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Student Engagement and Its Relation to Quality Work Design


Student Engagement and Its Relation to Quality Work Design:
A Review of the Literature
By Elizabeth R. Bowen

When students are authentically engaged in meaningful, quality work, the likelihood for
them to learn something new and to remember what was learned increases (Hancock & Betts,
2002). Philip Schlechty (2002), supported by the group at the Center for Leadership in School
Reform (CLSR), theorized that when teachers work on the quality of work they give students,
the work will engage more students more of the time. Improved student academic performance
will result from increased student engagement because students work harder to achieve desired
results. This “Working on the Work” theory attributed to Schlechty has come to be known as
the “WOW framework.” As a result of exposure to Schlechty’s work, I became curious about
quality work, student engagement, and the relationship between the two. Consequently,
questions followed. What motivates students to become engaged? Is Schlechty’s focus on the
quality of the work designed by teachers warranted? What research supports or refutes his

The purpose of this literature review is to explore student engagement, the work students
find engaging, and the design components of quality work. I wanted to judge whether the
literature supports Schlechty’s idea that quality work increases engagement and results in
improved performance. By Schlechty’s own admission (2002, p. xvi), “No systematic research
program has been directed at assessing the impact of the WOW approach on improving schools.”
Consequently, I turned to related studies to seek validation for these ideas.

Student Engagement
What is engagement? Fred Newmann, (as cited by Voke, 2002), author of the 1992 book
Student Achievement in American Secondary Schools, states that engaged students make a “….
psychological investment in learning. They try hard to learn what school offers. They take pride
not simply in earning the formal indicators of success (grades), but in understanding the material
and incorporating or internalizing it in their lives” (para. 3). Newmann’s definition implies that
students who are engaged are involved in their own learning. For a truly engaged learner, the joy
of learning inspires a persistence to accomplish the desired goals even in the face of difficulty
(Schlechty, 2001). Engaged students have the skills to work with others and know how to
transfer knowledge to solve problems creatively (Jones, Valdez, Nowakowski, & Rasmussen,
1994). Strong, Silver, and Robinson (1995) found a definite pattern when they asked teachers
and students two questions at the beginning of a research project: (1) What kind of work do you
find engaging? (2) What kind of work do you hate? Respondents stated that the most engaging
work was the work that allowed for creativity, sparked curiosity, provided an opportunity to
work with others, and produced a feeling of success. Work that was repetitive, required no
thought, or was forced on them was described as work the respondents hated.

Engagement is not just keeping busy. According to Wasserstein (1995), when educators
equip students with the tools to become self- motivated, real engagement in learning takes place.
Self-motivation comes from a desire to understand something of interest or from the enjoyment
of learning in order to achieve personal goals rather than from any kind of reward or incentive.
Intrinsically motivated students bring more of their previous learning and creativity to learning
activities, and therefore, they retain more of what they learned in the new situation (Sheldon &
Biddle, 1998). On the other hand, students who rely solely on extrinsic motivation such as
grades, stars, stickers, or teacher approval, understand less, retain less, and fail to produce any
long-lasting commitment to learning (Brewster & Fager, 2000; Kohn, 1995; Lumsden, 1994;
Strong, Silver, & Robinson 1995). Alfie Kohn is an especially outspoken critic of extrinsic
rewards. He cites several studies demonstrating that offering a reward to a person for doing
something well may result in that person being less likely to have an interest in the activity later
on; it merely buys temporary compliance. Kohn has written, “Learning is undermined by
rewards. Rewards reduce the quality of performance, particularly on challenging tasks”
(para.11). One of the jobs of educators is to help students develop an intrinsic desire to make
sense of the world and to become life- long learners (Kohn).

