Increasing Student Engagement: Are You Up for the Challenge?

Sometimes, keeping students engaged in the classroom feels like an uphill battle. Teachers work long hours, are held to high standards for content delivery, and have a voluminous amount of preparation and grading to complete every day. We all know that experiential activities and inquiry-based strategies are related to student engagement. We are also fully aware that creating classroom environments that employ these approaches take a lot of time. Therefore, in spite of the research, “lecture continues to be the predominant mode of instruction.” [1]

In addition, teachers who teach content areas that can be perceived as threatening (e.g. science and math) may try to make the work less challenging. Perhaps, the thinking goes, if I make the work easier, students won’t be as intimidated by it, and then I can get them more engaged. However, according to a study in a 2017 edition of the Journal of Educational Psychology, the end result of this choice is that students find the material boring. Challenge, it turns out, appears to be a necessary component for engagement.

The researchers of this study decided to examine this connection between challenge and student engagement more thoroughly. They conceptualized engagement as having two parts – a cognitive part, which involves each student’s effort and concentration, and an emotional part, which involves a student’s enjoyment and interest in the activity at hand.

The study included 223 students in 11 classrooms. The teachers would teach their classes, and students were prompted with pagers two times per lesson to respond to five questions about the degree to which they were concentrating, putting forth effort, interested in the session, enjoying themselves, and feeling challenged. The students’ responses were then analyzed in conjunction with the teachers’ behaviors during the class sessions. In particular, the researchers rated the teachers on how much they provided instructional (e.g. scaffolding the students’ efforts, providing the necessary materials, giving feedback and structuring the activity as it unfolded) and emotional (e.g. providing encouragement, respect, and caring, and conveying confidence and excitement in the students’ abilities) support to the students.

What do you think they found? When students felt challenged by the activity, they were more engaged. Also, when the teacher provided the necessary materials and structure to the activity, the students were also more engaged. The emotional support didn’t turn out to be all that important. What made the difference was when the students felt that the activity required some thought and effort, AND when the students felt that the teacher was giving them what they needed to complete the activity.

Have you ever had a job that bored you to tears? How motivated were you to show up and give it your all? Have you ever encountered a problem that you knew would take a lot of work, but that you also knew you had the tools to solve? Didn’t that problem suck up all your attention? If you’re like me, a task that is going to challenge me, but that I know I can do, will be swimming around in my consciousness for days. I will be so motivated to solve the problem and feel the sweet satisfaction of a hard job well done, that I will become immersed in it.

Your students are people, just like you! They thrive on challenges, provided they are given what they need to meet them. That is where you come in.

Here are three things you can do in your classroom to increase student motivation, and (probably) make the art of teaching even more enjoyable for you:

  • Make your classroom work challenging.
  • When your students are working, don’t help them too much. Let them struggle with the material. If you observe them getting frustrated, then step in and give them just enough to let them discover the next part of the problem.
  • Prepare! “Structured questions, appropriate materials, and the use of developmental feedback” are all elements of the instrumental support teachers provide that matter.

Make this three-pronged approach to increasing student engagement your own challenge this week. Your students don’t want you to dumb it down for them. They just want you to help them achieve something they can be proud of. Good luck!


[1] Strati, A. D., Schmidt, J. A., & Maier, K. S. (2017). Perceived challenge, teacher support, and teacher obstruction as predictors of student engagement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(1), 131.

About the Author

John D. Rich Jr., PhD., is an educational psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Delaware State University, a retired United Methodist minister, a husband and father of two sons. He is a regular guest on a popular radio show in New Hampshire, a regular author on The Good Men Project website, and a syndicated author on the website for Psychology Today, and a New Hampshire based news-based site.

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