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ISSN: 2641-1768

Scholarly Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences

Research ArticleOpen Access

Measuring Student Engagement In A High School Context Volume 6 - Issue 1

Manoj Nair*

  • Department of psychology, University of Tasmania, Churchill Ave, Hobart, TAS, Australia

Received:November 01, 2021;   Published:December 01, 2021

Corresponding author: Manoj Nair, Department of psychology, University of Tasmania, Churchill Ave, Hobart, TAS, Australia

DOI: 10.32474/SJPBS.2021.06.000229

Abstract PDF


The topic of student engagement is of considerable interest among researchers, practitioners and policymakers in education owing to its high correlation with academic achievement and school completion [1-5], mental health [6,8], and unproductive behaviour in schools [9-12]. Also, engagement as a multidimensional and interdisciplinary construct appears to offer a richer insight into how students think (cognition), act (behaviour), and feel (affect) at school than research on any other single dimension [13-17].


Furthermore, student engagement has important policy implications, especially in an Australian high school context where securing a high Year 12 attainment rate has been cited as an important objective [5,9,11], professed to be closely linked to developing national productivity and increasing human capital [19-21]. Notably, over 25% of young people across Australia (and over 40% in the state of Tasmania) do not complete Year 12 or its equivalent [22], with over one-third being stressed about high school [23], and over 40% disengaging from learning in high schools [24].
Thus, educators (teachers, senior school staff) continuously devising interventions to promote engagement in high schools [25-27]. However, addressing low student engagement appears to be a significant contributor to teacher stress and burnout since it occupies most of their planning and teaching time and hinders their ability to teach effectively [15,19,20]. Additionally, educators often struggle to understand why and how much their students are engaged, or otherwise, in school [28-31]. Consequently, they often rely, somewhat inaccurately, on their intuition or inferences (from observation and experiences) or readily available behavioural data or student demographics to inform and design interventions that promote student engagement in their schools [32-34]. As a result, wide variations are noticed in the practices followed and the outcomes achieved in different high schools [30]. Given that student engagement has the potential to address the significant issue of low educational attainment in high schools [35,36], it is imperative to find a systematic (replicable) way of measuring student engagement to better inform the interventions that promote it. The first and essential step in managing something well is to measure it accurately [37].
Thus, to promote students’ engagement sustainably through relevant interventions, so they stay productive and longer in schools [38], we need to start by finding a systematic way to measure it. However, it is easier said than done, since the topic of engagement, in addition to being a relatively new one (first appearing in literature in the 1980s), appears to be a latent and complex metaconstruct [39-42]. Thus, there might be some pending clarifications regarding theoretical underpinnings, definition, attribution, factorisation, data collection and interpretation, and therefore measurement surrounding the topic of engagement. So, the purpose of this document is to provide such clarifications (when needed) by undertaking a literature review. Furthermore, this document concludes by offering a considered view on the inquiry question-is there a valid and reliable way for educators to measure latent psychological constructs such as student engagement in a high school context?
Beginning with the exploration of the influential theories that inform the definition of engagement, it would appear that there are three prominent ones: the participation- identification model, the self-system motivational model, and the person-environment perspective [43]. The participation-identification model explains the interdependent and cyclical relation of a student’s participation in school activities (behavioural engagement) with the value attached to the school (emotional engagement) [44,45]. The selfsystem motivational model illustrates how the classroom context (i.e., structure, autonomy, support, and involvement) influences the students’ action (cognitive, behavioural, and emotional engagement) through the mediation of students’ self-system processes (competence, autonomy, and relatedness) [46-50]. The person-environment perspective connects students’ engagement to the fit between their needs and goals and the opportunities provided by their environment to meet them [25,26]. Together, the theories help to build a conceptual framework on engagement that integrates the personal (self), family (or home), social (peers), and other environmental (teachers, school) factors that might influence it [51-54].
Now, there have been as many as nineteen different definitions of engagement due to the variations in the scholarly interpretations of the concept between 1985 and 2008 [55]. Subsequentially, there have been attempts to arrive at a standard [55-58].
An acceptable and comprehensive definition of student engagement appears to include three essential aspects:
1) engagement as a relationship that students have with education (teachers, classrooms, learning resources, schools, etc.) [59-61];
2) engagement as multidimensional-comprising of the three interrelated dimensions of cognition, affect or emotion, and behaviour [62-65] and
3) engagement as a process in constant flux (malleablestrengthening and weakening depending on the quality of interactions that the student has with education over time) [65,66] as outlined in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Engagement as a students relationship with education ove time [67].