Ideally, the act of learning becomes its own reward. Young children have a natural
curiosity to learn and a desire to make sense of their environment; however, as they grow older, a
delight in learning is often changed to a boring grind (Lumsden, 1994). School related successes
and failures shape the attitudes and goals students use to cope with learning situations
(Lumsden). Lumsden cites Raffini who says that students may avoid work at school, in order to
“protect their sense of self- worth” (para. 25). Students may choose to do nothing or even disrupt
other students rather than take a risk of being a failure. In a study in which data were collected
from 86 middle school students during 114 interviews and 24 structured observation periods,
Dowson and McInerney (2001) found that students’ work avoidance may include copying,
cheating, asking the teacher for help on an easy task, or other off- task behaviors like talking,
“playing” with school supplies, trying to talk the teacher into an easier assignment, “tuning out”,
or pretending not to understand. Dowson and McInerney’s study also found that the attitudes
associated with limited engagement in learning are laziness, boredom, inertia, anger, and
lethargy. High-ability learners and at-risk students alike may not be engaged due to boredom
perhaps because of an absence of challenging activities (Day, 2002; Means, 1997; Plucker &
McIntire, 1996). These unengaged students may try to identify the easiest rather than the most
interesting or most valuable option. For example, a student may try to get other students to do
the work for them, avoid planning and organizing the work, not attempt the work, or do it in a
sloppy or insufficient manner (Dowson & McInerney). Work avoidance has not been
extensively explored in the literature, but from the comments made in interviews and observation
data, the Dowson and McInerney study found that “work avoidance goals are maladaptive in
most circumstances, leading to limited engagement in learning” (p. 40). In light of the circular
problem of work avoidance and low engagement it seems important to investigate possible

Design Qualities in Lessons that Foster Engagement
Researchers agree that engaged students learn more, retain more, and enjoy learning
activities more than students who are not engaged (Dowson & McInerney, 2001; Hancock &
Betts, 2002; Lumsden, 1994; Voke, 2002). Consequently, Schlechty attempted to answer the
question, “What do teachers, schools, and school districts need to do in order to insure that more
students are engaged in learning activities more of the time?” He theorized that design qualities
in the work teachers design for students are an important feature related to student engagement.
Schlechty (2002) grouped the design qualities that he assumed could foster engagement into ten
categories: Content and Substance, Organization of Knowledge, Product Focus, Clear and
Compelling Product Standards, Safe Environment, Affirmation of Performance, Affiliation,
Novelty and Variety, Choice, and Authenticity. Although the terminology differs slightly, the
literature supports the effectiveness of particular design qualities for enhancing engagement.
The following sections focus on Schlechty’s definitions of the design qualities and how his
definitions are supported or refuted by other examples from the literature.

Content and Substance
When a lesson contains the design quality of content and substance, it means that the
content involved is that which teachers, administrators, and the community agree is important for
students to know at a particular grade level. The content is consistent with the standards and
benchmarks established by the state and local school boards. Schlechty (2001) defines content
and substance this way, “Among themselves, teachers and administrators have a clear and
consistent understanding of what students are expected to know and to be able to do, and there is
community consensus regarding these matters” (p.109). Meaning and interest for students are not
automatically a part of subject areas or topics. Educators must provide a motivation for
mastering skills by dealing with the basic skills in context and by using higher-order thinking
and purposeful activities. These activities may include asking questions, posing contradictions,
or encouraging research in order to engage more students in the tasks that some students consider
boring (Brooks & Brooks, 1999; Day, 2002). A study by Assor, Kaplan, and Roth (2002) found
that when teacher behaviors clarify the relevance of schoolwork, even if it is perceived as boring
or tedious, students are more likely to value the task and become engaged in it. If the entire
community is to be in consensus about what students should know and be able to do, classroom
projects should make “visible” to the community the outcomes the teacher and district care about
(Diez, 2000). Learning tasks for engaged learning should take place over an extended period of
time, present an authentic challenge, and undergo ongoing assessment, including self-assessment
by the students (Jones et al., 1994).

The ARCS Model of Motivational Design, developed by John M. Keller of Florida State
University, is one theoretical model that identifies effective techniques for designing motivating
instruction (Small, 1997). The theory for the ARCS model is based on a number of motivational
concepts and characteristics including expectancy-value theory. In expectancy-value theory, the
person must value the task and believe he or she can succeed at the task. The learning task must
be engaging and meaningful to the student and promote success in achieving learning objectives

