More Than Attendance and Homework: A Holistic Approach to Studying Student Engagement

by Ming-Te Wang

Associate Professor Ming-Te Wang.

Over the past 30 years, the topic of student engagement has taken a prominent place in psychology and education because of its potential for addressing problems of student boredom, low achievement, and high dropout rates. When students are engaged with learning, they are able to focus attention and energy on mastering the task, persist when difficulties arise, and feel connected to their school. 

Unfortunately, studies show that by the time they enter secondary school, as many as 40-60 percent of students show signs of school disengagement, such as acting out, not paying attention, feeling bored or overwhelmed, or an overall feeling of not caring about school. This is a concern because disengagement is often a precursor to dropping out of school. For many students, dropping out of high school is not an instantaneous event, but the last step in a long process of disengagement from education. 
Research shows that school engagement can be a protective asset that decreases the chance of negative behaviors and increases the
likelihood of successful school completion. When students have a high level of school engagement, they are more likely to be resilient in the face of challenges and setbacks and proactively seek ways to succeed. However, disengaged students tend to give up easily and fall into negative behavioral patterns when they encounter difficulties or experience failures. These patterns of disengagement may cause adolescents to engage in problem behaviors, associate with other disengaged students, devalue academic achievement, and elicit negative interpersonal interactions with teachers and parents. This interplay between engagement and problem behaviors may shape their future identity and even influence decisions to drop out of school.
Simply put, students who are engaged in school and learning have a better chance for success. Now, who wouldn’t want that for their child? 
Historically, school engagement has been viewed as attending school, doing assigned work, and performing well on tests. However, this narrow view of school engagement does not capture its complexity. Recent studies highlight a holistic approach to studying school engagement from a multidimensional perspective. 
At its core, engagement is a broad construct of various behaviors that can involve goal-driven actions, thoughts, and states of emotion and cognition. It is the effort put forth toward a task and can either take the form of observable behavior or internal states of being, and while these states are harder to pinpoint, we are heavily focusing on them right now in our studies. In other words, current research takes the idea of school engagement further and looks at the cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and social aspects that make up engagement. These four engagement components interact dynamically within individuals. The multidimensional conceptualization of engagement provides a more telling and realistic characterization of how students act, feel, and think both academically and socially in schools.
This is why we have developed the Laboratory for Developmental and Motivation Research at the School of Education. Our faculty member team incorporates their research and experience in the areas of cognitive, affective, motivational, and sociocultural factors to investigate student engagement with a multidimensional approach. 
Our longitudinal study plan is developing diagnostic instruments to assess student engagement and follow students from a range of Western Pennsylvania schools for multiple years to understand their academic trajectories. The goal is to identify different student profiles of engagement and investigate how students’ engagement develops from 5th to 12th grade, how schools and families support engagement, and the impact of school engagement on subsequent educational and career outcomes of students. 
The lab research team is now piloting the engagement surveys based on data collected last year from focus groups as well as interviews with students and teachers. At the end of this project, our hope is to better understand students’ and teachers’ characterization of engagement and how students become and remain engaged as they age. 
For additional information, please see the following:
Wang, M. T., & Degol, J. (2014). Staying engaged: Knowledge and research needs in student engagement. Child Development Perspectives, 8, 137-143.
Wang, M. T., & Fredricks, J. (2014). The reciprocal links between school engagement and youth problem behavior during adolescence. Child Development, 85, 722-737.
Wang, M. T., & Peck, S. (2013). Adolescent educational success and mental health vary across school engagement profiles. Developmental Psychology, 49, 1266-1276.
Skinner, E. A., & Pitzer, J. (2012). Developmental dynamics of engagement, coping, and everyday resilience. In S. Christenson, A. Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.), The Handbook of Research on Student Engagement (pg. 21-44). New York, NY: Springer Science.