Are your students actually learning? How to effectively measure student engagement

Black-and-white image of student raising his hand in a classroom

Every teacher knows that just because a student is present in the classroom doesn’t mean he or she is engaged and actually learning the lesson. In fact, maintaining a high level of student engagement is one of the biggest challenges teachers face. Dr. Michael Schmoker, an education author and former teacher, studied 1,500 classrooms and found that 85% of classrooms engaged less than 50% of students.

That finding is more than a little depressing, especially because “engaged students are more likely to earn better grades and perform well on standardized tests,” according to the Institute of Education Science (IES) in a landmark report on student engagement. The IES notes that the consequences of disengagement for “middle and high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds are especially severe, because these students are less likely to graduate and will face more limited employment prospects, increasing their risk of poverty, poor health, and involvement in the criminal justice system.”

How can teachers improve student engagement? It starts by developing methods to measure engagement in the classroom. By accurately measuring engagement, teachers can identify disengaged students who are at risk of falling behind or even dropping out of school. This gives teachers the ability to develop interventions for at-risk students as well as to continually iterate their own teaching methods to boost overall student engagement.

What is student engagement?

Before you can begin measuring student engagement, it helps to understand what engagement actually looks like in the classroom. One easy way to define engagement is based on observation. Are students paying attention? Are they asking questions and participating in discussions?

Some educational researchers believe that engagement must also incorporate a student’s emotional engagement in the classroom. These researchers suggest considering questions, such as whether students feel like they belong and whether they enjoy the learning process. Finally, more recent research has focused on defining cognitive engagement. The IES defines cognitive engagement as “students’ investment in learning, perseverance in the face of challenges, and use of deep rather than superficial strategies.”

How can you determine the observational, emotional, and cognitive engagement of your students? Here are a few methods.

1. Monitor participation

The easiest way to assess the engagement of your students is to simply observe how they participate in the classroom. Ways to elicit participation are to:

  • Ask questions
  • Lead classroom discussions
  • Ask for volunteers to present their projects

Keep reading: Need help engaging remote students? Learn how to improve student engagement through remote learning.

2. Monitor participation in small groups

Not every student feels comfortable participating in big group discussions or sharing their work in front of the classroom. This is especially true for your more introverted students. To better assess engagement, divide your students into pairs or small workgroups. Many of your introverted students will blossom in this type of setting, and you’ll also have the freedom to observe who seems to be really grabbing hold of the material and who is uninterested.

Keep reading: 7 effective classroom management strategies for teens

3. Gamify participation

It can be difficult for teachers to accurately assess student engagement in the midst of teaching a lesson Teachers may have a general idea of which students participate the most, but it can be easy to miss the disengaged students who keep quiet in the back of the classroom. Creating a system that awards points for participation will make it easy for teachers to measure participation, which can be used to assess engagement. Teachers can give out points for a variety of participation actions that will allow extroverted and introverted students to thrive. For example, points can be awarded for:

  • Answering questions
  • Writing short essays
  • Completing extra assignments
  • Finding real-world examples of a concept.

Keep reading: Check out 10 ways to gamify education

4. Pop quiz!

Most students hate pop quizzes, but they can be one of the best tools for teachers to figure out who is absorbing the material and who needs more assistance. There really is nothing like a pop quiz to force students to show you what they’ve learned. Students with low scores are likely to be struggling with engaging in the classroom. These students are prime targets for re-engagement strategies.

5. Ask your students

As obvious as it seems, one of the best ways to figure out if your students are really connecting to your material is to simply ask them. Many students will be surprisingly forthright if you give them a short engagement survey, especially if you explain that the survey is meant to help you improve your teaching methods and lesson plans.

A short survey also allows you to dig into the emotional and cognitive engagement of your students. Not only do you want to find out if your teaching material is interesting, but you can also ask students if they feel comfortable in your classroom and if they feel motivated to learn.

To get the most honest feedback, consider creating an anonymous activity or survey. 

Keep reading: How to use Poll Everywhere in your classroom

Help students engage

Engagement is a huge factor in a student’s academic achievement, and academic achievement is highly correlated to lifelong success. That means one of a teacher’s most important responsibilities is to keep students engaged both with the specific material in the classroom and with the entire process of learning. The key to improving student engagement in your classroom starts with measuring your engagement and identifying disengaged students.

Poll Everywhere can help you get the feedback you need to accurately assess student engagement on an individual and classroom level. Customize surveys and activities to fit your classroom’s unique needs and receive honest feedback through anonymous surveys.