December 16, 2019

Can We Measure Student Engagement? Yes, and We Should!

By Kara Cisco

Like many fourth-grade parents across Minnesota, I received my daughter’s third-grade MCA scores last month. And frankly, it’s easy as a parent to get caught up in the hype of high-stakes testing. Extensive research indicates that third-grade reading performance predicts a range of outcomes, from high-school graduation to incarceration. And in a state that persists in maintaining one of the largest opportunity gaps in the country, while standardized tests like the MCA are far from perfect, they are a necessary component of the assessment data mix. 

Getting these scores also triggered me to ask: what else should educators and parents be looking toward for a full picture of school performance? As a teacher, I know that there are many sources of data to assess both student performance and engagement—and the latter too often gets overlooked. 

Test scores, attendance records, and behavior referrals can give us one piece of the puzzle, and engagement data completes the picture by helping us quantify a student’s commitment and excitement for learning. It’s undervalued systemically and offers valuable insights into student engagement and efficacy.

Leveraging Engagement Data

Engagement data acknowledges that student engagement wanes and waxes throughout the day based on a variety of factors, some of which are out of our control as educators. Phil Schlechty, an expert in student engagement, identifies five levels of student engagement—rebellion, retreatism, ritual compliance, strategic compliance, and active engagement—asking the key question: How often are children ever in the highest level of deeply intrinsic engagement? This is something that academic data simply cannot measure accurately, but there are four easy ways for educators to start to answer that question and collect engagement data.

Four Easy Ways for Educators to Start Collecting Engagement Data 

1. Student Perception Surveys

Student surveys are what most of us think of when we consider measuring student engagement. As a practice, student surveys are a typical component of most district’s teacher-evaluation system. However, they are often administered only once and do not track changes over time. 

Student surveys can be leveraged more meaningfully. When administered quarterly, after each unit, or even weekly, student surveys can track subtle changes in engagement related to specific classroom activities. Many different types of student engagement surveys are available online, but I would encourage you and your team to create your own using Google Forms or Survey Monkey, based on the specific needs of your individual student population. Re-administer the same survey multiple times to assess the effectiveness of classroom practices and interventions. 

2. Engagement Observation Data 

There are a variety of ways to collect student-engagement observation data; this tool from the University of Pittsburgh is very user-friendly. In this data protocol, teachers develop a code for a variety of observable characteristics that indicate engagement (eyes on the speaker, on-topic discussion with a peer, etc.) and an additional set of codes for disengagement (phone out, head down, side talking, etc.). A teacher then enlists a peer or observer to track the engagement of a specific set of students every five minutes or so during a particular class period. 

Like student surveys, engagement observation data is most powerful when conducted over a period of time to track changes in engagement. For example, last year, my professional learning community collected observation data as described above, implemented an intervention (we used 2x10s, a relationship-building strategy) and recollected data in order to demonstrate increased engagement based on our intervention. 

3. Student Focus Groups

Student focus groups are an opportunity for teachers to collect quantitative and qualitative data about how differing pedagogical practices are impacting student engagement. Focus groups can happen once or on a regular basis with either a consistent or revolving group of students. Author Christopher Emdin calls these cogenerative groups, or “cogens,” and recommends meeting with a group of about four diverse students weekly. Phil Schlechty recommends this list of questions for student focus groups. 

4. Parent Climate Surveys 

Parent and family engagement is predictive of student success. And it’s often is indicative of a school’s ability to reach out to parents in a consistent, welcoming, and culturally-responsive manner. While it is not uncommon for schools and districts to administer climate surveys to families once a year, a better practice is to administer them on a more regular basis and use results to restructure current practices related to parent engagement. 

Numerous climate surveys are available online, including these from the National School Climate Center and the Georgia Department of Education. While these are district examples, teachers can individually administer a similar survey—and there are hundreds available online. The important thing is to use the results of the survey to inform practices and re-administer the survey to assess growth. 

These four methods for collecting engagement data stand on their own as transformative strategies for individual teachers and buildings. But combined, I believe that we can leverage their collective data and impact to adopt engagement as a component of our statewide data mix—considering it alongside academic and non-academic data to provide a fuller picture of school performance. Engagement data holds teachers like myself accountable for deeper learning with all students. 

As a parent, I would love a more formalized understanding of how often (and when) my child is engaged, when she is in ritual compliance, and when she retreats to her daydreams. With this data, I could scaffold subjects that are tougher for her, adjust her meals and medications based on correlative patterns, and, most importantly, gain a better understanding of what activities and topics spark my daughter’s attention and enhance her spirit.

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