Student Engagement


How do we know that learning is happening?

By Jennifer Glasheen, SEEC Director of Teaching & Learning

Can we tell by looking at our kids if they are really learning or, are they, as our friend Dr. Kevin Feldman likes to say, “Taking an upright siesta?”

As principals conduct walkthroughs and observe classrooms, what do they see? Does an orderly room with all students quietly sitting and focused on the teacher signify that students are on task? Do kids out of desks, talking with each other automatically signify chaos? How do we know? And most importantly, what are we (teachers) doing as we plan our lessons to ENSURE that students are engaged in the learning and REDUCE practices that might impede learning for all?

Student engagement is a major focus within the SEEC’s work. It is incorporated as a critical component to improve learning in the SEEC’s Improving Academic Learning Project, Just in Time Mathematics PD series, and Beginning Teacher Network sessions. In addition, as schools transition to new teacher evaluation models, student engagement is identified in each of the three evaluation models (Marshall, Marzano and Danielson) as a key component of effective teaching. In this article, we’ve broken down what student engagement should look like so it’s clear for everyone.

Students can be engaged in many different ways in the classroom, but at the core, students who are engaged in learning demonstrate what we will call “Visible Participation.” We can’t really know if a student is learning unless they make their learning visible – SAYING, WRITING, or DOING something. As teachers, we need to set up learning activities to get EVERY STUDENT participating in the learning EVERY TIME.

Consider this: Have you ever led a classroom discussion and had less than 100% of the students participate? Of course, the answer is going to be YES for all of us. However, what if we tweaked the instruction and used a cooperative learning strategy like THINK-INK-LINK to engage ALL students in responding to a thought-provoking question?

It could look like this:

THINK:  Teacher poses the question and all students are asked to THINK quietly for 1 minute about their answer.

INK:         After 1 minute, they are instructed to INK (write) their thoughts down on a piece of paper for another minute.

LINK:       Finally, students LINK or pair up with another student for 1 minute to share/compare/contrast their thoughts and add anything to their own paper that may extend or enhance their original thinking (you could repeat this additional times with new partners if you wanted).

Question: Does the above activity meet the 4 key attributes of meaningful student engagement:

  1. NOT a choice. This is how we play the game. This is how we do things in this class.
  2. Observable. You can see it!
  3. Requires student Students are saying, writing, or doing.
  4. It wasn’t done by chance. Teachers “make it happen” through structure and design


The goal is to MAKE THINKING VISIBLE so that every student explains their thinking and receives feedback that “feeds-forward” from peers and the teacher, multiple times in every lesson! Is your classroom an “Everyone does Everything!” Classroom?

Motto of the highly engaged classroom:

“If it is worth doing, then I am going to ensure that ALL students are “doing the doing”….”


Want more info and resources on student engagement?

  • Read the article The Right Questions, The Right Way by Dylan Wiliam, March 2014, Educational Leadership
  • Try it out! Use the IAL Learning Walk observation tool to self-assess your own classroom.
  • Watch Think-Ink-Link YouTube video.
  • My personal favorite strategy: Whiteboards* When I taught high school chemistry students LOVED to use whiteboards to solve problems, draw models and work in pairs. Student motivation increased and I could SEE when students were engaged; if they were accurate in their understanding; and WHERE misunderstandings were occurring. Whiteboards allowed me, as the teacher, to provide feedback (through questioning and re-teaching) that would help students understand how to proceed in their learning. *For inexpensive whiteboards, go to Lowe’s or Home Depot and buy large sheets and have the industrial tech teachers’ help to cut them into manageable sizes for students. J








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