Most teachers struggle with low student engagement, particularly at the middle school and high school levels.

  • “My students don’t seem to care.”
  • “They don’t see how school is relevant.”
  • “They won’t put in the effort.”

Those statements from teachers about their students are all too common. In blended-learning workshops, two out of three teachers tell me that low student engagement is their root problem. A HotChalk survey found the same thing: Most teachers say that their biggest struggle with students is that they lack the motivation to learn or have a poor attitude toward learning.

Unsure if student engagement is a problem at your school? The Gallup Student Poll is a widely used tool for measuring engagement. Or for a simple and bold method, try administering the Sandefer Survey. Jeff and Laura Sandefer, founders of the Acton Academy micro-school network, send parents a SurveyMonkey link every other week, which contains only two questions: (1) As a parent, how would you rate your student’s engagement in learning this week? (2) As a student, how would rate your personal engagement with learning this week? All schools in the Acton network must do this survey and—here’s the bold part—Acton emails the results, every time, to every person in the school community.

Last month in Little Rock, Ark., a team of teachers asked me for advice about how to turn the unrelenting problem of low engagement into a S.M.A.R.T. goal that targets the problem. That question prompted this post and deserves considerable thought, given the problem’s pervasiveness.

First, let’s start with this belief: All students are plenty motivated. They have progress that they are trying to make in their lives. For most students, this progress takes two forms:

  1. Have friends.
  2. Feel successful.

If school is designed to help students get those jobs done, then they will engage on their own. Otherwise, they will engage only when coerced. Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn explained this idea in their book Disrupting Class, and Horn and I restate it in the book Blended.

By design, factory-based classrooms are lousy conduits for helping students make friends and experience success. The sit-and-get lesson format offers little room for the type of collaborative teaming that well-run, modern workplaces thrive upon and that leads to friendships. Plus, teachers find it hard to focus on student-teacher and peer-peer relationships because their traditional instruction role takes up their time. Meanwhile, by design, factory-based classrooms dish up ample failed quizzes, busy work, and bad grades—all of which convince students not count on school to help them experience authentic success. No wonder so many young people disengage from school and throw their hearts into competitive sports or, if not athletically inclined, video games or gangs.

Happily, many schools are replacing factory-based classrooms with student-centered designs that depend on student motivation for their fuel. The first step to start that redesign process is to develop a S.M.A.R.T. goal that targets engagement but that is more specific and measurable than the overly vague statement “improve student engagement.” Instead, the goal should use numbers to quantify specific improvements in helping students fulfill the two jobs that they are trying to do.

For example, for the job of having friends, consider measuring if students agree with these statements:

  • My teammates and I help each other be successful.
  • My teacher cares about me.
  • My teacher helps me feel like I am part of the school community.
  • My teacher cares about me having friends at school.

When students agree with those statements, they engage. It makes sense: students will want to show up, if they feel that their teacher knows them, makes them feel valued, and structures an environment where positive teaming happens.

For the job of experiencing success, measure if students agree with statements such as these:

  • I get feedback that I can use to improve my schoolwork.
  • I often get positive feedback for things I do well.
  • I am praised in front of others for my work and behavior.
  • My teacher gives me strategies that help me get my work done.

Students are more likely to engage with school when they agree with statements such as these. They hire school because it is a place where they feel successful—every day.

The new report How to create higher performing, happier classrooms in seven moves: A playbook for teachers tells stories of teachers who improved student engagement and academic results, in part by asking students the right survey questions and then tracking results over time as they tweaked the student experience to improve results. As students begin to see that school is a solution that they can hire in their lives to help them have friends and feel successful, a predictable result emerges—they engage.

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  • Heather Staker
    Heather Staker

    Heather Staker is an adjunct fellow at the Christensen Institute, specializing in K–12 student-centered teaching and blended learning. She is the co-author of "Blended" and "The Blended Workbook." She is the founder and president of Ready to Blend, and has authored six BloomBoard micro-credentials for the “Foundations of Blended Learning” educator micro-endorsement.