Consider a time that you felt you were extremely engaged in the task at hand.

Were all of your thoughts, attention and actions focused on the task at hand? Did your thoughts or attention wander at any time? Did upcoming tasks, events or past events from the day pop into your mind at some point? Did you still consider yourself engaged in the task, or did you feel that those moment took you off-task?

In the classroom, the importance of student engagement is paramount. If students are not engaged in the tasks at hand, they are not likely learning what we are teaching and what we expect them to learn and be able to do.

According to Merriam-Webster, engagement can be defined as “emotional involvement or commitment.” Given that, what does student engagement look like in the classroom? What does it sound like? What are some tools to keep student engaged in the lesson and tasks at hand?

The answers to these questions can be complex, given that we are dealing with human beings. Our minds work in complex ways, and although our minds may wander and we may think of other topics, we may still be engaged.

Now consider your own classroom and the following scenario; you may have experienced a situation similar to the following. During the delivery of a dynamic lesson, students are reading and discussing a topic of interest to them. The teacher is asking questions of students, engaging them in discussion and students are responding to the teacher and to each other.

A student eagerly raises her hand, and is called upon to answer a question and make a comment. When the student responds, it has nothing at all to do with what is being taught at the moment. The teacher responds to the student that the comment or question is not relevant to the topic at hand and moves on.

This scenario is fairly common in schools. It is important to dig a little deeper in these scenarios and analyze the question or comment the student made. Did the student ask a question such as: “What time is lunch?”, “Can I use the restroom?” or “Do you like football?” Or was the comment or question related to another area of study?

The difference can be related to engagement as the student may still be focused in some way on academics and the topics she is learning about, or may be thinking about topics completely unrelated to any academic topics.

Students sometimes ask relevant, interesting, compelling and higher-order questions at inopportune moments. The student may be making a connection between what is being taught and another area of study or topic, or her mind may have wandered for a moment.

It is important for us as educators to capture these moments, as possible, while not detracting from the lesson at hand. Students should not be punished for thinking about the subjects they are learning, even if it is not at the most opportune time. One way teachers can capture this thinking from a student is by having a KWL chart or an Inquiry Chart.

Donna Ogle developed the KWL chart, and many teachers are familiar with it. The chart lists what students know, what they would like to learn, and what they learned about a particular topic.

The Inquiry Chart is similar but only has two columns: what we know about [topic] and what we want to learn about [topic]. In either case, the chart is often generated for the whole class, and can serve as a guide to teachers as to what students already know about a topic as well as what they are interested in exploring throughout the unit of study.

These tools also serve another purpose: Students can continually add to them throughout the unit of study. When students ask a great question about the topic at an inappropriate time, the teacher can acknowledge that the question is an important one, and instruct the student to write the question or comment on the KWL or Inquiry Chart for exploration at more appropriate time.

Philip Schlechty reports that there are five ways in which students respond to school activities and tasks: rebellion, retreatism, ritual compliance, strategic compliance and engagement. These levels are important to consider as we work to keep students engaged at the highest levels possible. Each level is briefly described below along with ideas and considerations for each.

1. Rebellion

In this stage, the student refuses to engage in the task at hand, and is often disruptive to other students. At times, the student is not disruptive, but substitutes other tasks in which he or she is more interested or finds more relevance.

This stage might be considered the least desirable in the classroom, but it is important to consider what the student is doing in the moment of rebellion. Certainly disrupting other students from the learning task in unacceptable.

In a recent classroom lesson, a student refused to work with his teammates on a problem-solving task. While the team was visibly frustrated, the rebelling student was engaged in reading a book. The team continued the task without that student. The teacher noted that the student was not engaged as he should have been and had a discussion with the student. The student still continued to refuse to engage in the task at hand and continued reading.

Consider how you might have handled the situation. Would it have been better to keep attempting to redirect this student, send him out of the classroom for not complying with the instructions or continue to let him read his book? How would you have followed up with the student?

