teachers understand how important these qualitative data sources are as they show the complexity of learning for each of our students and show their growth over time which for some was well beyond the grade level expectations and for others was below.

This rich learning data was individual to each student, helped me understand where students were in the moment, where I needed to take them and it told the story of my students’ learning. As important as that data is for teachers, how are we supposed to capture and manage all it especially when our current systems aren’t designed for this?

I was so troubled by this conundrum but my students just kept generating. They generated work through email, Google Docs/Slides/Sheets and the entire Microsoft Office Suite. They used NoRedInk, Khan Academy, TedTalks, Newsela, Kahoot, YouTube videos and my school’s Learning Management System (LMS).  The students were creating learning evidence on their phones, their laptops, on paper, with art, on the whiteboard, on post it notes, conversing with one another, conversing with me, self reflecting and the list goes on and on. It was wonderful because it showed the students learning in real time but it was overwhelming to manage.

I could not possibly capture and manage all of that learning data, but I thought…what if I had a platform that could capture a lot of it and, most importantly, it was a platform that the students and teachers co-created to communicate about their learning. Instead of using teacher-led platforms like the LMS, what if I could partner with the students to capture this rich learning data, put it in a longitudinal timeline, showing the students different iterations of their learning and growth and make it easily searchable like Google? What if I created a platform where students were at the center and helped manage their learning and growth?

So I set out a pretty wide search. The LMS was completely teacher-led and focused on the entire class – not individual students. However, the LMS does a great job of providing content and organizing assignments. I was looking for something that helped after the the initial learning activity occurred.  I couldn’t find anything designed with the students at the center and as co-creators. So, to make a long story short. I built one using business tools while teaching 6th grade English Language Arts and Social Studies. I refined it over a few years. I eventually left the classroom, ditched the business tools and built gotLearning version 2 from scratch – both a web version and mobile apps. With students as partners in capturing and communicating about their learning I now can manage all 2,295 sources of qualitative data to more robustly tell the story of their learning – and so can you. 

 

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