In today's education, the focus has been drawn to student engagement' among every educator whose goal is to enhance teaching and learning among the middle school learners. It is a topic that has mainly featured in education conferences around the world, and sometimes being the main agenda in such forums. However, different researchers seem to define student engagement in varying terms. For example, according to Trowler (2014), student engagement is defined as partaking in educationally effective practices, inside and outside the classroom, and whose outcome is measurable. Kuh et al. (2016) defined it as the extent of student involvement in research-based learning activities, while Bryson & Hardy (2011) defined student engagement as a broad concept aimed at covering salient academic and non-academic aspects of learner experience. The concepts include active and collaborative learning, involvement in challenging academic activities, formative communication with academic staff, involvement in stirring educational experiences and feeling supported and legitimated by institution's learning activities. Further, Barkley (2013) defined student engagement as being a construct that is more than involvement or participation but which stretches to encompass three crucial dimensions of learning; behavioral, emotional and cognitive engagement. When students are behaviorally engaged, they comply with behavioral norms such as involvement and attendance, which are important as they deter negative and disruptive behavior. Emotionally engaged students experience effective reactions such as a sense of belonging, enjoyment, and interest in the content and what is being learned, while cognitive engagement ensures that students invest their cognitive senses in their learning and would easily relish a sense of belonging.
While each of the definitions touches on an important aspect of student engagement, it might be confusing which definition to adopt and adequately understand the concept of student engagement. Nevertheless, Klem & Connell (2014) provides a comprehensive workable definition based on a review of the existing literature, and defines student engagement as a construct concerned with the interface between time, effort and other pertinent resources invested by the student and the school with the aim of optimizing the learner experience and improving the learning results as well as student performance and development, and institutional reputation. Therefore, student engagement can be understood and measured along engagement scales such as academic challenge which demonstrates extent to which assessments and expectations challenge students to learn, active learning (learner efforts to actively construct knowledge, staff and student interactions (nature and degree of staff contact with student), enriching educational experience (involvement in widening educational activities), supportive learning environment and work-integrated learning (Appleton, Christenson & Furlong, 2013).
In the recent times, student engagement has escalated in popularity due to the growing body of knowledge that has increased the understanding of the role played by emotional, intellectual, behavioral, social and physical factors in the social development and learning processes. For instance, it has been established that there exist connections between cognitive skills (such as motivation, interest, responsibility, curiosity, perseverance, work habits, social skills, and self-regulation) and cognitive learning outcomes (such as high test scores, improved academic performance, skill acquisition and information recall among others) (Appleton, Christenson & Furlong, 2013). The construct of educational engagement pops up whenever educators prioritize instruction techniques and educational strategies that tackle emotional, behavioral, developmental, intellectual and social factors that either boost or discourage learning for children (Elias, 2017).
Different Dimensions of Student Engagement
Cognitive engagement. This refers to the quality of learner's engagement in intellectual tasks, encompassing ownership, interests, and strategies for learning. It is a psychological state in which the learners invest in efforts to comprehend a topic and continue learning over an extended period (Chi & Wylie, 2014). Student cognitive engagement can be measured by observing class attendance, the extent to which the learners accomplish their homework, interactions with teachers, how they are motivated to engage in classroom and participation in co-curricular activities (Alvarez-Bell, Wirtz & Bian, 2017). It is for this description of cognitive engagement that most authors describe it as being independent of the context. For example, listening to a lecture or searching information on the internet can result in different levels of cognitive engagement. Listening to lectures could result in the least cognitive engagement because of the limited learner autonomy (Alvarez-Bell et al., 2017). This implies that different learning strategies could result in varying degrees of learner's cognitive engagement.
Behavioral engagement. This is the learner's involvement in the academic tasks and can be measured by observing student's effort, attention, persistence, involvement and participation (Meyer & Hunt, 2017). Behavioral engagement can be achieved through various strategies such as the use of cues or clapping hands if the learners, especially in elementary school, are distracted.
Emotional engagement. It involves interests, anxiety, happiness, boredom and any other factors that affect student's involvement in learning or perseverance in playing games. It also engrosses a sense of belonging and values (Gregory et al., 2014). Teachers may intervene and monitor student moods through inquiring about their feelings or offer mentoring services that seek to aid the learner in his or her path to academic success (Gregory et al., 2014). Such strategies should create optimism and positive feeling.
