• by Josie Danini Cortez, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • March 2009

Josie CortezThrough 19 years of Catholic school, it’s safe to say that I was a pretty “engaged” student. Early on, it was made very clear that if I didn’t give my total attention (mind, body and soul) to Sister Cornelius, I was destined to go south in a hand basket. Engagement came fairly easily in the early grades, but as I got older and more things competed for my attention, there were schooldays I spent picking out a cushion and bows for my hand basket. No matter how hard I tried to stay engaged, classes were unbelievably boring.

It would take years (and IDRA) for me to learn that engagement is always a two-way street. Yes, students need to do their part, but perhaps more importantly, teachers, principals and staff – as the adults – also must create, nurture and sustain engagement. This article goes directly into the how of engagement and skips over the why, since it is pretty clear that engaged students are more successful.

So how do you successfully engage students, especially older ones? Much has been written about tudent engagement over the past 15 years. But if you want to see one of the best examples of young people engaged, go to Peter Pappas’ web site and take a look at Robbie Cooper’s “Immersion” project (Pappas, 2008). You will see British and American youth playing video games and a remarkable illustration of what student engagement can look like. Students are riveted to the computer screen. You see them challenged, excited, not wanting the experience to end.

Imagine that happening in a classroom every day. Adela Solís, an IDRA senior education associate, gave some good examples in a recent IDRA Newsletter article on how to be sure your students are cognitively engaged (2008). Some key ones are:

  • Students are included and treated fairly.
  • Students show that they know when they are successful in tasks.
  • Students can make real authentic choices and regulate their own learning.
  • Students seem secure and safe in the classroom.
  • Students are actively discovering, constructing and creating.
  • Students are listening, observing, noticing and being mindful.
  • Students are immersed in tasks.
  • Students keep busy and active. They are not clock-watching.
  • Students say they understand task expectations.
  • Students are saying, doing, writing and responding openly.
  • Students look satisfied and fulfilled after responding.
  • Students sit, walk tall, speak up, look self-assured.

You may have noticed that I mentioned “cognitive” engagement. Researchers, myself included, have a tendency to complicate simplicity. Engagement seems simple enough, yet there are a few complexities along the way. One complexity is the nature of the engagement. That goes back to Sr. Cornelius and her ability to engage her students’ minds, bodies and souls. It turns out that she was on the right track 45 years ago.

Ethan Yazzie-Mintz is the project director of the High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE), which surveyed more than 81,000 students in 110 schools within 26 states (2007). The HSSSE was designed to look at three dimensions of engagement:

  • Cognitive/Intellectual/Academic Engagement (“the work students do and the ways students go about their work…engagement of the mind“);
  • Social/Behavioral/Participatory Engagement (“students’ actions in social, extracurricular, and non-academic school activities…engagement in the life of the school“); and
  • Emotional Engagement (“students’ feelings of connection to or disconnection from their school…engagement of the heart“).

So who tended to be more engaged in school? The HSSSE showed that girls, White students, Asian students, and students who were not eligible for free or reduced-price lunch programs tended to be more engaged across all three dimensions.

One reason for this result is probably that it is easier to engage those students who fit the traditional image of a “good” student. Yet that tells us more about our own comfort zones than anything about the students.

At its core, engagement is about relationships. And if adults aren’t comfortable relating to students who seem “different” or come from different experiences, then relating takes more of our minds, bodies and souls.

I have been writing about positive engagement thus far, yet negative engagement often can result. Yazzie-Mintz said it best when he wrote: “Two people become ‘engaged’ when they commit to entering a permanent, ongoing and intimate relationship with each other; two forces become ‘engaged’ in battle when they confront each other, committing to an antagonistic, violent relationship… Engagement within the school context is also about relationship” (2007).

He goes on to write, “The degree to which a student is ‘engaged’ in school is dependent on the quality, depth and breadth of the student’s relationship with these various aspects of the life and work of the school.” Engaging students can be a positive and enduring experience or it can be dysfunctional and a battle of wills with the school having the upper hand.

According to the HSSSE, the majority of students surveyed are content with their high school, care about it, are engaged in school and feel they are an important part of their high school community. Yet, the survey also found that two out of three students are bored in class at least every day, most because the material isn’t interesting or relevant to them or because the work isn’t challenging enough. One third of the students said they were bored because they did not have any interaction with the teacher.

Another key finding was that the degree of importance that students place on an activity is a critical aspect of their engagement. Interestingly, even though students reported spending little time on academic activities, they considered these their most important activities.

And importantly, the study found that support from at least one adult in the school is critical for students “and is a foundation for student engagement.” Students felt most supported by teachers (81 percent), counselors (73 percent), other adults like secretaries and custodians (61 percent), and administrators (60 percent).

This study echoes IDRA’s early research in the Dallas Independent School District in which we found that one of the most powerful predictors of keeping students in school was having one adult in school who cared about them (1989).