According to Keller (2000), attention, relevance, confidence, and satisfaction (ARCS) are
the four conditions (in that order) necessary for a person to be fully motivated. First, a lesson
must capture the learner’s attention. Strategies to attain attention may include presenting an
unexpected event, posing thought provoking questions, using humor, or varying the instructional
format. The next step is to build relevance. This step can be achieved by letting students know
how they can use prior knowledge, addressing how the instruction will be useful now or in the
future, matching the activities to the students’ learning styles, allowing students to have a choice,
or relating the content to the students’ current interests. The third step required for motivation is
confidence. Students gain confidence when they clearly understand the lesson being taught, set
realistic goals, understand that their success was a result of their efforts, and can practice the skill
under safe conditions without fear of failure. The final step is satisfaction. In order to stay
motivated, students must feel a sense of accomplishment for their efforts in a reasonably
challenging task. Learners need to use their new skills as soon as possible, be offered
unexpected rewards, praise, and motivating feedback. Negative influences like threats or other
negative feedback should be avoided. Finally, students should feel that the amount of work
required was appropriate and feel a sense of fairness about grades and other issues in order to
build intrinsic feelings of satisfaction.

Organization of Knowledge
Instructional strategies that focus on the organization of knowledge ensure that students
have the skills to do the work assigned and focus on interests that appeal to the largest possible
number of students. (Schlechty, 2001). Plucker and McIntire (1996) found evidence supporting
earlier research by Feldhusen and Kroll; Mitchell; and Reis and Purcell that says our schools lack
challenging materials and activities, and the lack of challenge especially affects gifted students.
To fill the gap and engage more students, the teacher should provide a variety of learning
experiences and resources, including technology (Zorfass & Copel, 1995). Osberg’s (1997)
research found that using virtual reality, whether in a constructivist or traditional classroom
setting, produced highly engaged, self-directed students.

Several studies demonstrate the importance of the teacher’s actions. Based on a research
project begun in the mid 1980’s, Strong et al. (1995) outlined a model for student engagement
called SCORE (success, curiosity, originality, and relations). According to SCORE, teachers
should clearly define the criteria for success, model the skills, connect unresolved topics for
study and creative projects to students’ lives, and give work that will augment relationships with
people the students care about. Assor et al. (2002), in a study of 862 Israeli-Jewish students from
grades 3-8, found that when teachers try to understand their students’ authentic interests and
goals and help students to understand the connection between their own personal goals and
schoolwork, then the students are more likely to value the school task and become more engaged
in it.

Well-known theories form the foundation for practice in this area. Anderman and
Midgley (1998) suggest that middle school teachers and administrators consider three theories
when adjusting the instructional practices to engage all students: attribution theory, goal theory,
and self-determination theory. Middle level students learn best when they are active ly engaged
with content and when the teacher acts as a mentor, coach, or “guide on the side” rather than the
“sage on the stage” giving lectures to the whole class (Hancock & Betts, 2002; Jones, et al.,
1994; Starnes, 1999). In a synthesis of recent research, Hancock and Betts (2002) present a
scenario of a future classroom in which it is the exception rather than the rule to “find teachers
conducting ‘stand and deliver’ lectures in a whole-class setting. More often, they act as mentors,
coaches, and guides for individuals and small groups” (para. 7). An instructional strategy that is
based on passive learning, especially in a whole class setting, does not appear to promote learner
engagement. However, when individual, active learning is designed around a variety of content
rich materials, students showed a higher rate of achievement related to core concepts (Hancock
& Betts). By building on prior knowledge, students can develop thinking processes that allow
them to ask questions, pose answers, and gain understanding (Bievenue & Gentry, 1997; Day,
2002; Jones, et al., 1994; Osberg, 1997; Starnes, 1999: Wasserstein, 1995). However, adapting
instruction to individual learner needs and interests may take a toll on the teacher’s time and
finances (Brewster & Fager, 2000; Voke, 2002). Buying materials needed to carry out a special
project can be expensive. Creating an engaging lesson takes more time and resources than just
assigning a chapter to read with questions to answer at the end.

Product Focus
Having product focus means that the work students are assigned to do is connected to an
end result that is meaningful to them. Only after teachers clarify project themes and concepts are
they able to design and coordinate a set of hands-on activities designed to allow students to
connect what they are doing to a meaningful end product they find compelling or significant
(Zorfass & Copel, 1995).

The tasks students are assigned and the activities students are encouraged to undertake
are clearly linked in the minds of the teacher and the students to problems, issues,
products, performances, and exhibitions about which the students care and upon which
students place value (Schlechty, 2001, p. 113).

