The Research Files Episode 6: Sandra Pattison and Tham Lu

You're listening to a podcast from Teacher, this is The Research Files and I'm Jo Earp.

Today I'm with Sandra Pattison, General Manager of research at the National Centre for Vocational Educational Research, and Research Officer Tham Lu, to talk about an NCVER report released earlier this year into whether school characteristics influence student engagement of 15-year-olds.

Jo Earp: Sandra Pattison and Tham Lu, welcome to The Research Files.

Sandra Pattison: Thank you.

JE: Sandra, first of all, can you tell listeners about the aim of the research?

SP: Thank you, yes. It's well established that students who engage well with schooling, perform better academically. So, they have better rates of school completion, academically they perform better and they generally end up in better jobs later on in life. We know a lot about students' background, and we know [that] the student's engagement is driven by their background. We know for example that females, students who have parents from higher education backgrounds, those coming from non-English speaking backgrounds, have high levels of motivation and this concept of self awareness and ability are all important drivers.

The question we wanted to get to, though, was about what impact the school can have in this. So, the extent to which the school factors influence engagement - that's not really as well known. So, the aim of this research was to find out to what extent student engagement can be strengthened by the ways in which schools are set up and run. We focused specifically on emotional and cognitive engagement of 15-year-olds.

JE: Tham, what did the research involve?

Tham Lu: To address the research questions, our research used the data from the 2009 cohort of the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth, which collate information about young people's education and training activities, starting at the age of 15. So, as Sandra mentioned before, our research only focused on two particular components of student engagement. The emotional engagement in our research is based on the 12 items that measure students' effective reactions towards school. So, for example, we asked students whether they feel happy, safe and secure at school; whether they find the work they do is interesting or a lot of fun or whether they get excited about the work that they do. In terms of the cognitive engagement, given the data limitations, the closest measure that we can get from the data set is to use the strategies that students use in reading, such as understanding and remembering. Now, after we get these two measures from the data set, we're looking at the relationship between cognitive engagement and emotional engagement in relation to individual characteristics and the school factors. So, in our research, we're looking at a whole range of individual characteristics ... such as student demographic background, their academic performance and educational aspirations, the number of hours they work after school and their peers' aspirations. In terms of the school factors, obviously in reality there's a whole range of factors that schools may influence on student's engagement level but given the data that we have we can only focus on the school factors that actually potentially can influence the student engagement based on the five categories. So, we're looking at the school sector and demographics, school [resources], competition and academic orientation. We're also looking at how the school is run in terms of the school leadership and teacher quality, and the school climate.

JE: Sandra, can you share three of the key findings then?

SP: Certainly. So, just reiterating what Tham was saying - so we were looking at the influence the school can have when you control for those individual student characteristics, when we're looking at both cognitive and an emotional engagement.

Overwhelmingly at the age of 15, the emotional and cognitive engagement with the school is overwhelmingly still driven by the individual background characteristics. So, the first finding is effectively just confirming that the individual person and who they are at that point in their life is having a very large effect on their engagement with their schooling. Their intention to perform, to complete Year 12, having high self concept of ability, coming from an overseas country or English as a second language, working relatively few hours outside of school as well and coming from a traditional family are all influencing that engagement quite strongly. So, it does reinforce what the literature is saying about student background in particular.

The interesting finding for us, which was the heart of the question, was about to what extent is the school influencing engagement at age 15. The answer to that is at the age of 15 it's having a fairly marginal effect on their engagement. So, the school characteristics that Tham spoke about – which were around resourcing and class sizes and all of those sorts of things, the leadership of the school – account for about 4.3 per cent of the student's emotional engagement and about 7.5 per cent of their cognitive engagement. So, the school has a slightly larger influence on the cognitive engagement over the emotional, but it's still a relatively marginal effect on engagement.

The third key finding is that for those students that are at risk of leaving school, the school characteristics are having even less of an effect on them. So, the school characteristics are accounting for 1.4 per cent of the emotional engagement and 4.4 per cent of the cognitive engagement. What we mean by emotional engagement is the student's effective reactions towards the school, so whether they like school and a sense of belonging. So, the questions we were looking at were trying to get a sense of that. Whereas, the cognitive engagement refers to their psychological investment in learning, and their use of learning strategies ...

JE: They're interesting findings. What do you see as being the implications for schools and educators in Australia then, of this research?

SP: Well ... it's not saying that the school doesn't matter, but what it's saying is that by the age of 15 is that the patterns of the individual - who they are and their lifetime to date - is having more influence than the school at that particular point in time. So, one of the findings from this is that it's too late at the age of 15 to try and get an individual student engaged in schooling; the engagement needs to happen through the school at a lot earlier age than 15 possibly as well. It's not to say the school doesn't matter, however. We know that the type of school in particular can have quite a bearing on other outcomes for individual students. Now, this does become a little circular because the better engaged you are the more likely you are to complete Year 12 and get a better ATAR score, but the type of school has a very strong influence on the ATAR scores and the probability of going on to university ... So, the message for parents I guess is that school can matter, but at the age of 15 you need to have them engaged if you're going to get to those successful outcomes, so it really is about what sort of learning strategies and what sort of cognitive and emotional engagement can happen earlier to actually set them on a good pathway.

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To access the full report: Do schools influence student engagement in the high school years? click on the link.

Is there a particular learning strategy that has achieved success in your school?

What evidence is there to suggest that this strategy has contributed to an increase in engagement levels?