Engagement is More than Participation

Earlier this spring I was able to visit with students at Quest Forward Academy Santa Rosa. In passing, I heard a student mention their “participation” in class. I was reminded of my own experiences in school, which mostly centered around doing the minimum necessary to get my full participation points and to earn the grade I was aiming for (Usually an A, sometimes a B, and when it came to calculus, a C was good enough).  I was struck by this, because as an adult, I want so much more for my own kids, and for every young person. I want them to love learning and invest in opportunities to learn, not just participate in class for the sake of making their teachers or parents happy, checking off a box on their to-do list, and getting a good grade (like I did in high school!). That’s why I, and everyone at Opportunity Education, dedicate our lives to supporting teachers with engaging students in learning.

You might be wondering what the difference is between participating and engaging. The terms are often used interchangeably and rarely consistently. Here’s how I make the distinction in the context of a class:

Students participate in class by:

  • Attending class
  • Being on-task
  • Contributing during activities
  • Listening and following rules and directions

Students engage in learning by participating during class, and also doing the following:

  • Coming to class prepared and ready to learn
  • Expressing positive feelings associated with learning – interest, enjoyment, care
  • Connecting with and working with  peers and teachers
  • Investing in their own learning, working hard and making an effort
  • Pursuing interests and seeking opportunities to learn more
  • Striving for mastery
  • Self-regulating

Researchers focus on three elements of engagement: behavioral engagement, emotional engagement, and cognitive engagement. Behavioral engagement is equivalent to participation. The other two elements emphasize students’ feelings about learning and investment in learning, which is what makes engagement different from participation.

Engagement and participation are not the same thing.

If your goal is to truly engage students in learning, then talk about engagement, not just participation.  This doesn’t have to require a big shift in what you’re already doing. Start by talking to students about your expectations for engagement. Then, stop giving them participation points, and start giving them feedback on their engagement.

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