Software and Learner Engagement

By Amie Schultz


What is Learner Engagement?

The phrase "learner engagement" was identified in 1996 as the latest buzzword in education, and is still used with increasing frequency in today's schools (Kenny, Kenny & Durmont, 1995). But what exactly does it mean?

Student engagement is defined by Wikipedia as, "the event when students make a psychological investment in learning." During this process, students try hard to learn the information the school is providing to them. The students take pride not only in earning good grades, the formal indicators of success, but also in making sure they understand the material and are able to internalize it and incorporate it into their everyday lives. Other researchers findings show this definition to hold a good amount of truth. Chapman's (2003) findings agree with the definition provided by Wikipedia. He explains that student engagement is often viewed as students willingness to participate in routine school activities: submitting work, attending class, and following directions and instructions. Additionally, engaged learning is frequently characterized by learning goals which are intrinsically interesting, by students who are able to monitor their progress and recognize when they need help (Reiber, Smith & Noah, 1998).

Other researchers have carefully studied the concept of student engagement, as well. Skinner and Belmont (1993) found that engaged students show higher levels of behavioral involvement in learning activities and do so using a positive, emotional tone. These students also initiate action, exert intense effort and concentration, and implement tasks. When completing these actions and tasks, students with high levels of engagement are often positive, have good enthusiasm, and show high levels of optimism, curiosity, and interest.

Five indicators have been effective in increasing student engagement: level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-teacher interaction, enriching education experiences, and supportive learning environments (Kenny, 1995). Often times researchers used a variety of methods to measure students' levels of engagement. The most frequently used methods are surveys, self-reporting, questionnaires, checklists and rating scales, observations, work sample analyses, and focused case studies (Chapman, 2003).

How does this relate to me, the Classroom Teacher?

The goal of every teacher is to get students to learn. However, many students are living in a different type of multimedia world than their teaches. Watch the video below to gain an understanding of why computer software is necessary in helping to engage the students in our schools.

Levels of Student Engagement in Relation to Software Use:

Research suggests that many students relate to software in a variety of different ways. Because students have so many different reactions and interactions with software there is no single hypothesis of engagement that can describe all of these complex connections (Bangert-Drowns & Pyke, 2002). According to Bangert-Drowns et al. there are six types of engagement when it comes to student engagement in relation to computer software: disengagement, unsystematic engagement, frustrated engagement, structure-dependent engagement, self-regulated interest, critical engagement, and literate thinking.

Three of these levels result in a positive level of learner engagement with computer software. The lowest level of positive learner engagement, structure-dependent engagement, is when students are capable of meeting the goals and objectives communicated to the student by the software. These students have a "holistic" concept of the software and are able to gather enough information to determine its purpose. The next level, self-regulated interest, is when students work strategically with the software at hand, and do so in order to maintain a high level of interest. These students are capable of operating and navigating the software on a consistent basis. They are also able to draw from the software and make connections to personal experiences. Finally, critical engagement, the second highest level of learner engagement, is when students are capable of reflecting on, analyzing, and evaluating the experience they are having with the software. Students may reside in the highest level of engagement with a piece of software one day, and then rank in the lowest level of engagement with the same, or different, software the next day (Bangert-Drowns & Pyke, 2002).

Empirical research has also suggested that computer software can have a negative effect on student engagement if it is not used properly (Baher, 1998). Bangert-Drowns' et al. (2002) study showed that three of the six levels of learner engagement have a negative effect on students' experience with computer software: disengagement, unsystematic engagement, and frustrated engagement. During disengagement, students comprehension of the software navigation and operations is so minimal that the student declines purposeful interaction. When students are experiencing unsystematic engagement, they are capable of navigating and operating the software with success, but do not arrange their skills to pursue long-term goals. Finally, frustrated engagement is defined by the students inability to pursue long-term goals because they do not have operational skills or knowledge. It is important to remember, however, that students can transition in and out of different levels of engagement, both higher and lower.