Physical engagement. This is the application of psychomotor activities during the learning process. For example, instead of a teacher asking the learners to answer questions verbally, they may ask them to present the answer by writing on the chalkboard (Turner et a., 2014). Also, teachers could introduce physical activities during the lessons, especially for middle school classes, to minimize antsy, distractive behaviors and fidgety (Turner et a., 2014).
Social engagement. This is stimulating social interactions among the learners. Instructors may initiate social engagement among the learners through grouping students to work on collaborative projects or through academic contests in which the students compete with one another. These may include co-curricular activities such as debate teams and robotics clubs (Burch et al., 2015).
Defining and Understanding Instructional Strategies
As pointed in the above section, student engagement is a concept that is closely linked to instructional strategies employed by the teachers as part of the resources and efforts they invest with the aim of optimizing the learner experience and improve the learning outcomes. At a glance, this points to a direct relationship between student engagement and attainment of learning outcomes. However, to further understand the relationship between student engagement and instructional strategies, it is crucial to understand what instructional strategies mean in the education for learners in middle school.
According to Cohen (2014), instructional strategies are techniques used by teachers to assist learners to become independent and strategic students. Instructional strategies motivate students and lend them a hand in focusing attention, help in organizing information for easier understanding and recalling and aid in monitoring and assessing learning. They include all approaches that an instructor may opt to use to engage students actively in a learning process and drive the instruction towards meeting specific learning objectives. Moore (2014) further states that effective instructional strategies ensure that all learning styles and developmental needs of students are met.
Different Instructional Strategies for Middle School Teachers
Various researchers have studied instructional strategies that are effective for middle school teachers. One of these studies is Allison & Rehm (2007), which examined the effective instructional strategies for multicultural and multilingual classrooms. The authors interviewed sixteen middle school teachers. Although the sample was small, the authors found their results were consistent with other studies. The questionnaires used by the researchers contained six-point rating scale to evaluate the effectiveness of several instructional strategies that were being used. Consequently, the study identified four most effective teaching strategies for middle school, and these were visuals, peer tutoring, cooperative learning and use of alternate forms of assessment. Visuals were the most effective instructional strategy for middle school learners and involved use of teaching aids and pictures. The authors found that visuals were especially effective for students whose first language was not English because pictures display a stimulus that is universally understood by all students. Visuals can be used when teaching almost every subject and concept (Allison & Rehm, 2007).
Peer tutoring was rated second most effective teaching strategy in middle school. This strategy involves pairing two students with varying abilities and backgrounds. Paring students of different abilities become teaching resources to one another, promote communication between the learners and motivate each other (Allison & Rehm, 2007). Consequently, the learners will attain higher levels of achievement in establishing friendships with peers. Peer tutoring can be applied in any subject area to carry out experiments, practice new skills, solve problems, revise and complete assignments and review for tests.
On the other hand, cooperative learning was ranked as the third effective instructional strategy for middle school teachers. This strategy involves grouping students with diverse abilities and characteristics so that they can cooperate and collaborate with one another on problem-solving activities and other tasks. This technique enhances language acquisition among the learners and encourages learners to attain intellectual autonomy. Consequently, cooperative learning enhances achievement of high performance and expansion of communication skills (Allison & Rehm, 2007).
Also, the authors identified the alternative mode of assessment as the fourth effective instructional strategy for middle school teachers. Different modes of assessment, as a teaching strategy, allow the teachers to evaluate progress among the learners. It is a vital teaching strategy since it provides room for the students to display the understanding of information in numerous ways as well as allowing them a variety of opportunities for success (Allison & Rehm, 2007).
How the Different Student Engagement Dimensions Relate to Different Instructional Strategies for Middle School Teachers
Visuals. Some researchers have examined how the use of visuals, as an instructional strategy for middle school teachers, relates to cognitive, behavioral and emotional engagement among the learners. According to Sit (2017), use of visuals in teaching middle school learners enhances student engagement through targeting cognitive abilities. For example, the study identified that visual aids and pictures provoke attention among the learners and maintains their attention over a longer period...
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