If students aren’t engaged, they’re not learning, plain and simple, so knowing whether or not students are engaged, of course, is mighty important. There are many ways to scope out just how engaged our learners are. How does the room feel? Is there energy in the air? How many students respond when a question is asked? Are students making eye contact? Are students dropping off? Are students distracting themselves, or locked in to learning?
The trouble is, we can see what students look like they are doing, but we can’t read their minds. All good students have learned how to look attentive when they are completely disengaged, and plenty of creative students can look completely disengaged when they are they are actually deep in thought. Is my student who is looking up in the air thinking about a beautiful first line for a piece of writing, or is he thinking, “wouldn’t it be cool if Beyonce moved in next door?” We can’t read their minds, so it is hard to know.
But can we ask students to tell us? Experience sampling, a method I used for my Partnership Learning research, is one way to do that. All it requires is a simple form and the timer on your cell phone. If your phone doesn’t have a timer, you can buy a kitchen timer to accomplish the same thing.
The form, like the one I’ve included (You can download one here), is just a simple piece of paper with numbers arranged across the page in a typical likert scale.
You need to explain what engagement sampling is all about before you start using it. You can explain what you’re doing by simply telling your students that you want to do a great job of teaching them, and so you are going to measure how well you’re doing.
Discussion of the form can be a springboard for a healthy dialogue with students about the importance of engagement in learning. You might ask students what engages them, or why engagement is important, or discuss how they can find personal connections in learning to make learning more relevant and thus engaging.
To make sure you get good data, you need to explain what “I’m bored” means and what “I’m very engaged means.” You also need to explain that students are to circle the appropriate number on the form whenever they hear the bell, circling a number on a different line each time. Make sure they know their response is confidential and that for you to learn, they need to be totally honest.
Once everyone understands how to complete the form, grab your phone, set the timer on your phone for ten minutes, and start your lesson. When the bell on the timer rings, kids can circle the number that best reflects their level of engagement. I suggest you keep track of exactly what you are doing at each ring, so you can assess the level of engagement of each teaching practice. At the end of your class you’ll have some valuable data you can interpret.
I suggest you review your data the day you do the engagement sampling. Just looking through your forms will tell you a lot. Look for is trends, and try not to get too hung up on one or two students whose scores are outliers. If you like data, you can calculate a mean and file away your data, then repeat the experiment a few weeks later. If you try out a new practice, you can also use the form to see how effectively it engages students.
A big part of being a radical learner is to encourage our students by sharing our own enthusiasm for learning. If we walk the talk, kids may get the learning bug too. Engagement sampling can yield really interesting data, but it also shows that we are excited by learning and we want to do better. When students see tangible evidence that we are learning, it can encourage them to embrace learning too. Ultimately, inspiring students to be learners through this process may be a far more important outcome than what we learn from our data.