Stephanie García, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • March 2021 •

During the COVID-19 pandemic, education experts, companies and individuals created and shared a plethora of online resources educators and students alike. For good measure, educators and researchers are now evaluating the usefulness of such resources and their impact on student outcomes.

Student engagement has a positive relationship with student outcomes (Aguilar, et al., 2020). It is important then to better understand the learners’ experience to improve instruction and maximize student achievement. This is especially true for both the traditional and digital settings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

GoGuardian recently published findings from its qualitative research study on engagement, with an emphasis on the online learning context. Although the report, 2020 State of Engagement Report, covers engagement across the spectrum, the brief summary here focuses solely on their findings on student engagement.

According to GoGuardian’s study, “Engaging learning experiences are characterized by students carrying the cognitive load, a sense of urgency and opportunities for interactivity” (Aguilar, et al., 2020). This means that students remain engaged when they are being challenged, can connect or relate to what they are learning, and have opportunities to engage with the content and collaborate with others.

Students remain engaged when they are being challenged, can connect or relate to what they are learning, and have opportunities to engage with the content and collaborate with others.

Teachers play a crucial role in increasing student engagement, even more so during a pandemic. Below are GoGuardian Team’s recommendations to increase student engagement in any instructional setting.

• Communicate in multiple mediums. There is always something nice about the predictable and the routines you set in the classroom, but mixing it up also keeps things interesting for students. By using different multi-modal platforms, you model how students can communicate information differently in their own presentations and projects.

• Include hands-on learning. Hands-on learning may be challenging in distance learning environments, but it is not impossible. In fact, students are craving this even more because they need outlets and opportunities to create and explore through hands-on activities and projects.

• Make it social. Although challenging during virtual learning, teachers can use strategies to help students socialize and collaborate online in purposeful ways. For example, teachers can add social media discussions or move traditional student engagement activities online, like having students teach each other what they have learned.

• Gamify learning. No matter the age of the student, educational games are helpful tools for increasing student engagement in all content areas. Students can create their own games to solidify their understanding of a topic or even teach others a concept.

• Provide feedback. A troubling component of online learning contexts is the common use of prescriptive and standardized forms of assessment. Although they are easier to grade, these assessments do not always lend to specific feedback. Remember to give feedback on students’ thought processes and allow revisions to their work products because these lead to a more engaging learning experience.

• Provide assignments to be submitted as blogs, videos or podcasts. Non-traditional forms of relaying information and teaching concepts help keep students more engaged than they would be in a traditional lecture setting. They are more fun for teachers too!

• Use live video conferencing. We have all been using Zoom and similar tools more often, and it is helpful in keeping us connected, but use this approach sparingly. Screen fatigue and the digital divide are real and should be navigated with care. If you do have a “synchronous learning time,” be sure to record it and make it available to students who could not attend.

• Incorporate student engagement activities, like panel discussions, case studies, videos, student presentations, role playing, group activities and more. All of these are great ideas that promote active learning and require a higher level of thinking.

Regardless of traditional or digital learning settings, the basic needs to keep students engaged in these ways remain the same. According to the GoGuardian study findings, some of these examples include student access to resources, feeling safe, and prior experiences with a subject. If students cannot access their instructional material, then they are not being set up for success.

Often students are viewed as being unmotivated or disengaged, when, in reality, they may not have access to their assignments or are facing connectivity or technology issues. Student engagement also is affected if students do not feel safe in the learning environment or have had negative prior experiences with a subject matter. A safe and positive school climate can affect student “attendance, engagement, learning and even graduation rates” (IDRA, 2020).

IDRA’s Courage to Connect – A Quality Schools Action Framework calls for schools to build the capacity to create environments and activities that value students of all backgrounds and to incorporate them into the learning process and other social activities within the school, with academic achievement as a result (Robledo Montecel & Goodman, 2010).

District-level factors, such as “public funding, educational resources and operational infrastructure,” can all impact engagement too (Aguilar, et al., 2020). In a recent IDRA webinar, “Student Perspectives on a Changing School Climate,” students shared the importance for districts and schools to “prioritize resources to support the mental healthcare and well-being of students who are faced with the challenges of distance learning and the added stress of social isolation from peers” (IDRA, 2020). These are all important policies and funding priorities when acting at the school district level to impact student engagement.

Following are considerations for the campus level.

  • According to Aguilar, et al. (2020), an engaged school knows “the importance of using multiple measures that examine the whole child in order to provide a more comprehensive understanding of how engaged students are.”
  • Although student engagement seems difficult to measure, there is evidence to look out for at the classroom level, including “auditory signals, emotional responses and body language” (Aguilar, et al., 2020). Educators know when their students are engaged, connected and challenged appropriately.
  • At the classroom-level, factors that impact student engagement include “the design and form of the information being shared, the classroom culture, the instructional practices implemented by a teacher, and the structure and activities of a lesson” (Aguilar, et al., 2020).

More than just appealing to students’ interests, educators can increase student engagement by adopting critical, pedagogical approaches that are culturally responsive and sustaining. Also, social-emotional learning is key to student engagement (Aguilar, et al., 2020). If used correctly, all these approaches will also advance diversity and equity for all students. This is especially needed during this time.


Aguilar, M., Sheldon, K., Ahrens, R., & Janowicz, P. (2020). 2020: State of Engagement Report. GoGuardian.

GoGuardian. (September 18, 2020). New-School Ways to Increase Student Engagement Online & In the Classroom. GoGuardian blog.

IDRA. (September 24, 2020). Maintaining a Supportive School Climate. Learning Goes On.

IDRA. (June 16, 2020). Student Perspectives on a Changing School Climate, webinar recording. IDRA.

Robledo Montecel, M., & Goodman, C.L. (2010). Courage to Connect – A Quality Schools Action Framework. IDRA.

Stephanie García, Ph.D., directs the IDRA Texas Chief Science Officers program and VisionCoders program. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at

[©2021, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2021 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.]