Encouraging student engagement

iStock_000006625549XSmallTo learn and achieve, educators know that a child must be fully engaged (motivated and persistent) in academic tasks. But how completely a child is engaged is determined by the degree to which that child believes in his/her capability to succeed in school.

Since engagement is so vital to success, researchers are involved in ascertaining just what it is that influences a child’s belief in his/her capabilities. Ellen A. Skinner, James G. Wellborn, and James P. Connell report in the Journal of Educational Psychology that teachers can be influential in developing engagement in students through contingency and involvement.

Contingency and involvement

As defined by researchers, contingency means providing the structure in which children learn “what it takes” to do well in school, as well as clear expectations plus regular feedback regarding behavior and performance in school activities. Involvement refers to the degree of interest students believe a teacher takes in them, specifically interest in knowing more about them and in taking their opinions into consideration.

Both these teacher behaviors, Skinner et al. believe, are vital not only in helping students establish a belief in their control over achievement, but also in the development of positive expectations.

Based on previous research, Skinner et al. report that the way a teacher interacts with students influences the development of the following related but distinct beliefs so important to student achievement:

1. “I know what it takes to do well” (strategy)

2. “I have what it takes to do well” (capacity)

3. “I am able to do what it takes to do well” (control)

Skinner et al. suggest that students’ ideas about strategy, capacity and control appear to be interrelated in a complex way.

To determine which beliefs are formed by students, how teacher contingency and involvement affect these beliefs, and how these beliefs affect academic performance, Skinner et al. studied 220 students, aged 8 to 12 years old, in grades 3 through 6, in a suburban/rural area near Rochester, NY.

Separate student and teacher questionnaires provided data for this study. Students were asked what they believe determines success in school and about the degree of contingency and involvement their teachers exhibit in the classroom. Teachers were asked to rate the degree of engagement students demonstrated on academic tasks.

(It is important to note that while no data was collected by objective, outside observers in this study, Skinner et al. recommend that in further studies, observation of student and teacher behavior be carried out by outside observers as well.)

Teacher modeling

Results clearly indicated a direct correlation between student perceptions of teacher involvement and contingency behavior and the amount of control students believe they have over their achievement. In turn, beliefs about control were related to the degree of engagement teachers reported that students demonstrate. Those students who rate their teachers low in contingency and involvement reported feeling less capable of executing effective strategies for achieving success. These same children were rated low in engagement by their teachers.

Results of the questionnaires also reveal that elementary children believe effort to be the most effective strategy for unfluencing school achievement, while ability is thought to be the second most important factor. Findings indicate that students who believe that ability is the most important factor for success in school are less likely to be as engaged in their work because they apparently think that ability is something over which they have no control.

However, even a student’s belief that effort is the most effective strategy for achieving success is not sufficient, in itself, to motivate a child. Children must also believe that they are capable of producing that effort.

Finally, if children believe that their achievement is controlled by other people, by luck or by unknown factors, they are unlikely to be highly motivated or persistent.

Two tentative conclusions can be drawn from this study. First, this study convincingly demonstrates that children’s engagement in school activities is a function of more than one variable. Second, elementary students exhibit a relatively open system of beliefs which appear to be significantly influenced by the degree of contingency and involvement their teachers exhibit. During these early years in school, children seem to form strategies that lead toward success by establishing a sense of their own capabilities of carrying out these strategies based on the feedback they receive in school.

Skinner, Wellborn and Connell warn that even children who hold beliefs which lead to engagement may not fully engage in school if they feel over-controlled by others or alienated from their teachers. And, by the same token, children who begin school feeling they have little control over their achievement can learn that school is important, can become close to their teachers and, with time and encouragement, can develop the persistence and motivation to do well. Skinner et al. believe that the more capable students feel of controlling their achievement and the closer they feel to their teachers, the more fully engaged they will be.

“What It Takes To Do Well in School and Whether I’ve Got It: A Process Model of Perceived Control and Children’s Engagement and Achievement In School” Journal of Educational Psychology Volume 82, No. 1, 1990, p. 22-32.

Published in ERN September/October 1990 Volume 3 Number 4

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