Student Engagement: Teacher and Student Initiated

I spent a day this week observing elementary classrooms with a lens provided by the principal who asked that I examine student engagement which has been a focus of his observations.

Early in the day I realized I could sort two types of student engagement initiation; teacher and student.

I labeled teacher initiated as those cases where the teacher greatly helped focus the student engagement. In some cases it was the dynamic, center stage teacher whose story telling or humor drew the students into the activity. Some teachers used relationships and group dynamic to gain student attention, orchestrating a desire to be “part of” what was happening. Other teachers moved quickly throughout the classroom continually being close to each learner to focus attention…in several cases pointing on the page where the student’s eyes should be looking.

I labeled student initiative when students had to self direct their attention. Independent reading, centers, cooperative group work and writing or computer activities fell into this category.

Dr Adela Solis defines procedural and substantial engagement in an article in the Intercultural Research and Development Association’s Newsletter.

One definition of student engagement distinguishes between procedural engagement and substantial engagement (McLaughlin, et al., 2005). A procedurally engaged student is one who follows traditional rules of behavior. He or she is quiet, looking at the teacher, has the book turned to the correct page and may even help the teacher collect the homework. A substantially engaged student is one who not only attends to the built-in procedures of instruction but also interacts with the content of the lesson in a deep and thoughtful manner.

The ways in which these two types of students are involved look different and lead to different academic results. Research points out, not surprisingly, that it is through substantial engagement that students are able to “get it” and “make the mark” on the test.

After my day of observations I met with grade level teams, who identify the “learning to learn” behaviors that were critical to get student initiated engagement and what I’d also now label as substantial engagement. Here is a list created by a third grade team:

Reading Stamina
Reading Enjoyment
Self Questioning
Questioning Others
Peer Tutoring
Reference Skills/Finding Information
Working Cooperatively
Making Real World Connections
Goal Setting
Self Motivation
Self Monitoring

Each team also identified the skills where they felt comfortable with the students’ progress and which skills needed the most focused teacher attention during the last two months of the year to best prepare the students for the next grade level expectations. Working in vertical teams teachers will share the list and request input. I’m returning in a week to assist in designing year end strategies focused on the needed, identified student “learning to learn” behaviors.

Let me know if your teams conduct a similar process.

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3 Responses to “ Student Engagement: Teacher and Student Initiated ”

  1. Jim Says:

    Hey Steve, any thoughts on how to gather data on whether students are procedurally, substantially, or not engaged. I can do engaged or not engaged, but this finer distinction seems worth reporting too.

  2. Stephen G. Barkley Says:


    I think it would be worth getting a teacher in a pre conference to define the difference in the two with his/her students in the particular learning activity.. Example, in a jigsaw activity, what are substantially engaged students exhibiting.
    Let the teacher create the look for…
    This would be great to discuss with teacher viewing video clips.

  3. Ken Timpe Says:

    Steve, I’m interested in engagement too. It took a bit longer than a day, but I’ve identified 16 layers of engagement. I call them Active Engagement leadership groups! They come from the Private Sector, Public Sector, as well as the Educational Sector, and form The Active Engagement Leadership Framework.

    To me, people are either actively engaged, merely engaged, or not engaged. I’m the Founder of The Active Engagement Movement–A Comprehensive School Reform Initiative. It’s not so much about studying student engagement, but about actually creating an actively engaged environment where everyone (and I mean everyone) is expected to perform a their full potential.

    Check out my blog, or visit the website construction).

    Let’s keep in touch.

    Ken Timpe

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