2. Retreatism

When students are displaying retreatism, they pay no attention and have no commitment to the task at hand. Students tend not to substitute other tasks for the task at hand, nor do they disrupt other students. Because the student does not participate in any way and is not disruptive, it may be easy for students to go undetected by teachers.

In order to bring students into higher levels of engagement when they are demonstrating retreatism, teachers can employ a variety of active engagement strategies, including choral responses.

For example, as a teacher is focusing on vocabulary, the teacher might say, “Repeat after me …” or “Say that word with me.” If not all students respond, it should be pointed out and the task repeated, stating something like “Thank you for the 80 percent of student that responded, but this time we need 100 percent to respond. Everyone …”

If the student then moves into rebellion, other strategies may need to be used.

3. Ritual compliance

Students in ritual compliance expend the minimum amount of energy and effort to meet the requirements without negative consequences. The student has a low level of commitment to the task and pays minimal attention, but complies with the instructions.

While on the surface this is what teachers expect at the minimum, ritual compliance only leads to superficial levels of learning. To move students to higher levels of engagement, look for a twist on the subject area that will engage the particular student.

Consider if there is an aspect of the topic he is particularly interested in or already have background knowledge or experience with. Use questioning strategies, inquiry and observation to determine what might be of interest to the student in order to increase student engagement.

4. Strategic compliance

Some students are seeking good grades because of the results they provide, such as praise from parents or the community, and are not necessarily committed to the topic or the learning. These students can be considered grade-seekers, as opposed to knowledge-seekers, who may also care about grades but are interested and committed to learning the topic at hand.

When students are in grade-seeking mode, they are demonstrating strategic compliance. They associate the outcome with something that has value to them, such as grades. To avoid having students only demonstrate strategic compliance, be explicit as to the rationale for learning the topic or skill and its application to other fields, areas of interest and life.

Recently, a friend asked why her seventh-grader had to study a particular topic in mathematics, when the skills seemed to have little practical application in many fields. A colleague with a master’s degree in mathematics replied that math helps to strengthen the brain, as any exercise helps a muscle to grow and become stronger.

In addition, the mathematics the student was studying helped him to learn, practice and apply logic, reasoning and problem-solving, which can of course be applied to many different aspects of life.

When we are able to explain this concept with specific examples that apply to students’ lives, we will help them move to higher levels of engagement.

5. Engagement

True engagement comes when students associate the task with results and a product that have value for them. These students have a high commitment to the task or topic and pay consistent attention to the task and topic. Students who are engaged highly will learn at high levels and will persist in learning in the face of difficulty. This is the goal of education: students learning at high levels and persisting when challenges arise.

What then, does true engagement look like? Some people consider students engaged when the room is quiet and students are working quietly. Yet, this may actually be ritual compliance and may not lead to high levels of student achievement.

It will take a deeper analysis of what is actually happening in the classroom, what students are doing, their attitudes toward the task and assessment to determine the actual level of engagement. Engagement can also be noisy and seem chaotic to some, as students may be discussing, collaborating, cooperating and problem-solving. A noisy classroom does not necessarily indicate low levels of engagement; rather, a similar analysis needs to take place.

Each of us faces particular challenges with students in particular level. Teachers may be particularly frustrated with students who are rebelling, while others may find the student’s rebellion an interesting challenge and look for multiple ways to engage the student.

Other teachers are happy if students are engaged even in ritual compliance, as they are doing what they are told and are quiet. Some will find ritual compliance one of the more frustrating levels, as students are not displaying emotion and passion.

Whichever level is most challenging to you in particular, it is important that we look for ways to continuously bring students to higher levels of engagement in the classroom.

In each of these levels of engagement, situations and scenarios it is imperative that we consider the student we are working with. At times, students have other issues, concerns and problems they are working through or dealing with.

Particular topics will lead to higher levels of engagement for particular students based on their particular interest levels. It is critical that we consider the whole child and respond in a way that is appropriate to the particular person in our quest to keep students engaged in learning at higher levels.