Student Engagement
Published on Wednesday, 19 March 2014, 8:55 p.m.   Print Article

This excellent research paper (10 pages) from the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership is very relevant to New Zealand schools as it focuses on student engagement, a key issue for all leaders and teachers. It takes a broad view of engagement, covering relationships, individual connections, behaviour, attendance, participation and classroom work. This could be used as a key reading for professional learning groups and senior leadership teams.

This paper examines the complexity of engagement, and it proposes three ways of distinguishing it by separating out cognitive, behavioural and emotional engagement. This is a very useful way of thinking about the issues and provides a framework for responding to students who are deemed ‘at risk’, who have been defined as priority learners, as well as responding to those who are quiet or who “look” as though they are working.

Cognitive engagement is difficult to measure but it aims to look at ‘something that goes on in young people’s heads’. The paper describes that cognitively-engaged students concentrate, focus on achieving goals, are flexible and cope with failure.

Behavioural engagement ensures that students are physically ready and willing to learn. It is the most frequent style of reported engagement, however it tends to be used to comment on the students’ negative behaviours only.

Emotional engagement refers to the relationships between student and their teachers, classmates and the school. As results from the Te Kotahitanga research show this can be particularly important for Māori students as well as students in general.

The paper says teachers might not be skilled at identifying the different kinds of engagement, but need to be because this understanding contributes to knowing which is really important to the learning outcomes of particular students. There is a tendency for teachers to identify uncooperative and low-level disruptive disengagement, but not recognise larger groups of students who are ‘quietly’ disengaged. Improvement in learning at all levels comes from identifying positive levels of engagement and then developing the teaching behaviours that develop them best.

The paper emphasises the importance of effective classroom observation. Individualised teaching is promoted as good, as are improved relationships with students and monitoring of students’ reactions. It is important that students feel free to make mistakes, join in discussions and are motivated to try again. This can lead to learning where the student can shape his or her own goals.


Engagement in Australian Schools: a paper prepared by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. Accessed from:

Further reading

Education Review Office (2013). Increasing educational achievement in secondary schools: National Report Summary, August. Wellington.


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