Factors that Affect Student Engagement with Software:

Academic ability, another factor that requires more research, plays a role in student engagement with computer software. Research has shown that students with varying levels of aptitudes have shown different forms of cognitive engagement during computer play. Students of both genders with higher ability levels showed more evidence of self-regulated learning and were more successful at maintaining engagement with the software. Lower ability students were not able to function at the level of self-regulated learning, but transitioned between lower levels of learner engagement (Mandinarch & Corno, 1985).

Finally, gender has an effect on student engagement when it comes to computer software. Mandinach and Corno (1985) found that female students seemed more likely to adopt and maintain one type of engagement while using computer software. However, males were more successful in reaching the highest levels of student engagement with software. Females were also more likely to request for computer software support from their classroom teachers, even when support was not necessary because students were performing well on their own.

How Can Teachers Increase Student Engagement By Using Software?

If teachers want to make a better connection with their students, they are going to have to begin to incorporate some of the components of a 21st century classroom; adding the effective use of computer software will help teachers do just that. The chart below shows several factors that encourage student achievement and engagement through the use of computer software.

Created by Amie Schultz

There are three essential components that need to be considered if a teacher wants to engage students through the use of computer software: teacher care and encouragement, teacher has a strong technological knowledge that is based on research, and the teacher recognizes student interests and needs.

When a teacher is careful and encouraging it leads to high student confidence. Students work hard to appease their teachers, peers and parents."Students who reported higher levels of teacher engagement and caring, tended to have higher levels of achievement than students who reported lower levels of teacher involvement in their learning at school. Further, higher levels of adult engagement with student learning were related to more positive student views of themselves - they felt more competent and also tended to have higher levels of achievement. The bottom line is that adults can have a substantial positive role in a child's success in school" (Anderson, 2010).

Additionally a teacher's strong foundation in technology will enable them to choose proper and meaningful software activities. Having appropriate software activities and computer based tasks will encourage student engagement. Providing students with projects and activities that are meaningful is important in creating student engagement with software. "Teachers can draw on technology applications to simulate real-world environments and create actual environments for experimentation, so that students can carry out authentic tasks as real workers would, explore new terrains, meet people of different cultures, and use a variety of tools to gather information and solve problems" (Means, 1997, p. 43). Additionally teachers can incorporate software and structure classrooms around student involvement in challenging, long-term projects and focused, meaningful, engaged learning, which is important for all students (Means, 1997).

Finally, when a teacher recognizes the interest of his or her student's interests, and their differing needs, the teacher will be more careful in choosing software that is relevant to the individual learner. When a learner is doing tasks that are necessary and relevant to their specific learning goals, they are more likely to be engaged. Finally, "Teachers who make educational use of computer software need to distinguish different qualities of student engagement, so they can better anticipate and respond to different qualities of student learning [because]... engaged students interact with software in qualitatively distinct ways. Some work independently, strategically, and creatively. Others depend on clear directions. Still others move from task to task without apparent plan. One might expect very different learning effects from these different styles of engagement" (Bangert-Drowns & Pyke, 2002).

When a student is fully engaged in these three areas, they are more likely to experience a feeling of academic success.

Retrieved from Google Images 4/7/10

Additional Resources and Links:

Article: Pedagogical Motivations for Student Computer Use That Lead to Student Engagement

Article: The impact of student engagement on learning: the school improvement process is moving too slowly for many of our young people. Student engagement is usually the missing link to providing a stimulating and challenging education.

Article: Student Engagement: Views from Technology-Rich Classrooms


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Kenny, G., Kenny, D., & Dumont, R. (1995). Mission and place: Strengthening learning and community through campus design. Oryx/Greenwood. 37

Mandinach E. B. and Corno L. (1985). Cognitive engagement variations among students of different ability level and sex in a computer problem solving game. Sex Roles. 13:3-4. p 241-251

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