Golden Rules for Engaging Students in Learning Activities

Nicolás Pino James Teacher Researcher

When we think of student engagement in learning activities, it is often convenient to understand engagement with an activity as being formed by good behaviour (behavioural engagement), positive feelings (emotional engagement), and, above all, deep thinking (cognitive engagement) (Fredricks, 2014). This is because students may be behaviourally and/or emotionally invested in a given activity without actually exerting the necessary effort to understand and master the knowledge, craft, or skill that the activity promotes.

In light of this, research suggests that considering the following interrelated elements when designing and implementing learning activities can increase student engagement behaviourally, emotionally, and cognitively, thereby positively affecting academic achievement.

1. Make It Meaningful

In aiming for full engagement, it is essential that students perceive activities as being meaningful. Research has shown that if students do not consider a learning activity worthy of their time and effort, they might not engage in a satisfactory way, or even disengage in response (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, Paris, 2004). To ensure that activities are personally meaningful, we can, for example, connect them with students' previous knowledge and experiences, highlighting the value of an assigned activity in personally relevant ways. Also, expert modelling can help demonstrate why a certain activity is worth pursuing, and when and how it is used in real life.

2. Foster a Sense of Efficacy

The notion of self-efficacy refers to a student's ongoing personal evaluation of whether he or she can succeed in a learning activity or challenge. ("Can I do this?") Researchers have argued that effectively performing an activity can positively impact subsequent engagement (Bandura & Schunk, 1981). In order to strengthen students' sense of efficacy in learning activities, the assigned activities should:
Be only slightly beyond students' current levels of proficiency Regularly demonstrate students’ understanding throughout the activity Use peer modelling

Include feedback that helps students make progress.

3. Provide Autonomy Support
Autonomy support refers to nurturing the students' sense of control over their own behaviours and goals. When teachers promote an internal locus of control rather than compliance with directives and commands, student engagement levels increase as a result (Reeve, Jang, Carrell, Jeon, & Barch, 2004). Autonomy support can be implemented by:
Welcoming students' opinions and ideas into the flow of the activity
Using informational, non-controlling language with students
Giving students the time they need to understand and absorb an activity by themselves.

4. Embrace Collaborative Learning
Collaborative learning is another powerful facilitator of engagement in learning activities. When students work effectively with others, their engagement is consequently amplified (Wentzel, 2009), mostly due to experiencing a sense of connection to others during the activities (Deci & Ryan, 2000). To make group work more productive, strategies can be implemented to ensure that students know how to communicate and behave in that setting. Teacher modelling is one effective method, while avoiding homogeneous groups and grouping by ability, fostering individual accountability by assigning different roles, and evaluating both the student and the group performance also support collaborative learning.

5. Establish Positive Teacher-Student Relationships
High-quality teacher-student relationships are a key factor in determining student engagement (Fredricks, 2014), especially in the case of difficult students and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. When students form close and caring relationships with their teachers, they are fulfilling their developmental need for a connection to others and a sense of belonging in society (Scales, 1991). Teacher-student relationships can be facilitated by:
Caring about students' social and emotional needs Holding positive attitudes and enthusiasm Increasing one-on-one time with students:
Treating students fairly Avoiding the use of deception or promise-breaking.

6. Promote Mastery Orientations

Finally, students' perspective of learning activities also determines their engagement. When students pursue an activity because they want to learn and understand (i.e. mastery orientations), rather than simply to obtain a good grade, look smart, please parents, or outperform peers (i.e. performance orientations), their engagement is more likely to be full and thorough (Anderman & Patrick, 2012). To encourage this mastery orientation mindset, consider various approaches, such as framing success in terms of learning (e.g. criterion-referenced) rather than performing (e.g. obtaining a good grade). Also, place the emphasis on individual progress by reducing social comparison (e.g. making grades private) and recognizing student improvement and effort.

Do you normally consider any of the above facilitators of engagement when designing and implementing learning activities? If so, which ones? If not, which are new to you? How do you think they can help you increase student engagement in learning activities?

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