Engaging classrooms

iStock_000021006935XSmallResearchers Sara E. Dolezal, Lindsey Mohan Welsh, Michael Pressley and Melissa M. Vincent, University of Notre Dame, report that student engagement varied dramatically across classrooms. The classes studied included students from a wide range of socioeconomic levels. Students were mostly white, class size ranged from 10 to 28, and teachers reported they knew their students’ parents well. Several observers visited each class about three times per month to record teacher and student interactions.

Every 10 to 15 minutes observers determined the percentage of students actively and appropriately engaged in academic work. Researchers observed a large variety of curriculum units and academic tasks in all subject areas. Samples of student work, teachers’ notes to parents, homework assignments, worksheets and other teacher materials were collected and studied. In-depth interviews were conducted with each teacher at the end of the year to clarify their instructional practices and to explore their beliefs about their teaching. These researchers report that they were particularly thorough in searching for examples of data
that might disconfirm their hypothesis or conclusions about each classroom. Observations were checked against teacher interviews to ensure that their understanding of the motivational practices in each classroom was consistent with the teacher’ own interpretations.

Academic engagement in each class was rated low, moderate, or high. In the three classrooms characterized by low engagement, teachers were observed to
use practices that undermined engagement in academic tasks. The four moderately engaging teachers used both motivating practices and practices that undermined engagement. In these moderately engaging classrooms, motivation varied from day to day and activity to activity. The two teachers in the highly engaging classrooms used many motivating practices and required students to complete tasks that were cognitively challenging but achievable with effort. Inferences about cognitive engagement were based on examination of students’ written work and the questions they asked and answers they gave in classroom discussions. Observers noted that when students were actively involved in their work, they eagerly asked and answered questions.

Highly engaging classrooms

The most engaging teachers stressed learning rather than performance goals and provided challenging academic tasks. They employed a repertoire of positive motivational approaches. Much of the direct teaching in these two classrooms was offered on an individual basis in response to students’ needs. Curriculum materials were extremely varied and lessons were integrated across the curriculum: reading with writing, literacy with social studies. Assignments were complex and cognitively demanding. Students had to work hard to complete them, and consulted with peers or the teacher when necessary.

Teachers monitored and supported students’ efforts, intervening if students were distracted or having significant difficulty. Rather than stressing a standard to b reached, these teachers emphasized individual improvement. Students were self-regulating; they knew the classroom routines and procedures and consistently carried them out without obvious prompting from the teacher. As students completed one activity, they moved on to another task. The teachers closely monitored students’ progress, modeled strategies, and scaffolded student learning.

Students were encouraged to take risks and challenge themselves. In these highly motivating environments, parents were also engaged in more productive assistance roles than seen in less-motivating classrooms. One of these highly engaging classrooms was the largest in the study and yet each student received the personal attention he or she needed.

Least-motivating environments

The three least-engaging classrooms had consistently low on-task behavior and less-demanding tasks. Most tasks were consistently unchallenging, easy to finish, leaving students with nothing to do. The slow pacingof instruction increased boredom and restlessness.  When assigned seatwork, the majority of students were off-task and were often chatty, restless or doing other things when the teacher was giving a lesson. Long delays between activities gave students time to misbehave.  Discipline was centered on a list of “Don’ts” and the consequences for misbehavior.

Management problems were frequent and students were often noisy, restless and disruptive. Teachers were publicly critical of students. Lessons were stopped every three or four minutes to get students to pay attention. There was little praise or effective feedback to students about their work. The classrooms displayed few signs of students’ work or achievement.

Moderately Engaging Classrooms

There was more variability in classrooms judged to be moderately engaging. There was much more on-task behavior than observed in the least-engaging classrooms. Teachers were generally happy and enthusiastic with their students and supported student success.  Learning environments were positive, warm and caring. All four teachers used a management system centered around everyday routines and procedures. Students understood what they were supposed to be doing at any given time. In general, these classrooms ran smoothly with many fewer incidents of disruption and misbehavior than seen in the least-engaging classrooms.  

However, the activities were often not cognitively demanding, with teachers relying on textbook exercises, basal readers and easy-to-complete worksheets. Although teachers attempted to make lessons interesting and varied for students, students often became off-task and the teacher had to redirect their attention and remind them of rules. In summary, many of the motivational practices found in these classrooms did engage students, and teachers had reasonably effective classroom management techniques and positive class environments. In these researchers’ opinion, however, student engagement was difficult to maintain because the academic work was not cognitively demanding.


The differences between classrooms were very clear. These researchers report that variations in student engagement were not explained by the socioeconomic level of the students in the classrooms studied. There were highly engaging classes serving high, middle and low socioeconomic student populations. Dolezal et al. stress that while excellent elementary instruction involves more than motivating students, successful motivational strategies are one of the most important characteristics of effective classrooms.

Excellent primary teachers are also competent classroom managers whose disciplinary policies are almost invisible. They tend to use a variety of curricular and instructional approaches and rich assortment of materials to accomplish complex academic goals. Children in these environments produce more complex and intellectually demanding work.

Dolezal et al. express concern about the great variability in student academic engagement that they observed in these classrooms. Further research is needed
to identify ways to help less-successful teachers increase their effectiveness in motivating students. These researchers speculate that observation of highly motivating teachers and actively engaged classes may help less-successful teachers identify effective instructional and management techniques.

“How Nine Third-Grade Teachers Motivate Student Academic Engagement”, The Elementary School Journal, Volume 103, Number 3, January 2003, pp. 239-268.

Published in ERN March 2003 Volume 16 Number 3

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