Furthermore explain engagement as both a psychological state and a behaviour, and ever since the seminal work of Finn and the causal link between affective and cognitive engagement with behavioural engagement has been made clear – put simply, if a student feels safe and emotionally connected to a school, and is able and interested in the work, he or she is more likely to participate effectively in the learning program [67-69], as outline in Figure 2.However, to accurately attribute the impact of engagement, it is essential to distinguish between its dimensions, influencers, and manifestations [70]. Influencers are what cause student engagement to fluctuate in the school context–they could be student-related [51,47,55], or school and teacher-related [28] or family and peer support related [35]. On the other hand, manifestations such as academic performance and educational attainment result from students engaging in schools [71]. Often, schools include easily observable behavioural engagement dimensions such as attendance or truancy (unexplained absences) as manifestations for conceiving the interventions to improve them.

Figure 2: Engagement is a process that is reciprocal and compounding [67].


However, such an approach can be problematic since it makes it difficult to ascertain the effects of the engagement dimensions on its manifestations [72]. Also, engagement might need to be conceptualised and measured separately from disengagement or disaffection [34,38,41]. Additionally, it is essential to clarify the relationship between motivation and engagement in that the latter represents the action (behavioural) or interest (cognitive) component of the former [73,74]. Thus, with such clarifications on proper attribution, attempts have been made to measure student engagement [25].
There are several ways to collect data on student engagement– from student self-report surveys to the use of teacher ratings, interviews and focus groups, observational methods, administrative data, and even technology-aided real-time measures [75]. Student self-report surveys appear to help understand the latent cognitive and affective dimensions of engagement that are not readily observable in high school students [76]. Furthermore, the other methods suffer from either observer or reporter bias [58-61], or issues of validity and reliability [77-79], or may be obtrusive, timeconsuming and expensive [11,17,24]. Notably, student self-reported engagement predicts high school completion (or dropouts) significantly better than other easily observable and commonly used behavioural data such as attendance (unexplained absences) or academic achievement data [33,37,38].
An extensive review conducted by comparing and contrasting eleven student self-reported survey measures, appears to provide critical insights into the various attempts (methods and instruments) to attribute, factorise and measure student engagement. A closer look at the survey measures, as listed in Figure 3, indicate differences in purpose. Some surveys explicitly assessed engagement, while others related constructs such as identification with school, motivation, self-regulation, and strategy use as measures of engagement. Some surveys measured general engagement, whereas others, class or subject- specific engagement.

Figure 3: List of the eleven student self-serveys analysed [30].


The survey measures also varied on whether and how they have treated disengagement in relation to engagement. For example, while some have represented disengagement as the opposite of engagement [17], others have attributed the former to lack of the latter [28]. Also, the surveys differed on whether they addressed each of the three dimensions of engagement, as seen in Figure 4. Each of the surveys measured factors of engagement by representing them as subscales. Eight surveys contained factors that seemed to reflect (either by the factor name or the sample items) aspects of behavioural engagement. At the same time, six of them addressed cognitive engagement and eight of them parts of emotional engagement, as outlined in Figure 5.

Figure 4: Dimensions of engagement assessed, by survey [30].


Figure 5: Factors and sub factors by engagement dimension [30].


