There are several ways to measure the success of a school. The traditional way is to define it according to academic performance, particularly on standardized tests. This is the way school headmasters of old benchmarked success, and it remains in practice today. Conversely, some educational experts prefer to define success through a “student happiness index,” arguing that contentment – not a test – is the hallmark of a prospering school.
Each of these methods has merits. But each method on its own is incomplete. To get at the qualitative value of an academic institution, you have to look at the school from several angles.
One of those critical angles is “student engagement.” Alongside concrete test performances and student happiness, student engagement is an essential ingredient for a thriving school. At OES, we take student engagement seriously, which is why we’re always looking for meaningful ways to connect with our young learners.
What is student engagement, why is it important, and how is it measured? Moreover, how does a ministry inspected Ontario online high school like OES work to nurture and elevate engagement? Those are the big questions we tackle in this article. And with any luck, we can make it engaging!
What Is Student Engagement?
Let’s begin with the textbook definition (we are a school, after all). Per The Glossary of Education Reform, part of the Great Schools Partnership:
“Student engagement refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education.”
Let’s parse that out a little. The definition mentions five qualities: attention, curiosity, interest, optimism and passion. We know the Glossary didn’t just whip out its Thesaurus for synonyms of “engagement” because each of these qualities is different and distinct.
Attention is your fundamental form of engagement, the basic necessary building block of engagement. In education, (as in most contexts), attention refers to the awareness and consciousness of information presented. For instance, if a math teacher is explaining trigonometric functions and the student isn’t daydreaming about hockey, that’s what we call attention!
Now, curiosity is the next step. You can think of it as “attention plus an internal dialogue.” Not only is the student processing the information about trigonometric functions, but they’re formulating their own questions in their head: “I wonder how trigonometric functions apply to astronomy? Can I use them to understand how far apart stars are?” These questions lead a student toward interest, the next level in engagement, which describes a personal investment in their immediate learning experience.
The more interest a student takes, the more optimism they’re inclined to feel. Their brain is forming all these numerous new connections – and they like the feeling! Think of it like the moment you learned to ride a bike. Something just clicks, and suddenly you feel the world open up. That’s what academic optimism feels like.
Finally, when a student feels enough optimism for enough time, it transforms into passion. “I think I’m a natural at this whole math and physics thing. I might even be able to forge innovations of my own. I’d better dedicate myself to this MHF4U course.” Passion is the gold standard for student engagement.
Why Student Engagement Is Important
Per the Glossary definition, these five qualities “extend” – or directly lead – to motivation. Motivation is beyond important to a young learner; it is the propulsive force that keeps them progressing in their education, despite setbacks or challenges.
Every student has their own profile of skills and challenges. One might feel completely at home in their Grade 12 English course, but struggle to absorb math concepts in their Calculus and Vectors course. That’s perfectly okay! As long as they have motivation in their corner, they will always, always strive for their personal best.
Getting the personal best from each student is the best a school can hope for. It demonstrates that the teachers, learning models, materials and environment have coalesced to foster the utmost potential from each student.
Whereas standardized test results may be influenced by pre-existing student skills and proficiencies, motivation and high personal achievement are directly attributable to a school’s influence. This distinction is a critical reason why student engagement is important.
How to Measure Student Engagement
You might be thinking to yourself, “hmm, that sounds compelling – but how on earth does a school measure curiosity?” As of yet, there’s no “curiosity-meter” you can strap to a high school student, no “passion diagnostic device” that gives a numerical reading.
What a school can do, however, is proactively monitor its students for engagement. Here are a few ways to measure engagement:
- Teachers can observe engagement in real time by asking questions, leading discussions and fostering collaborative work.
- A school can dispense routine student self-report surveys on how connected they feel to their coursework.
- Administrators can lead interviews and focus groups.
- A school can rely on the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Growing SuccessDocument to administer Assessment of Learning (AOL), Assessment for Learning (AFL) or Assessment as Learning (AAL) assignments.
- And lastly, a school can measure its engagement by the opportunities it creates – does the school support its students when they struggle, take an active role in nurturing passions, etc?
The collective insights garnered by the processes above indicate the overall health of a school’s engagement. However, it’s impossible to arrive at a hard-and-fast number. (A school cannot boast “97%” engagement, for instance). Instead, a school (and all the people comprising it) can keep its figurative ear to the ground for how motivated their learners are, adjusting and improving as necessary.
Student engagement isn’t a finish line we cross; it’s an ongoing commitment we make to the attention, curiosity, interest, optimism and passion of our students. Anecdotally, we measure it in the confidence we see as OES students graduate from our school and develop the lives they want.
Student Engagement in Online Learning
“How does student engagement in online learning work if there’s no physical teacher around to engage?” This is a question we’ve encountered a few times – a justifiable, reasonable question to ask.