Yazzie-Mintz encourages researchers and practitioners to look beyond the achievement gap and include “the engagement gap” that exists in high schools to improve the context for student engagement (2007). He points to the qualitative data that were collected in the HSSSE that help explain the nature and quality of engagement. One student wrote, “My lit teacher is the best teacher I ever had,” while another wrote, “All our school really cares about is getting good grades on the standardized tests, not about life after high school.” Guess who is engaged?

In a 2005 article, Learning Point Associates listed four key elements of student engagement: student confidence (high self-efficacy), teacher involvement (care about students as individuals), relevant and interesting texts, and choices of literary activities. Underscoring all of this was the need for students to feel a sense of control – something that developers of video games figured out some time ago.

The authors state, “Teachers need to be able to create an engaging learning environment, implement research-based teaching strategies, augment students’ motivation to learn, and offer opportunities to use literacy skills across the curriculum” (Learning Point Associates, 2005).

At the higher education level, the Community College Survey of Student Engagement provides a blueprint for community colleges to engage students. In Committing to Student Engagement, Reflections on CCSSE’s First Five Years, 2007 Findings, Community College Leadership Program (2007), the authors provide some lessons learned on engaging students:

  • “Be Intentional. Engagement doesn’t happen by accident; it happens by design.” Institutions need to engage students at all levels and at all times – beginning with the moment a student steps on a campus.
  • “Engagement matters for all students, but it matters more for some than others.” The CCSSE found that students considered to be “high risk” were actually more engaged than their low risk counterparts. But despite all of their hard work, they succeeded less often. There are two insights here: one is not to assume that the “usual suspects” aren’t engaged, and the second is to provide the support needed for them to succeed.
  • “Data are our friends.” The authors write about building “a culture of evidence,” using credible information to “set goals, monitor progress and improve practice.”
  • “Look behind the numbers.” Ensure that student perspectives and voice are part of the knowledge base.

One of the key findings from the CCSSE was that students need to feel they matter, “Students seem to be looking to be respected and acknowledged as important parts of their school communities; taking students seriously and taking actions on their ideas is a step toward creating a more engaged student body and an engaging school community” (2007).

The CCSSE also provides strategies proven to be effective in engaging students, including high expectations and engaging instructional approaches. But perhaps the best strategy they propose is to “make engagement inescapable” (2007).

Think about that for a moment. Successful engagement means there is no escape, no excuse, no exit for any student. It means that as a teacher, administrator, faculty member or counselor, it is your job to convince each and every student that he or she matters, that they have something valuable to contribute to their school and their community. And that you care about them and are committed to their success, and then you give them your word – un compromiso – and opportunities to contribute.

So how can you be sure your students are engaged? The easiest and best way is simply to ask them. You can do this more formally through individual or focus group interviews, surveys or classroom observation checklists. Look for some examples of tools and resources on the IDRA web site and IDRA Newsletter Plus.

But a word of caution if you look elsewhere for tools. Often you will find student survey questions that assume the worst of students: “Students don’t want to do ‘x’ because they’re not motivated or lazy or bored.”

Among the things that distinguishes IDRA is the set of philosophical tenets that we use to guide our work, beginning with the intrinsic value of every child. You cannot be successful engaging students if you think that some are not worth your time, much less your mind and heart. So always begin with the end in mind, and the end that you want to visualize is all students excited, challenged and happy to be learning in your school, with you playing a key role in their success.

At the end of the day, when all of the engagement research and strategies and assessments are read, the greatest challenge is your own level of engagement. What’s keeping you from engaging all of your students? Are you excited, challenged, not wanting the day to end? If the answer is an honest “no,” then you cannot expect the young people in your school to be engaged, when you’re not.

Forty-five years later, I still occasionally fluff the cushion and bows for my hand basket and remember Sr. Cornelius. And it only now occurs to me that she engaged all of us with a vengeance as if our souls were at stake, in her mind they were, and it was up to her to make sure we made it through the pearly gates. The same is true for all of us in education – we have to engage all students as if their futures are at stake, because, in fact, they are.


Center for Community College Student Engagement. Committing to Student Engagement, Reflections on CCSSE’s First Five Years, 2007 Findings, Community College Leadership Program (Austin, Texas: CCCSE, 2007).

Intercultural Development Research Association. The Answer: Valuing Youth in Schools and Families (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1989 Second Edition).

Learning Point Associates. “What are the Key Elements of Student Engagement?” AdLit.org web site (2005).

Pappas, P. “Look into the Face of Student Engagement,” Copy Paste blog (November 25, 2008).

Solís, A. “Teaching for Cognitive Engagement – Materializing the Promise of Sheltered Instruction,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 2008).

Yazzie-Mintz, E. Voices of Students on Engagement: A Report on the 2006 High School Survey of Student Engagement (Bloomington, Ind.: High School Survey of Student Engagement, Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, February 28, 2007).

Josie Danini Cortez, M.A., is an IDRA senior education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2009, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2009 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]