Teaching with Our Eyes Open: Lessons in Student Engagement and Knowledge Retention

Teaching with Our Eyes Open: Lessons in Student Engagement and Knowledge Retention

By: Sherry Mohr

How can you memetell if your students are engaged?

Do they respond to questions accurately? Test well? Have fun?

Do these factors indicate retention of knowledge and content? Can you determine whether your students will remember what you’ve taught 5 years from now? 10 years from now? As adults?

Studies are finding correlations amongst student engagement and school community building with the likelihood of academic success within higher education and promotion into a professional career regardless of academic attainment or socio-economic background. In other words, a student from a lower socio-economic background who is constantly engaged and feels connected to his school community will more likely do better in school and work later in life than a student from a higher socio-economic one who is disengaged.

Studies are also finding that engagement cannot be assessed through compliance or how fun a lesson is perceived. A disengaged learner can be doing well and mastering the content, but is mentally checked out and bored. Fun learning can seem engaging but really leads to shallow engagement amongst students.

Can you still tell if a student is engaged?

Researchers Ming-Te Wang and Jacquelynne S. Eccles from the Universities of Pittsburgh and Michigan conducted a longitudinal study using a multidimensional perspective. They examined the relationships between students’ perceptions of the school environment, achievement motivation, and school engagement. Their findings concluded that students’ perceptions contributed to three types of school engagements: behavioral, emotional, and cognitive.

Engagement precedes learning. If a student doesn’t “buy” what you’re teaching, learning doesn’t occur. But we’re not salespeople, we’re educators and we have to teach the content regardless of whether the student wants to learn or not, right?

Well, yes and no.

Activities need to personally matter to the students. In my previous post, I discussed tapping into student passions during the first week of school and discovering what intrigues them. This is not only important during the start of the school year, but also important throughout its entirety. Another topic I touched upon was creating a learning ecology through the demonstration of the teacher’s professional development and goals towards lifelong learning. This applies here as well. Demonstrate the real world applications of the content to the students. Learning doesn’t stop when school ends. As a young student, I would often express that much of what I was taught (coughalgebracough) wouldn’t apply in the “real world” as an adult. Though this thinking may partially ring true for many of us, the critical thinking skills learned throughout our educational careers definitely apply. Though I may not be using algebra, I often use the problem solving skills that I learned as a student of math. As educators, it’s important that we build that intellectual bridge that takes students beyond the cognitive “comfort zone.”

The Atlantic recently published an article discussing why knowledge is forgettable. The author, Daniel Willingham, found that intelligence consists of two components: one similar to mental horsepower and the other to that of a database. Through his research, Willingham discovered a study published in Psychological Science identifying that high-performing schools do not necessarily increase students’ mental horsepower. Instead, they increase their database of factual knowledge and specific mental skills. Like Wang and Eccles, Willingham suggests providing students with an understanding of why the content is important and how it will be valuable later in life.

These findings suggest that we need to do more than just arrange weekly lesson plans. Our curriculum needs to be thoroughly and creatively thought out and prepared. We need to keep the students in mind and focus on more than what content needs to be covered for that week.

We need to create opportunities in which students are thoughtfully challenged, simultaneously inspired, all the while deepening their innate love for learning.

Are you up for the challenge? I sure am.