Product focus is clearly linked to the standards movement and to assessment according to Diez
(2000). In a scenario, Diez relates how a seventh grade science teacher, Karen, teaches the “big
ideas” by focusing on inquiry and practicing the concepts in hands-on experiments that the
students find engaging. Karen allows her students to express their understanding of concepts
with music, art, dance, and drama. She finds that students are “more careful with their work
samples when they see that they will be used again in another setting”(para. 6). In another
empirical article, Murdock, Hansen, Kraemer, Vandiver, Hunt, and Hennessy (1995) related the
success of setting basic objectives and requirements at the beginning and letting students work
independently. A Massachusetts middle school devotes Fridays to Horace, based on the fiction
English teacher Horace Smith in Horace’s Compromise and Horace’s School by Theodore Sizer
(as cited by Murdock et al.). Students spend all day Friday with one teacher working on
intensive, project-based learning projects. Teachers found that working on an open-ended
project over an extended time period fostered student engagement and emphasized student work.
Students planned their own projects and set their own deadlines. Parents stated that “students
eagerly discussed their work with relatives and friends and refused to miss school on project
days” (p. 39). The Foxfire approach, as reported by Starnes (1999) agrees that course content
takes on new meaning when the audience is central. Students strive to do well when they realize
that others may see the results of their work.

Clear and Compelling Product Standards
Students are more likely to engage and persist with work when the standards by which
the product will be judged are clear and compelling.
When problems, issues, products, performances, or exhibitions are a part of the
instructional design, students understand the standards by which the results of their work
will be evaluated. Furthermore, they are committed to these standards, see them as fair,
and see a real prospect of meeting these standards if they work diligently at the tasks
assigned or encouraged (Schlechty, 2001, p. 115).

Rubrics, tailored to fit the specific assessment task, are an effective tool for measurement. A list
of appropriate criteria for each project allows students to work toward mastery and to learn from
mistakes as they move through the process. Understanding the criteria also allows for improved
skill in self-assessment (Diez, 2000). Teachers should give students examples of high-, average-,
and low- level work and give them a chance to discuss how each assignment was evaluated
(Strong et al., 1995).

A Safe Environment
A safe learning environment is one in which students feel free to take risks to learn new
things without fear of failure. Providing a safe learning environment affects student engagement.
Students are provided many opportunities to try to complete a task without being
penalized for failures associated with lack of knowledge and skills. Instead, when failure
occurs, the reasons for the failure are diagnosed by the student and the teacher, and new
efforts are encouraged (Schlechty, 2001, p. 117).

Reflection allows teachers and learners to engage in ongoing assessment in which revisions and
refinements account for additional learning. Mistakes should be welcomed as opportunities for
learning, and students should be given the chance to redo work (Anderman & Midgley, 1998;
Kohn, 1997; Starnes, 1999). Kohn theorizes that the process is definitely more important than
the product produced. The artifacts produced are just the by-products of learning. He further
states that the mistakes a student makes are valuable clues to what the student is thinking.
Students gain confidence in themselves and in learning because they have the freedom to take
risks (Brewster & Fager, 2000). Teachers at Barren County Middle School used a program called
Different Ways of Knowing to raise student achievement (Manzo, 2000). One of the
components of Different Ways of Knowing, which is aligned with Kentucky’s academic
standards, is to allow ample time for “review and remedial instruction” (para. 35) and looking for
ways for students to improve rather than just covering the content. Teachers can foster an
environment conducive to student engagement by practicing small, seemingly unimportant
activities: greeting students at the door, making eye contact, allowing enough “wait” time when
expecting a student to answer a question before moving on to another student, dignifying wrong
responses, repeating a question, or giving hints that will encourage students to try again
(Marzano, 1992).

Affirmation of Performance
Affirmation of performance means that people or groups who are significant to the
learner verify the importance of the work the student does. Designing schoolwork that can be
presented to “significant others” can increase student engagement. “Affirmation suggests
significance” (Schlechty, 2001, p. 120).

Persons who are significant in the lives of students, including parents, siblings, peers,
public audiences, and younger students, are positioned to observe, participate in, and
benefit from student performances and to affirm the significance and importance of the
activity being undertaken (Schlechty, 2001, p. 119).

Students want an audience beyond the teacher to affirm the work is important, needed, and
worth doing. Students are more careful with their work samples when they know the work will
be seen by an audience outside the classroom (Starnes, 1999). Diez (2000) reports that students
are more careful with their work samples when they know they will be used again in another
setting. Whenever possible, students need to connect learning tasks to the real world outside
school (Jones, et al., 1994; Murdock et al., 1995).

