Helping Students Learn to Engage

What’s the most important determinant of students’ growth in college? According to Nancy Sommers, a researcher at Harvard, it’s not feedback or carefully designed assignments or skill acquisition, though these are central. These aspects of learning, Sommers finds, are overshadowed by another, less obvious but more important: students’ attitude. Specifically, a shift in attitude, away from evaluative and instrumental views of education (e.g, “I complete school work to get a grade, or because I need a degree to get a job,”) and toward a sense of purpose and connection. The students in Sommers’ study began college with a view of assignments as a mechanical exercises in direction-following and teachers as enforcers and judges. But successful students soon abandoned these views. As they moved through their four years, they began to see academic work as an opportunity to explore their own interests in the context of an intellectual or professional community.

In essence, what Sommers and other researchers are finding is that moving from disengagement to engagement is central to student success. But this shift is not automatic for our students. Many of the students in Sommers study remained disengaged, continuing to view schoolwork through the narrow lens of grades and evaluation. My own research with undergraduates at my institution makes clear how entrenched such disengagement is. Even when confronted with assignments specifically designed to engage them, and even when students are aware of the teacher’s desire to engage them, students describe their school experiences in disengaged terms. They remain focused on grades even on low-stakes assignments and they game the system even when assignments allowed for student choice and voice. They find readings “boring” or “pointless” even as they talk about places in the text that piqued their curiosity or challenged their thinking in new ways. They perceive teacher control of assignments even when teachers encourage students to take ownership.

How can we encourage students to make the shift Sommers describes when disengagement seems so pervasive, baked into school culture in ways that merely altering classroom practices won’t fully address? What I’ve learned from my research is that in addition to making sure our classroom practices are engaging, we also need to talk to students directly about their beliefs about school, helping them see how disengagement works against them, and what engagement actually is.

In my undergraduate writing classes, I have students read Rick Evan’s “Schooled Literacy” and Denise Pope’s “Doing School.” Evan’s essay is about students who lose their passion for school over time. Their early school experiences were saturated with joy and curiosity, but by the time they reach high school, schoolwork had become a hated activity, “forced” on them by adults, serving no purpose beyond assessment and evaluation. Pope’s book is about high school students who “do school,” gaming the system, cheating, getting by, and otherwise performing school without engaging in actual learning.

Students in my classes “relate” to both readings, which provoke free-wheeling explorations of their experiences with and beliefs about school. From these discussions, I make a list on the board of attitudes that lead to “doing school”:

  1. Passivity and lack of ownership: “You have to follow the prompt or you’re never going to get a good grade.”
  2. Confusion: “I don’t know why they assigned this stuff.” “I’m usually pretty lost in the reading.”
  3. Alienation and boredom. “A lot of school is really boring to me.” “This class has nothing to do with my major or what I’m going to do when I get out.”
  4. Cynicism and gamesmanship. “Sometimes, I just figure out the easiest topic and write on that – it saves time, and it can improve your grade.” “I write what the teacher wants to hear.” “Cheating is somewhat justified; if everyone else is doing it, you’re at a disadvantage if you don’t.”
  5. Instrumentalism: “I have learned to do it how the teacher wants because someday you’re going to have to write the way your boss wants you to.”

This list raises students’ awareness of the stances toward academic work that they take. Indeed, just making these stances explicit often moves students toward critiquing them. “If you don’t’ understand something, you really should ask questions instead of just tuning out,” a student will say. “Even if the class has nothing to do with your major, you can still get something interesting out of it if you try,” another will point out. But during our discussions of this list, students will also challenge me: “So, what are we actually supposed to do instead? Just be all “oh yay more homework, I can’t wait!” Or pretend a class is interesting when it isn’t?” They want to know: Is there really an alternative to disengagement? What does engagement actually mean? How do we become engaged?

These questions made me wonder: is the issue less that students were bored and passive than that they lacked knowledge of how to enact a different stance? So each semester, in response to these questions, I have students make another list, this time of engaged attitudes and practices. Instead of passivity and lack of ownership, we talk about agency and active learning. Instead of confusion, we focus on cultivating curiosity. Connection replaces boredom. Goal-setting and responsibility replace gamesmanship. Belonging and community replace instrumentalism. The students and I devise strategies for developing these attitudes and for demonstrating them in their courses.

Interestingly, students sometimes feel like showing curiosity will be perceived by teachers as resistant and rude. A legitimate question – “why do we have to do it this way?” – can seem like a challenge to teacher authority. Students also worry that teachers will perceive them as brown-nosing. And they cling to the belief that the point of school is to learn how to please a boss in the workplace someday, that following orders in school will prepare them for following orders at work. I now devote a whole day of discussion to talking about what kinds of employees “bosses” value and how students can begin to practice those traits – collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving – in school.

Helping students make the shift in attitude that Sommers describes can seem daunting in our current educational climate, where performance is valued over learning, and where parents and teachers often resort to questionable motivational techniques (“if you don’t do well, you’ll end up working at McDonald’s”) to encourage students. But taking time in the classroom to critique the problematic nature of disengagement, and show students how powerful engagement can be, helps counteract such seemingly insurmountable cultural forces. In fact, enlisting my students in the shared project of creating an engaging classroom has been my most successful attempt to push back against the pressures to “do school.”

So, how do you help students shift from disengagement to engagement? Send me and email with your ideas at

Jennifer Seibel Trainor is the author of “Rethinking Racism,” (Southern Illinois University Press), as well as several essays on education. She teaches in the English department at San Francisco State University, and lives with her family in the SF Bay Area.

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