Student engagement deconstructed

“Student engagement” is one of those concepts that seems overused these days.  Almost everything is designed to engage students.  Websites.  Physical technologies.  Classroom activities.  But what does it mean to “engage students?”  Sure, we have measures like the National Survey of Student Engagement which defines “student engagement” in part as the “amount of time and effort students put into their studies and other educationally purposeful activities.”  This is a useful first step, but I wonder whether engagement is really just reflected in the amount of time that students spend and the amount of effort they put forth.  What about the emotional and cognitive connections that students make when they’re engaged in a lesson?  Is that captured in “time and effort?”  I don’t think so.

Recently, I came across a 2014 article that was published in Simulation & Gaming.  The article, written by Whitton and Moseley, seeks to deconstruct student engagement in more useful and measurable ways.  Rather than look simply at the amount of time that a learner spends engaged in an activity, the authors wanted to broaden the lens to examine engagement based on ways of being, emotionally, psychologically and cognitively.  Synthesizing the research on engagement as it applies to learning, they propose six types of engagement including:

Participation: Engagement as doing – Loosely thought of as “time on task,” this type of engagement is critical.  Learners must attend class, log into a computer or “go through the motions” in order to more fully engage in the learning process.  While considered superficial on its own, this type of engagement is the important doorway to the other types of engagement Whitton and Moseley identify.

Attention: Engagement as commitment – Beyond attending class, engagement as commitment means that learners have committed to take part in the activity and have bought into the lesson.  Students have decided to pay attention and actively engage in the lesson.  Since it doesn’t capture a learner’s motivation for engaging, this type of engagement is also considered superficial.

Captivation: Engagement as enthrallment – Similar to attention, captivation represents a deeper level of engagement since it encompasses a psychological involvement with the activity.  When captivated, a learner is so engrossed in the activity cognitively that they lose track of time.  Whitton and Moseley connect this type of engagement to more intrinsic motivation on the part of the learner.

Passion: Engagement as feeling – In passion, the learner has become so emotionally connected with the activity that they feel a “strong emotion pull, be that empathy, anger or excitement.”  The engagement can span beyond a single activity and across temporal events.

Affiliation: Engagement as belonging – At affiliation, the learner starts to identify themselves as belonging to a larger community.  The learner takes on roles and responsibilities that helps them identify with the larger group and develop a sense of belonging to a larger social structure.

Incorporation: Engagement as being – At this level of engagement, learners take on new ways of being and see reality in different ways.  They become so immersed in the activity that they see themselves differently through their involvement.  This type of engagement, the authors write, can have “profound effects on a learner’s sense of self and personal identity.”

While presented as unique and discrete, the six types of engagement are not presented as a hierarchy or as interdependent.  At least not yet.  More connections between the types may surface down the road a bit as the deconstructed engagement types gain some traction.  Lost in this conceptualization, however, are the classroom strategies for fostering the different types.   I can see natural connections between learner-centered pedagogies (active learning, problem-based learning, etc) and the types of engagement.  That’s another possible outcome from this work.  Ultimately, however, it’s just great that we have a little broader view on what student engagement really is.


Moseley, A., & Whitton, N. (2014). Engagement in Simulation/Gaming Symposium Overview. Simulation & Gaming, 1046878114556438.


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