Being given a chance to work with others, or affiliation, is an activity Schlechty theorizes
will enhance student engagement. “Students are provided opportunities to work with others
(peers, parents, other adults, teachers, students from other schools and classrooms) on problems,
issues, products, performances, and exhibitions that are judged by them and others to be of
significance” (p. 121). Teamwork is important. Dewey referred to it as building “common and
shared life…”(as cited by Starnes, 1999). Even though Kohn (1997) does not like the idea of
equating what students do in school with what adults do in offices and factories to earn money
(work), he does agree that collaboration is good in both places. Dowson & McInerney (2001)
found several benefits of group effort. Working together is better than using gimmicks to
“motivate” people. Affiliation promotes cognitive effort, planning and organizing, and selfmonitoring.
Students work hard to give a good example to other students, parents, and teachers.
They like the feeling of belonging and helping others. Reluctant or at-risk learners are willing to
be involved in academic activities because of the people in the group despite a dislike for the
activities themselves. One student in the Dowson and McInerney study said, “I feel smarter
when I’m working with other people” (p. 38). Their social group influences middle school and
high school students’ level of engagement as much, if not more, than teachers, parents and other
adults (Brewster & Fager, 2000). Cooperative learning builds acceptance and understanding
among the members of a group (Marzano, 1992). Students learn that cooperative learning can
lead to the accomplishment of group and individual goals (Renchler, 1992). At-risk students can
work as part of a collaborative group and be judged on their ability to successfully complete a
complex task. Technology can help foster productive cooperative learning relationships.
Students help each other learn (Means, 1997).

Novelty and Variety
Providing novelty and variety is one more way to engage students in classroom activities.
The range of problems, issues, products, performances, and exhibitions is large and
varied, and the technologies students are encouraged to employ are varied as well,
moving from the most simple and well understood (a pen and piece of paper, for
instance) to the most complex (sophisticated computer applications, for example)
(Schlechty, 2001, p. 123-124).

Teachers and administrators at Barren County Middle School say their students are no longer
bored because they have worked hard to create “purposeful fun” by using an arts-focused
curriculum to engage students (Manzo, 2000). Technology can be used to bring real-world
examples into the classroom (Osberg, 1997; Reed & McNergney, 2000). Rather than textbooks,
worksheets, and multiple-choice tests, student products can take the form of portfolios,
WebQuests, PowerPoint presentations and reports to classmates. A middle school in Lexington,
Massachusetts used extended time blocks to allow students to work on projects that incorporated
opportunities for student decision-making, connection to the world outside school, and
independent thinking (Murdock, et al., 1995). Student-centered learning in a technology lab
required students to work in pairs to carry out assignments and solve problems without asking
the teacher. They had access to videotapes, a student lab manager, a programmed module, and a
teacher, who acted as a mentor, or guide, in order to successfully complete the assigned tasks
(Day, 2002). Teachers who can create a positive affect -- humor, joy, happiness -- into
classroom activities are using a basic human behavioral principle to enhance student engagement
(Marzano, 1992).

Students may be more engaged if they have some degree of control over learning (Brooks
& Brooks, 1999). “What students are to learn is usually not subject to negotiation, but students
do have considerable choice of what they will do in order to learn what it is intended that they
learn” (Schlechty, 2001, p. 125). Students can make decisions about their own learning and
manage time and materials effectively. They can be given choices between different
assignments, be given minimal supervision in group projects, and be made to be responsible for
monitoring their own progress. Students’ first attempts at decision making and time
management may not be successful, but teachers can help by providing guidelines students can
use to monitor their own progress (Murdock et al., 1995). Anderman and Midgley (1998) note
that teachers should not relinquish control of the classroom. Choice does not mean letting
students do whatever they want to do. “Even small opportunities for choice, such as whether to
work with a partner or independently” (p.3) give students a sense of self-direction. School
leaders can establish policies that allow teachers to offer students choices. When students are
allowed to set their own goals, they can define their own criteria for success (Osberg, 1997;
Renchler, 1992). Brewster and Fager (2000) describe the program at Amity Creek Magnet
School as not only a school of choice, but also a school where choice is the basic educational
philosophy. Learning at Amity Creek is child- initiated. The school staff’s job is to facilitate
learning in an atmosphere where they believe that children are unique, construct their own
knowledge, and learn in a continuous process as they engage with the world. Located in Bend,
Oregon, Amity Creek’s philosophy was met with suspicion from the community at first, but
when it was rated as “exceptional” by the state of Oregon, the nontraditional approach was
validated. More than 75 percent of students exceeded the state’s standards on reading, writing,
and math tests. The 155 students at Amity Creek are allowed the freedom and support they need
to ask questions, solve problems, interact with others, think independently, construct their own
knowledge, and develop social responsibility and self-discipline.

