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Engaging Classrooms: Are Students Engaged…or Just Compliant? Here’s how to tell and what to do about it.

by Kate Wolfe Maxlow

Picture it: you’re teaching your heart out with your carefully crafted slideshow. MacKenzie, as usual, sits in the front of the room, nodding along eagerly. As you make another brilliant point, you see her furrow her brow thoughtfully and write it down.

William, meanwhile, sits in the back row, digging through his backpack for another pen. This is a first…is he going to take notes? Nope, he’s just using it to keep doodling on his notebook.

You decide it’s time to get William’s attention, so you call on him and ask him to repeat what you just said. Surprisingly, he does so word-for-word, and to your further astonishment, he adds a pretty insightful question at the end. Hoping for some classroom discussion, you ask if anyone else in the classroom can answer. Crickets.

You call on MacKenzie, who, despite making eye contact with you for much of the lecture, looks startled. “Um…” she murmurs. “What was the question?” Baffled, you walk over to her desk and realize she hasn’t been taking notes at all…she’s outlining her potential outfits for this Friday’s dance.

What’s going on?

Compliance vs. Engagement

On the surface, it seemed like MacKenzie was engaged and William wasn’t, and it turned out to be the opposite. But that’s the crux of it all: compliance and engagement aren’t the same thing.

MacKenzie modeled compliance. She made eye contact. She nodded at all the right times. She wrote things down. On the surface, she did everything you would expect a fully engaged student to do. Her brain, however, was fully occupied with the merits of silk versus taffeta. Students who are compliant exhibit the desired behavior at a surface-level without actually engaging their minds.

William, meanwhile, displayed none of the usual signs of engagement, yet turned out to be listening, processing, and pondering on the topic at hand. Though he didn’t look it, William was engaged the whole time. Students who are engaged are actually processing the current lesson.

Three Levels of Engagement

Jimmerson et al. (203) outline three levels of engagement:

  1. Behavioral Engagement: Students are compliant with rules and instructions. This means that if you ask students to get out a sheet of paper, they do. It’s a great first step. But it’s not enough. Too often we settle for Behavioral Engagement, but it doesn’t necessarily mean learning is taking place.
  2. Emotional Engagement: Students are actually invested in what they are learning. They’re enjoying it and valuing it. Of course, you can still have students enjoy themselves without actually learning. I remember doing a wonderful lesson my first year of teaching on the moon phases. I gave students Oreo cookies and had them take bites out and glue them onto paper. Students LOVED it. They were definitely behaviorally and emotionally engaged. And then on the unit assessment, most of them still got the moon phases question wrong. Upon reflection, it was really the equivalent of copying a diagram of the moon phases, but with using our teeth on Oreos instead of pencil and paper. There was almost no critical thinking involved for the students.
  3. Cognitive Engagement: Students’ minds are actually thinking about and processing the task at-hand. As an example, a science teacher specialist came in a week later and did an amazing lesson in which my students simulated the sun, earth, and moon. She had beach balls painted half white and half black to represent the moon phases. One student stood in the middle holding a flashlight (the sun), while other students acted as the earth and the moon phases. She had students move around the room to demonstrate the revolution of the Earth around the sun and the moon around the Earth so that students could physically see why the moon phases occurred based on how the light reflected off the beach balls. Then, we followed it up with creating a moon phase chart based on what we saw. That was cognitive engagement.

Combining the Levels of Engagement

If you want full student engagement, you have to plan for all three levels. In a classroom where the teacher has stopped at Behavioral Engagement, you might see students enter quietly. They’ll diligently circle answers on their Do Now worksheet for the first five minutes of class. Then when the teacher starts to review the answers and calls on students, they will sit there, silently, until the teacher finally picks someone, who then might murmur something about “Answer Choice B?” When the teacher asks why the answer is “B,” she once again stares at a sea of blank faces.

On the other hand, some teachers spend a ton of time crafting amazing experiments, projects, or centers for their students, but neglect the Behavioral Engagement piece. They instead end up with a chaotic classroom (not the organized chaos kind, either) in which students also have trouble engaging cognitively, even though they might be having the time of their lives.

In other words, you have to think through and plan for all three levels.

Collecting Evidence on Engagement

Once you’ve developed your awesome plan to truly engage students, you then have to consider: how will you know they’re actually engaged cognitively? As our fictional (yet all-too-like-real-life) student MacKenzie proved earlier, some students have mastered appearing engaged without actually hitting the level of Cognitive Engagement.

We can’t peek into students’ brains to see what they’re actually thinking, which means we have to develop tasks in which they show us. Otherwise, we tend to default to measuring only Level 1: Behavioral Engagement.

Therefore, teachers must stop throughout lessons and give students opportunities to share what’s in their minds. Whether it’s a turn-and-talk, a quick write or a quick draw, answering a poll on their tablets, or just writing an answer on a good ol’ fashioned whiteboard, we need some way to measure students’ cognitive engagement.

You’ll find that you can often measure their emotional engagement at the same time. Students who sigh and reluctantly turn to talk to one another generally are not emotionally engaged. If your students write one sentence for their quick write and then put their heads down to catch up on much needed sleep after last night’s basketball games, it might be a sign that you need to do something to crank up the emotional engagement.

Final Thought

Even the best teachers have days where they don’t hit all three levels of engagement. I recall plenty of days when I went to try something new, and the lesson fell flat. For whatever reason, I failed to pique students’ interest that day and that I would need to rally the next day to reteach the lesson in a better way. It happens!

That’s why it’s so important to collect evidence of engagement throughout the lesson. If you find students sticking steadfastly to compliance and Level 1 and refusing to budge beyond, pivot and draw them back in…otherwise, you might find yourself teaching the same material again tomorrow.

Want to read more? Check out today’s reference:

Jimmerson, S. R., Campos, E. & Grief, J. L. (2003). Toward an understanding of definitions and measures of school engagement and related terms. The California School Psychologist, 8, 7-27.

Kate Wolfe Maxlow is the Chief Creative Officer at eObservations and DCD Consulting. She has worked as an elementary school teacher, an instructional coach, a Director of Innovation, and a Director of Curriculum. She’s taught classes from PreK-PhD. In high school, she was definitely writing short stories and terrible poetry when she should have been copying notes. She can be reached at

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