How knowing your students well can lead to better engagement in class

Sam Di Sano

Teacher and School Enablement Leader at Atomi


min read

Student engagement is absolutely crucial for their learning. Every teacher gets that. Classrooms need structure and teachers need to set up routines, systems and protocols for the classroom to be a flourishing environment conducive to learning. Students who understand those rules and routines and are actively engaged in their learning are less likely to look for or cause distraction. In such an environment, everyone benefits, with the teacher able to focus more on teaching strategies which immerse their students in their learning and make learning come alive. At end of year valedictory events, many students will reflect on the teachers who went over and above, demonstrated care, compassion and interest in their students, inspiring and encouraging them.

Student engagement

The 2017 Grattan Institute Report on student engagement revealed 55% of students surveyed were disengaged in class, often bored. Complementing that startling statistic, 33% of the teachers surveyed also indicated high levels of anxiety, brought on by their students’ lack of engagement in class. We know so much more today about how young people learn than ever before and what is clear is that they demand short, sharp, digestible chunks of information, relatable, and accessible anywhere and at anytime. They have an over reliance on technology to provide answers, often through their search engines or wiki information repositories. Much of this comes from a mix of impatience and convenience. As a result of technology saturation their attention spans are often short, hence the desire or need for clear, simple, succinct information at their fingertips.

That’s their world. Any parent or educator knows that. Every parent and educator laments it and we must work with what we have. Context is king.

A utilitarian approach

One of the challenges in engaging students is that despite all the advances in education and educational pedagogy, the classroom has rarely changed since the 19th century. There is still a predominance of a ‘chalk and talk’ methodology. While education itself has moved forward, many schools remain static and tied to restrictive policies, systems and processes and this has an impact not only on how students are taught but what and how they learn. Much of their group time is spent at the broadest base of content accumulation for knowledge and understanding, and little on creativity and more complex skill development. Their school day is rigidly structured into defined and constrictive 64m2 learning spaces and times, governed by bells and rows of desks.

Out of 2 million US classrooms surveyed in a 2014 study of student engagement, 94% of classes dealt only with content delivery, rarely allowing students or teachers time to delve into more complex higher order thinking or application skills. 58% reported interacting with new content, while 36% reported practising and deepening new content. (Robert J. Marzano, PhD, Marzano Research, 2014). Alarmed?

Ironic really

There is an inherent irony here because research actually demonstrates a strong association between high levels of classroom organisation and structure, which provides direction and encourages student engagement. Students in highly organised classrooms exhibit less time off task and more time focused on learning. If you think about it this makes sense.

Classroom organisation however is not the only dimension that affects student engagement. Emotional and pastoral support as well as wellbeing initiatives are also associated with student engagement and tend to stymie distractions. That is, when emotional support is high, whether it be at a systems level or drilled right down to the individual classroom, engagement tends to increase.

Rimm-Kaufman, Baroody, Larsen, Curby, and Abry (2015) examined student engagement during mathematics instruction in 63 fifth grade classrooms. They measured four types of engagement: cognitive, emotional, behavioural, and social engagement, using the following three methods:

  1. A time-sampling observation of classrooms
  2. Teacher reporting
  3. Student reporting on engagement

Results of the study showed that students in classrooms with either higher levels of emotional support or classroom organisation reported greater cognitive, emotional, and social engagement. What’s interesting is girls in classrooms with higher levels of instructional support reported higher social engagement, but this was not the case for the boys.

So the challenge for educators is pretty clear. Know your students well. Focus on understanding their context and take an interest in them. Structure your classroom and provide a learning environment in which they can thrive and are kept active and busy. Students who are not engaged are not learning.


  • Goss, P., Sonnemann, J., and Griffiths, K. (2017). Engaging students: creating classrooms that improve learning. Grattan Institute.
  • Rimm-Kaufman, S. E., Baroody, A. E., Larsen, R. A. A., Curby, T. W., & Abry, T. (2015). To what extent do teacher–student interaction quality and student gender contribute to fifth graders’ engagement in mathematics learning? Journal of Educational Psychology


Published on

October 8, 2018

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