Authenticity means students are given work that is genuine to the students. Authentic
work is more than just a random assignment out of a textbook. The assignment has real meaning
to the learner. “The tasks students are assigned and the work students are encouraged to
undertake have meaning and significance in the present lives of students and are related to
consequences to which students attach importance” (Schlechty, 2001, p. 127). Humans are
driven to engage in authentic, personally meaningful, and relevant work (Voke, 2002). Course
materials should relate to students’ lives and highlight ways learning can be applied in real- life
situations (Bievenue & Gentry, 1997; Brewster & Fager, 2000; Murdock et al., 1995). The
connection to real-life issues must not be superficial. Educators must ask what issues in
adolescents’ lives cause them to ask questions and look for answers. What ideas are unresolved,
yet manageable? (Strong et al., 1995). Technology is one way to bring authenticity into the
classroom. Students can learn basic skills in the process of working on authentic tasks (Means,

Impact of Technology on Engagement
Technology is one resource that affects student engagement and achievement in many
ways (Hancock & Betts, 2002). The research on how technology affects achievement is
inconsistent (Hede, 2002). A meta-analysis by Liao (as cited by Hede, 2002) in an examination
of 35 studies concluded that “multimedia-based instruction is superior to traditional instruction.
However, it is notable that 10 of these studies showed the opposite, namely, that traditional
instruction is superior to multimedia” (p. 178). Hede proposed an integrated model of the
multimedia effects on learning to accommodate a wide range of contradictory research results.
The model serves as a reminder of the numerous factors that need to be considered when
designing a multimedia package. Multimedia tools must be used with careful thought and
application of good instructional design so they will have a positive and not a detrimental effect
on learning (Hede, 2002). Kozma (as cited by Hede, 2002) suggests that instructional designers
looking for ways to engage students might ask, “In what ways can we use the capabilities of
media to influence learning for particular students, tasks, and situations?” (p. 18).
Some studies have shown that student performance improves when teachers and school
districts make a commitment to use technology (Mann & Shafer, 1997). In a six-month study of
55 New York state school districts that spent over $14 million on computer technology and
training, Mann and Schafer found that increased access to technology resulted in increased
achievement levels on the state Regents exam in math and English and higher scores on the
state’s Comprehensive Assessment Report, especially in sixth-grade math. The study, one of the
most exhaustive studies done to date, produced quantitative, qualitative, and longitudinal data, as
well as anecdotal reports. “Everything points to the same conclusion—that increased technology
supports, facilitates, and encourages student achievement. The gains reach across schools and
districts with different education policies and socio-demographic backgrounds” (para. 7).
Technology-enhanced, project-based student work is a staple of quality knowledge work.
Quality knowledge work is defined by Schlechty (2001) as work students find “to be engaging
and from which they learn those things that are considered by parents and other adults to be
important to them and to the future of culture and the society” (p. 55). The Milken Exchange on
Education Technology (1999) analyzed the five largest scale studies of education technology to
date. Some of the positive findings included the following: Kulik (as cited by Milken, p.4) said,
“Students like their classes more and develop more positive attitudes when their classes include
computer-based instruction”; Sivin-Kachala (as cited by Milken, p.5) found that “Students in
technology rich environments experienced positive effects on achievement in all major subject
areas”; “Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow (ACOT) did have a positive impact on student attitudes
and did have an impact on changing teacher teaching practices toward more cooperative group
work and less teacher stand-up lecturing” according to a study by Baker, Gearhart, and Herman,
(as cited by Milken, p. 5); Scardamalia and Bereiter concluded that “Computer Supported
Intentional Learning Environment (CSILE) maximizes student reflection and encourages
progressive thought, taking multiple perspectives, and independent thinking” (as cited by
Milken, p. 8). Technology can bring the real world into the classroom (Hancock & Betts, 2002).
Teachers view computers as a way to help all children—not just slow learners or gifted
students—learn problem-solving and reasoning skills (Collopy & Green, 1995). In hypermedia
environments, students exercise choice and control of their personal learning. Computers and
multimedia software are the tools students may use to construct their own learning (Ashton,
Bland, & Rogers, 2001; Milken, 1999). Some of the studies cited by Milken Exchange on
Education Technology (1999) show that use of technology may not be as effective if the learning
objective and how the technology is to be used are unclear.

