Using student engagement as key measure in teacher observation

iStock_000016837201_ExtraSmallClassroom observations of teachers always should include a careful observation of the students in the class. Are they bored, engaged, disruptive?

In a recent study in Preventing School Failure, researchers describe an approach to classroom observation that carefully tracks student engagement in relation to what the teacher is doing at the front of the class.

“Often, typical classroom observations are general, limited in scope, and not contextualized to student behavior,” they write.

“We developed an observation tool specifically to collect information that would give teachers a clear picture of the interconnected patterns of instructional practices, student behavior, and teaching contexts, and demonstrate change over time.”

The instrument developed by the researchers divides a teaching period into short intervals. In this case, a 45-minute period was divided into 10 intervals of 4.5 minutes each. During each of those intervals, the observer recorded what the teacher was doing, the level of engagement of the students as well as the “instructional setting” (whole class, small group, independent work, transition, social/other).

The observer indicated the level of class engagement (most, half or less than half) and also noted teacher action for both academics and social behavior. Teacher action for academics included explanation, direction, assessment, question, positive feedback, correction, review. Teacher action for social behavior included precorrection, positive reinforcement, correction, supervision.

The male science teacher, in his second year of teaching high school science, sought assistance from the suburban school in maintaining the attention of his students. He wanted strategies to address the constant side talk among students.

Analyzing the data

One of the researchers conducted 3 observations of the teacher approximately 3 weeks apart over a 9-week period. After each observation, the teacher and observer had a 10-15-minute meeting during which they analyzed the data and developed an action plan.

In the first class, the observer found that most students in the class were on task during 65% of the intervals, about half of the students were on task during another 25% of the intervals and less than half were on task during the remaining 10% of the intervals.

“Our examination of the data for the intervals when half of the students were on task indicated that the corresponding setting categories were transitions {moving from one task to another} and independent work,” the researchers write.

The teacher had checked for student understanding only once and he had not moved around the classroom to check student work. In 80% of intervals, the teacher provided explanations, directions and questions.

The observer and teacher developed an action plan that included:

  • reducing the percentage of intervals in which a transition occurred during the first 20 minutes of instruction from 12% to 2% or 3%
  • increasing the percentage of intervals when the teacher checked for understandi ng from 1% to 8%
  • increasing the percentage of intervals in which the teacher moved around the classroom to check work and encourage on-task behavior from 0% to 4% or 5.

In the second observation, the researcher evaluated the results of the teacher’s efforts to improve. Based on the data, the teacher and researcher determined that:

  • the percentage of intervals in which a transition occurred dropped from 12% to 4% (30% decrease)
  • the percentage of intervals in which a check for understanding followed expla- nations increased from 1% to 12%.
  • the teacher moved around the classroom to check on students in 12% of intervals, up from 0% previously
  • the percentage of intervals with explanations and directions decreased by 10% and 15%, respectively.

In general, the observer found class engagement increased and off-task behavior decreased. However, student engagement dropped during intervals when students were doing independent work or when the teacher was asking a series of questions.

A second action plan was developed. As well as maintaining improvements, the teacher was to provide an exit task when students were doing independent work so that anyone who finished a task could move to the next activity rather than sitting, chatting or moving around the classroom. The teacher also was to involve the whole class when asking questions instead of sampling one student at a time.

In the third observation, the researcher found that most of the class was on task for 95% of the intervals. During this last observation session, students did not do independent work, but the teacher asked a question in 34% of the intervals. To involve the whole class the teacher used prompts such as “Who else was going to say that?” and “Tell me if you agree with….”

The payoff, say researchers in this case study of their work with one teacher, was that the teacher was able to address student engagement issues solely by making changes in instructional practices without any changes in his social behavior. This approach to classroom observation also allowed for better follow-up, which is often lacking in many administrators’ efforts to give performance feedback to their teachers.

“The specific changes in teacher behavior were based on standard effective instructional practices such as improvement of transitions, whole-class question-asking strategies, checks for understanding, and movement around the classroom to check for student engagement in class activities,” the researchers write.

“The results of our case study may suggest that change in high school teachers’ academic instructional practices can increase student engagement even without an increase in teacher social reinforcement. …The results of our case study are encouraging and suggest that an observation system that gives high school teachers information about instructional practices and the effects they have on whole-class behavior is feasible, relevant, and effective.”

“Using Observational Data to Provide Performance Feedback to Teachers: A High School Case Study,” by Geoff Colvin et al., Preventing School Failure, Volume 40, Number 1, 2009, pp. 95-104.

Published in ERN January 2009

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