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Deeper Thinking about Engagement

Student engagement—Could it be the most common phrase in the teaching-learning domains of higher education? It’s has to be in the running—essential for learning, with unquestioned importance and dutifully intoned by everyone. I was intrigued by a recent account (Spiker, 2020) of a teacher’s exploration of engagement motivated by dissatisfaction with her understanding of it. I wonder whether the way most of us think about engagement isn’t somewhat muddled. It’s one of those overused terms whose meaning we take for granted. We think we know what it means but then struggle to define it.

For Those Who Teach from Maryellen Weimer

Author Spiker discovered all sort of definitions for engagement. Google with its usual excess provides 197,000 options. Some define the word with the word—for instance, “the degree to which a learner is engaged in activities.” Others focus on observable features, such as “time on task and willingness to participate.” The well-known National Survey of Student Engagement uses behaviors like learning with peers and experiences with faculty to measure engagement. But engagement is also internally motivated. From the perspective of psychology, engagement requires an investment and grows out of a sense of belonging. Or is engagement more straightforward, simply the level of interest a student feels for a subject? Spiker found these definitions helpful but not definitive.

She started looking for and writing about engagement where most of us hope to see it: in the classroom. Excerpts from her journal included in the article contain intriguing insights. She noted that engagement was easier to identify, feel, and describe when it was missing in the classroom—students on their devices; not looking at the teacher, their notes, or the text; slouching, doodling, and looking bored. When present, she found herself describing engagement as a feeling, a sense of energy and willingness to participate.

She tried writing definitions of engagement but struggled, her thoughts still “jumbled.” She asked students for their definitions. Comparing her definitions and theirs revealed three common themes. First, engagement is a feeling, a tone that connects with positive emotions when it’s present. Whether absent or present, engagement is something that’s experienced. Also present in the definitions were the physical manifestations of engagement, recognizable but still highly individualistic. Not all engaged students “look” the same way. And finally, there was the question of who’s responsible for engagement.

Spiker’s early interest in engagement was sparked a “trickle-down” theory that if the teacher is engaged, interested, and energized by what she teaches, drips and dribbles of her enthusiasm feed student interest and engagement. That metaphor makes teachers responsible for student engagement, at least initially. In response, Spiker tried in a more planned and consistent way to showcase engagement for students, and she felt more engaged. But still some students failed to connect, and that frustrated Spiker, making her wonder what more she could do and whether student engagement was entirely a teacher responsibility. Interestingly, that became a point of divergence between her growing understanding of engagement and that of her students. Students’ definitions cast engagement as a teacher responsibility. “The teacher is the center of the classroom and has to direct students in engaging activities,” one wrote.

The crux of the issue lies in the fact that despite the visible signs of engagement, key components reside in the student, which is why teacher enthusiasm runs off some students like water off duck backs. Something is going on inside, something the teacher cannot see and most certainly something over which the teacher has little power. Teacher engagement sets the tone for student engagement, no question, but at some point the responsibility passes from teacher to student.

In addition to being a shared responsibility, Spiker came to believe that engagement is more than enthusiasm and bigger than mere interest in what’s being taught or learned. When someone tells you they have an engagement, it’s more than a meeting; engagement implies commitment, the responsibility to do something more than just show up. When a couple announces their engagement, they are anticipating a lifetime of daily dealings with each other.

This is an interesting piece of autoethnographic scholarship, definitely worth taking a look at. Even though Spiker concludes, “I have learned that engagement is messy and extremely difficult to define,” her search for a definition meaningful to her instructional practice illustrates how purposeful reflection can enrich and enlarge one’s understanding of something seemingly easy to understand.


Spiker, A. (2020). Student engagement; Who is in charge? College Teaching. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2020.1846486 [1]