What do students find engaging?
Much information is in the literature about how technology engages students, but what
kinds of school academic activities do students find most engaging or most memorable? A
survey of 200 seventh and eighth grade students in Colorado revealed some surprising responses
(Wasserstein, 1995). A hands-on science activity was the number one choice for 27 percent of
the students surveyed. Twenty-eight percent picked independent research as their most
memorable school activity. Many students cited stand-up performances like plays, speeches,
skits and other activities in which they had an active part. The troubling part is that obviously
missing from the list were activities involving reading, writing, and math. Those who did choose
a writing activity as memorable did so because they had written a letter to a real person and had
received an answer to the letter. Students did not choose easy activities; they were satisfied
when the assignment took hard work but they learned something and achieved success. The
students suggested that “challenge is the essence of engagement …. and students recognize and
despise busywork” (p. 41). “Busy” students are not necessarily engaged. Grades did not appear
to be an important factor in defining engaging work because students mentioned grades as an
afterthought, not why they put forth the effort for their memorable work.

According to a report by Easton (2002) about students at Rock Eagle School, an
alternative high school in Colorado, students want to be engaged, and they have ideas about how
they can be engaged. Ed ucators could learn a lot if only they would listen to their students.
Some of the suggestions students at Rock Eagle School made were discussing “authentic”
questions, ones with no simple right-or-wrong answer-- even the teacher does not know the
answer; learning with hands-on activities; performing; having some control over what I learn;
being creative; having some fun while learning; learning actively; teaching others; having
teachers who listen, accepting feedback, and acting on it; being academically challenged.
Respondents in a research project by Strong, Silver, and Robinson (1995) expressed the same
goals for success, curiosity, originality, and satisfying relationships. The activities they hated
included “work that was repetitive, that required little or no thought, and that was forced on them
by others”(p.1). Choice of learning activities, some student control over learning materials, and
a chance to discuss ideas with peers were ideas for engagement supported by students in an
article about student engagement in reading (Worthy, 1998).

Conclusion and future implications
Every description of research or practice that I found in the literature about activities that
engage students fits into one of the ten areas of quality work suggested by Schlechty (2001) in
his Working on the Work framework. What makes it so hard to implement the design qualities?
Are some teachers using the ideas suggested in the WOW framework? How many?
In many classrooms across the United States, the teaching practices are not that different
from the way they were 50 or even 100 years ago (Marzano, 1992; Osberg, 1997). As I look at
the volume of information that my students are required to know compared with what I had to
learn as an eighth grader in 1964, I see that teaching practices must change. Now, more than
ever, students must know how to think creatively and critically, process and apply information,
and learn how to learn. Rote memorization alone is no longer even an option. Students must be
engaged in order to establish long-term, meaningful habits of learning. The students know what
engages them (Kuh, 2001), and it is exactly what the research says should engage students.
In order to make real changes in teaching practices, teachers must have the support of the
entire school district according to the philosophy of the Standard Bearer Schools of the Center
for Leadership in School Reform (CLSR) (Schlechty, 2001). Teachers need monetary support,
support for designing quality work, and time to design quality lessons. The research suggests
that teachers should be designing lessons incorporating the quality work design qualities outlined
in the WOW framework (Osberg, 1997). Do quality knowledge lessons engage students? What
level of engagement do students exhibit? What percent of the time? What prevents student
engagement? How does the use of technology affect engagement and learning? No research
showed up in the literature to document the level of engagement associated with the ten design
qualities in the WOW framework. More research is needed to document the effectiveness of
quality work design qualities to promote student engagement resulting in school improvement.

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Last Modified on December 17, 2013