Since student engagement is a leading indicator of academic achievement and persistence in school as well as a key element of school climate, educators can greatly benefit from measuring it. So, what does student engagement look like, according to the students themselves?
To understand how engaged students are feeling in school, YouthTruth analyzed survey responses from over 230,000 students in grades three through twelve. The data was gathered between November 2012 and June 2017 through YouthTruth’s anonymous online climate and culture survey, administered in partnership with school districts and charter management organizations across 36 states. Our analysis looked at a subset of questions related to student engagement and uncovered some key insights.
The majority of students report feeling engaged in school. However, when we compare student responses by grade level, elementary students are slightly more likely to feel engaged than secondary students, with 78 percent of elementary students feeling engaged. For secondary students, the proportion drops to 59 percent of middle schoolers and 60 percent of high schoolers feeling engaged. While still the majority, that leaves considerable room for improvement.
The data also reveal variation across school sizes. Across the secondary grade levels, students at small schools are slightly more likely to feel engaged than their peers at medium and large size schools. (In our analysis, small schools are defined as high schools with 300 or fewer students and middle schools with 200 or fewer students, while large schools are defined as high schools with 1200 or more students and middle schools with 800 or more students.)
This finding echoes findings from previous studies on small schools, which have shown that students in small schools tend to have better attendance rates, lower dropout rates, higher grade-point averages, and higher high school graduation rates. Proponents of small schools argue that small high schools, in particular, are able to promote stronger academic rigor and personal relationships between students and staff, which helps engage students and enrich their experience.
Across all secondary students, we find that most students take pride in the work they do in school. Seventy-two percent of middle school and 68 percent of high school students report that they take pride in their school work. It is encouraging to see that students care about the work they are producing.
There are some slight differences across students of demographic groups for this question. When examining responses by students’ self-reported gender identity, we see that students who identify as female are slightly more likely to take pride in their school work, and students who identify as other than male or female are slightly less likely to take pride in their school work.
“At my school, you can find people with determination, passion, and time management, and it really pushes me to be a better student. Everyone really cares about their education, and it pushes me to work harder.”
“School is important to me, and I inspire myself every day to do well in school. Getting good grades and getting my work done makes me feel accomplished.”better student. Everyone really cares about their education, and it pushes me to work harder.”
While it is encouraging that the majority of students feel engaged overall, when it comes to relevance the results are concerning. Only 48 percent of secondary students feel that what they are learning in class helps them outside of school. With less than half of sixth through twelfth graders feeling their learning helps them outside of school, we can imagine hundreds of thousands of students across the country wondering, “When will I ever use this in real life?”
When we disaggregate the findings by level, high school students are slightly less likely than middle school students to feel that what they learn in class helps them outside of school. In other words, as students get closer to “the real world,” they are even less likely to feel their learning in school is pertinent to their outside lives.
One way to help students relate their academic work to daily life is to connect students with projects in their local community. “If you want students to do work connected to the world outside of school, you need to create places and spaces for those intersections,” says Tim McNamara, Director of High Tech High Chula Vista (HTHCV) in San Diego, CA.
Each year, HTHCV hosts a Community Networking Lunch where local nonprofit organizations, businesses, and community groups meet with teachers to share organizational challenges and brainstorm ideas for collaborative projects that students can undertake for school credit.
Teachers then design projects focused on issues that overlap with a community organization’s area of interest. In these community-centered, authentic projects students have the opportunity to work in teams to develop solutions that suit the community partner’s needs and address real-world issues and problems.
The final project is then exhibited publicly. By combining project based learning with cooperative community learning, students are making real-world connections, creating a professional network, and meeting academic learning goals.
For examples of HTHCV projects, visit www.hightechhigh.org/hthcv/projects.
Only 52 percent of secondary students enjoy coming to school most of the time. Given the recent national conversation about chronic absenteeism and its focus under many states ESSA plans, this finding is particularly concerning within the context of untangling why students may not be coming to school.
Students who are chronically absent – typically defined as those who miss at least 15 days of school or more in a year – may be missing school for a variety of reasons over which schools have little control, including poverty, health challenges, community violence, and difficult family circumstances. But building a school environment in which students enjoy coming to school is an important place to start.
Closing the Feedback Loop: Sample Discussion Questions
- To what extent do you think these findings speak to the student experience at your school? Which findings seem most relevant?
- How do you think students’ feelings of engagement on your campus might be similar to or different from these findings?
What sources inform your hypothesis?
- What is one area in which your school does well at engaging students?
- What is one area in which your school could work to better engage students?
- What programs or processes do you currently have in place for encouraging and talking about student engagement?
- To what extent do you think this data reflects the student experience at your school? Which findings seem most relevant?
- How engaged do you think you and your peers feel?
- Do you feel that what you’re learning in class helps you oustide of school? If not, do you have any ideas on how to make classes more relevant?
- Do you enjoy coming to school most of the time? Why or why not?
- What questions do you have after reflecting on the data?