Additionally, the survey instruments themselves varied; from the Engagement versus Disaffection scale that tested the students’ self-system model of engagement [15,18] to the Student Engagement Measure (SEM) that assessed the relationship between context and engagement [34]. Of specific interest in this document are two surveys that had the explicit purpose of improving educational attainment rates (by reducing school dropouts or ensuring school completion) -the Identification with School (ISQ) questionnaire and the Student Engagement Instrument (SEI).
While the ISQ (rooted in the participation-identification model) assessed the extent to which students identified with school and used it as a measure of engagement [22], the SEI measured the latent cognitive and affective dimensions of engagement and used them to expand on the more observable behavioural and academic indicators that were collected and reported by schools routinely [24]. Significantly, the SEI integrated the leading influencers of engagement (espoused by the three prominent theories underpinning it), such as motivation, autonomy, school, and environment within the scales measuring engagement, thereby treating engagement appropriately as a mediator between its influencers and its outcomes [32]. Also, being a quantitative measure that could be deployed as a measurement tool from time to time, the SEI (just like the other ten measures) recognises the inherent malleability of the engagement construct [44]. Furthermore, each instrument was evaluated for its reliability (its ability to produce similar results across contexts) and validity (the extent to which it measures what it claims to measure), and the SEI instrument scored the highest in reliability scores [55], as seen in Figure 6.

Figure 6: Reliability scores per Servey instrument [30].


The validities of the survey instruments were assessed using different approaches such as construct validity and criterion-related validity [46]. However, the validity results were not compared due to the significant variations in the type and number of factors and items considered in the eleven surveys. The SEI instrument scale used exploratory factor analysis for assessing construct validity on fifty-six items using a socially and culturally diverse sample of 1931 ninth graders and was found to be valid, with the emergence of six subscales (teacher-student relationships, peer support, family support, control and relevance of schoolwork, future aspirations, and extrinsic motivation) [11-14]. Further attempts at refining the SEI instrument using confirmatory factor analysis resulted in five subscales, dropping extrinsic motivation as a subscale [36]. Over time, the SEI instrument has been refined to improve its validity and reliability further, concurrently with behavioural engagement measures [58], across some teaching and learning contexts [44], and across some geographies [17]. In its current form, the SEI comprises 35 student self- reported items mapped to the cognitive and affective dimensions of engagement [29], as outlined in Figure 7.The latest updates on the SEI instrument’s validity are available for reference at engagement.html [66]. In addition, more details on the SEI are provided as per Appendix (1,2).

Figure 7: Reliability scores per Servey instrument [30].


Appendix 1: SEI Instrument – Scale, Data Tabulation and Analysis (Appleton & Reschly, 2019).


Appendix 2: SEI Instrument – Scale, Data Tabulation and Analysis (Appleton & Reschly, 2019).


Thus, educators could potentially deploy the SEI to quantitatively measure the engagement of their students at the beginning of every school term, use the results to inform and design their interventions, and then measure the efficacy of their interventions by viewing their impact on the engagement scores in the following term [27]. In addition, other qualitative methods such as interviews and focus groups might be deployed to investigate further the individual cases associated with low cognitive and affective engagement scores. Such a cyclical and systematic way of measuring student engagement might aid educators to improve the educational outcomes in their schools.


In conclusion, there appears to be credible attempts to measure latent psychological constructs such as engagement in a reliable and valid manner through self-report methods. In particular, the SEI integrates the prominent theoretical influences of engagement within its survey instrument, addresses the multidimensional nature of the engagement construct, and reconciles the overlaps between its influencers, dimensions, and outcomes amicably. Also, the regular use of the SEI can assess students’ fluctuating and malleable relationship with education over time. Given its proven track record of reliability and validity across several teaching and learning contexts over time, it promises to be a valuable instrument to measure engagement in a high school context. Moreover, given that the SEI treats engagement as a mediator between its influencers and its outcomes, it aids in understanding the impact of important contexts (influencers) such as self, peers, school, and family on outcomes such as student achievement and attainment [47]. Consequently, the cyclical and systematic use of SEI to measure the malleable concept of engagement over time might facilitate and inform several interventions in high schools to promote it [22,33,48]. After all, “effective classrooms do not just happen. They are led by teachers who deeply understand their craft and the essential nature of the interaction between student, teacher, and context” [59].


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