As studies indicate, online learning can be more engaging than traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms precisely because they do not rely solely on a synchronous, physical space. Great online schools have a few things going for them regarding student engagement:
- Diversity of materials
- A self-paced learning model
- Round-the-clock resource accessibility and availability
Let’s offer each of the points above its own spotlight.
Diversity of Materials
Brick-and-mortar classrooms tend to lean heavily on written texts and oral explanations; interactive multimedia elements are hard to engineer into a physical school with finite resources. To be sure, written and oral information comprise fantastic modes of learning – but after a while, they produce diminishing returns on engagement.
Online schools have the full spectrum of media at their fingertips, since students work through their courses online. Yes, a teacher can present an oral lecture on Chinese-Canadian history or refer students to a written text on Hamlet. But they can also incorporate interactive graphs, animations, discussion forums, digital content creation, etc. These alternative modes of learning keep things fresh and interesting. They also extend a much-needed lifeline to students who struggle with auditory or reading/writing learning styles.
A Self-Paced Learning Model
In education, we distinguish between “synchronous” and “asynchronous” learning. The former model is the one we all remember from our high school tenure: the classroom works at a single, synchronized pace. If a student falls behind, it’s incumbent on them to catch up to the rest of the class – the show must go on. By contrast, asynchronous learning involves each student marching to the beat of their own academic drum. The student sets her own pace; she allocates her time accordingly; if she needs longer to absorb a concept, she takes longer.
This self-paced learning model is roundly lauded by education experts because it fosters self-motivation. When a student feels in control of their studies, they take ownership over their education. They don’t need to “check out” of a class lecture because they choose when to engage.
Finally, a quality online school promotes engagement through its support system. Few things are more devastating to a student’s engagement than feeling like “I will never get it.” Remember, optimism and confidence are key elements in engagement.
A quality online school never leaves a student wallowing in their own defeatism. They offer layers of support to prevent that sort of disengagement. Resources might include in-built tutoring services, mental health resources, tips for online learning and open lines of communication between teachers and students. A traditional brick-and-mortar school turns its lights off around 5 pm. An online school and its affiliate resources stay open round-the-clock.
How OES Nurtures and Elevates Student Engagement
At Ontario eSecondary school, we’re always concerned with increasing engagement in online learning. It’s a mission around these parts. We want every student who walks through our digital doorways to take an active role in their education and live up to their highest potential.
We achieve those lofty goals by enacting the processes outlined in the previous section.
Per our FAQ page, “All of our online courses contain materials such as PowerPoints, videos, PDFs and interactive content guided by certified instructors covering Ontario curriculum expectations… Interactive activities and multimedia elements occur throughout the content to engage students, provide opportunities to practice understanding, and differentiate instruction.” On our blog, you will find resources on learning styles (the VARK model) and how we strive to accommodate each.
OES subscribes to a self-paced, self-directed learning model. If a student needs to allot additional time to understand tough concepts in the hardest high school courses, they’re entirely free to do so. Similarly, if a student’s passion for the material carries them through a course with ease, they can finish quickly. Our asynchronous education ensures that students never feel disengaged by academic challenges, low energy or burnout. They’re always welcome to take a deep breath, set aside their studies and return when they feel refreshed enough to engage meaningfully.
And what if the processes above aren’t enough to engage a student? What if, despite the multimedia elements and self-paced learning, they still feel lost? At OES, we’ve constructed several support systems to buttress students from checking out. An OES student can always rely on their teachers to answer questions, offer assessments and provide guidance. Further, students can avail themselves of our 24/7 tutoring services. Even if you’re staring down a polynomial at 1 am, scratching your head, you can find the support you need.
Finally, increasing engagement in online learning involves providing access to information – within a course and without. To that end, OES publishes abundant resources on this very blog. Scroll through the back catalogue, and you will find resources on everything from balancing online studies and mental health to time management tips for online students. We want to ensure that each student is as equipped as they can possibly be to face the challenges of high school education.
The Bottom Line
A school can measure its success in mean test scores, but unless it devotes itself to extracting the maximum potential from every student, we don’t believe it can be successful.
The best way to quantify success is by focusing on engagement – how curious, confident and invested a student body is in their educational progress. We can measure this in the moment through teacher interaction, as well as through routine self-surveys, interviews and more.
OES dedicates itself to student engagement by a) offering a plurality of learning modes with multimedia and interactive elements, b) treating students as individual learners who require individual approaches, c) promoting a self-paced, self-motivated approach to education, d) offering ample support to dissuade disengagement, and e) publishing resources (like this one!) on our public blog.
If you’re a parent concerned about a “checked out” student, book a consultation with us. Likewise, if you are a student who knows you can reach a higher potential – if only you had an environment that allowed you to flourish – talk to your parents about enrollment at our online high school.