Classroom engagement and the search for meaning By Dr Fenny Muliadi

engagementA lack of interest and engagement in ongoing classroom activities have repeatedly been found to have a negative effect on children’s learning experience and on their learning outcomes. For example, in 2010 Dr Reinhardt Pekrun and his colleagues found that, in the classroom, students who are disinterested in the content of the lesson, often have difficulty concentrating and a lack motivation to learn. Other researchers have found that a lack of interest in lesson content is associated with truancy, low absenteeism and school drop-out[1-3], drug and alcohol use[4, 5], deviant behaviour[6-8] and mental health concerns [9, 10]. Along with the negative consequences of disinterest in class lessons are alarming statistics which show that students report experiencing boredom between 37% and 58% of the time they spend in class[11, 12]. It is therefore imperative for teachers and educators to better understand classroom engagement, and find effective ways to increase this fundamental aspect of successful learning.

A recent study by Ulrike Nett and colleagues (2011)[12] showed that students often report using cognitive-approach strategies to combat boredom in the classroom. Cognitiveapproach strategies involve focusing on the valuable aspects of the ‘boring’ activities; for example, reminding oneself of the material’s importance, or focusing on the skill gained from doing the activities. These strategies are the most commonly used.  Other less common strategies include avoidance behaviours (e.g., chatting with other classmates) and behavioural-approach strategies (e.g., asking the teacher to assign another task). The cognitive-approach strategies are not only the most common, they have been found to be the most effective in reducing frustration in the classroom. This suggests that students are able to re-appraise their perceptions of the meaningfulness of lesson content. It also shows that the students’ cognitive appraisals are vital in supporting topic interest and engagement.

Teachers and educators may find it useful to adopt cognitive-approach strategies when designing lesson plans and classroom activities to support student engagement in learning. One way they can do this is by identifying and aligning the concepts students are learning in the class with ideas they may find interesting, useful and valuable in real life. In practical terms, this may involve allowing students to explore the practical implications of the lesson material or content. Similarly, it requires helping students to understand how the purpose of the lesson or the content and material relate to different everyday functional activities of interest. For instance, a maths lesson on measurements and fractions can be daunting to students (and adults!) and result in an immediate loss of interest in the lesson.  The introduction of everyday popular activities such as cooking, which involves measuring and apportioning different ingredients, or building and carpentry, which involve measuring and cutting or dividing pieces of materials, could offer a more immediately relevant and engaging way to demonstrate these math concepts. Furthermore, students may be more likely to appreciate the value of practical activities to their own lives, and consequently be more motivated to learn.

Dr Carol Sansone and colleagues have repeatedly found that strategies which enhance interest in learning with everyday relevancy increase student motivation, effort and persistency[13, 14]. Additionally, enhanced intrinsic motivation, along with perceived increases in task value or interest, have been shown to improve critical thinking[15]. As such, strategies to anchor learning in everyday life enhance student interest and intrinsic motivation, in addition to fostering their interest in education and their love of learning.

It is perhaps not surprising that the rigor of a full curriculum has been associated with ongoing frustration and disengagement by many students. Moreover, factors such as a perceived lack of control in the classroom, and the need for constant repetition of information and skills often exacerbated the intensity of perceived boredom. Cognitiveapproach strategies which focus on re-evaluating the real world relevance and importance of learning offer an important addition to any teaching plan. It is hoped that by letting students appreciate the everyday relevancy of classroom learning, they will be more likely to stay interested in school activities and will be intrinsically motivated to be life-long learners.


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