Towards a better definition of student engagement


Student engagement plays an important role in achieving good school performance. Traditionally, researchers have assumed that there are three ways in which students can be engaged (behavioral, emotional and cognitive). In two longitudinal studies, Reeve et al. (2020) show that student engagement needs to be redefined in two ways.

The traditional view of student engagement

Normally, three forms of student engagement are distinguished:

  1. Behavioral engagement: the observable action students take to be on-task and exert effort
  2. Emotional engagement: the affective connection between student and task that involves both valence (positive or negative) and activation (activating or deactivating)
  3. Cognitive engagement: Using thought processes such as strategic learning strategies, task concentration, attention, problem solving strategies, critical thinking, and self-regulation strategies

Two adjustments

Based on an analysis of the research literature, Reeve et al. suspected that this traditional view of student engagement needed revision in two ways:

  1. The addition of agentic engagement: the proactive, constructive, and reciprocal action that students initiate to catalyze their academic progress and to create a more supportive learning environment for themselves. The authors suspected that this agentic engagement is an independent and important predictor of school success.
  2. Revising the role of emotional engagement. First, the authors think that emotions are better seen as an antecedent of (/ reason for) engagement than as engagement itself. Second, they find that emotional engagement is not a good independent positive predictor of school success.

Two longitudinal studies

In two longitudinally designed studies, secondary school students self-reported four aspects of their course-specific classroom engagement (behavioral, emotional, cognitive, and agent) over an 18-week semester. These scores were used to predict their objectively scored performance (study 1) and end-of-semester progress and perceived autonomy-supportive education (study 2).

The researchers found confirmation of their two expectations. In both studies, multilevel regressions showed that agentic engagement explained independent variance in outcomes, while emotional engagement (and cognitive engagement) did not.

I think this research has two interesting implications for the practice of education:

1. Room for agentic engagement

In addition to traditional behavioral engagement, we can also start thinking more in terms of agentic engagement. Students themselves play a proactive, constructive and influencing role in this. They can do this, among other things,  by:

  • proposing topics themselves
  • expressing preferences
  • asking questions
  • making suggestions
  • explaining content
  • devising teaching materials

When preparing education programs, we can actively offer opportunities for such agentic engagement. Why? Because it works. It contributes to good learning.

2. Look at emotional engagement differently

We can start to think differently about emotional engagement in two ways:

  1. Positive emotions are not simply a positive predictor of school success. This probably has to do with the fact that aspects of learning will not be constantly positive. Just think of deliberate practice: while doing it you may experience discomfort or even frustration. But this does greatly contribute to learning.
  2. Where positive emotions do play a stimulating role, they do so through the other forms of engagement (especially behavioral and agentic engagement. We can then see positive emotions as an antecedent of (/ reason for) engagement (similar to intrinsic motivation).