Expert Q&A: Student engagement in learning

‘The messaging around student engagement often involves teachers pushing and pulling students in a certain direction – hooking them in, getting them engaged, keeping them engaged – as if the student is just a passive pawn rather than an active participant.’ Dr Amy Berry is a Research Fellow at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) and an honorary fellow at the University of Melbourne. Her new book Reimagining Student Engagement: From Disrupting to Driving proposes an engagement model positioning students as active partners in the learning process and explores how to encourage learners to participate, invest, and drive their own learning experiences. In today’s expert Q&A, Berry explores the challenges teachers face when engaging students in the classroom, the impact this has on students’ wellbeing and sense of belonging, and how teachers can cultivate a culture of engagement in their classrooms.

What inspired you to write Reimagining Student Engagement?

I first thought about writing a book about student engagement when I was a PhD student. I became really frustrated with what was out there to support teachers. There is no shortage of advice given to teachers on how to get students engaged, but it remains a persistent challenge for schools and teachers. There were 2 things that finally got me to commit to writing the book.

First, the continuum of engagement that I developed in my research was used in a book called The Distance Learning Playbook (2020) by Doug Fisher, John Hattie and Nancy Frey. As a result, my work started to get the attention of educators in the US. Corwin reached out to me through John to see if I wanted to write a book. At about the same time, I started to hear from teachers in the US who were using my continuum with their students and finding it useful. That really blew me away and was the motivation I needed to try and translate what I had learned in my research into something practical and useful for teachers.

‘Student engagement’ is a term often used in education and it has come to mean many different things. How do you define it?

Student engagement has become a big umbrella term that means everything from turning up to school to becoming completely immersed in trying to understand something better or master something. Often, we make very little distinction between being engaged in school – turning up and taking part in things that happen at school – and being engaged in the process of learning – taking actions designed to improve our understanding or skills. These 2 things are related but they are not the same thing.

This has led to some understandable confusion about what it is that we are talking about when we say we want to improve student engagement. My work focuses specifically on student engagement in learning; the degree of effort, interest, curiosity, persistence and risk-taking that students choose to invest in learning.

Your book explores the continuum of student engagement. Could you share with readers what this is exactly, and how you developed the continuum through your research?

When I started my research, I discovered we don’t actually know much about how teachers and students think about student engagement or what their real-world experience of engagement is. Educational psychologists have their own language to describe engagement – terms like behavioural engagement, emotional or affective engagement, and cognitive engagement may be familiar to educators as they often appear in policy documents and research papers. Even so, I have yet to hear teachers – much less students – talk about engagement in this way.

Generally, the language of engagement in schools is about whether students are engaged or disengaged. In my research, I was interested in how teachers think about and describe student engagement and disengagement based on their experiences in the classroom. The continuum of engagement is the result of that research. It consists of 3 forms of disengagement – Disrupting, Avoiding and Withdrawing – and 3 forms of engagement – Participating, Investing and Driving. Both engagement and disengagement range from passive forms to more active forms.

Of course, disengagement is a huge issue for schools too. In what ways does disengagement impact a student’s overall wellbeing and sense of belonging at school?

Disengagement is a serious challenge facing schools, now more than ever. Disruptive students who actively demonstrate their disengagement and disenchantment with school are the most visible, but they are merely the tip of the iceberg. Less visible, but no less concerning, is the large number of students who are passively disengaged and disconnected from learning at school.

They choose this path for a number of different reasons, but the result is the same. They fly under the radar on a pathway that limits both their potential for learning and their ability to thrive at school. Disengagement, whether active or passive, can have serious and unwanted effects on a student’s physical and mental wellbeing – including issues with anxiety, depression, frustration, anger and physical symptoms associated with stress.

In your research, what are some of the challenges that you’ve found teachers face when attempting to improve student engagement in their classrooms?

One of the biggest challenges is not being clear about what their goal is. What do they mean by engagement? What are they hoping to achieve when they say they want to ‘improve engagement’? What does engagement look like now and what will it look like if they succeed in improving it? Do the students know what the goal is or is this secret teacher business? When we don’t have a clear idea of where we want to get to, it is really hard to make an informed decision about how to get there and even harder to tell if what we are doing is working. Another big challenge, or roadblock, is that student engagement is often mixed up with behaviour management, meaning the task becomes one of managing compliance rather than inspiring active learning.

You’ve said that it is important to position students as active partners in the learning process. What can teachers do to help students drive their learning and become valuable partners in the process?

The messaging around student engagement often involves teachers pushing and pulling students in a certain direction – hooking them in, getting them engaged, keeping them engaged – as if the student is just a passive pawn rather than an active participant. Which is odd when you realise that it is actually the student who chooses whether or not they will engage and to what extent they are willing to engage.

Teachers can do their best to set up the right conditions for engagement but we cannot make them get engaged or make them learn. To help get our partnership going, we need to spend some time preparing. We need to develop a shared understanding of and language for engagement so we can talk about it, we need to be clear about how both parties can contribute to the partnership, and we need some sort of ongoing process that will support us to think about and talk about engagement during learning experiences every day.

Just like learning to drive a car, driving in the engagement sense requires certain skills and knowledge. We need to teach them what it means to be driving their learning and how to do it, then we need to give them plenty of practise to help them develop confidence and competence in driving.

Given all of this, how can teachers and students cultivate this culture of engagement in their classrooms?

As the title of the book suggests, this is not about a quick fix. It is not about adding in a few new things but mostly doing it the way we have always done it. This is about transforming the way we think about engagement, the way we talk about engagement, and the way we approach the task of supporting our students to become highly engaged and successful learners. But there is still much about how students view their own engagement that we don’t understand.

That’s why ACER is commencing a 12-month study that will investigate student perspectives on engaging in learning at school. Not only will this give children and young people a voice in the research into student engagement, it will also help us to better support students to become highly engaged, active and skilled lifelong learners.

If your school is located in the greater Melbourne area and you are interested in being involved in this study, please contact Dr Amy Berry ( for more information.

How do you define student engagement in your classroom? What does engagement look like and how will you know if you’ve succeeded in improving it? Are these goals shared with students?

Dr Amy Berry says driving student engagement requires certain skills and knowledge. ‘We need to teach them what it means to be driving their learning and how to do it, then we need to give them plenty of practise to help them develop confidence and competence in driving.’ How do you do this with students in your classroom? How often are you actively giving students time to practise this?