Guest Author: Dr. John Burger, RVS Director – A casual perusal of current educational research journals demonstrates a growing emphasis on the role of students’ affective or socio-emotional experience of school as a key determiner of academic success. The September 2013 issue of Educational Leadership focused on resilience and learning and included articles on building resilience, the influence of caring teachers, ideas for connecting with troubled students and building students self-confidence. The September 2014 issue of Educational Leadership focused on student motivation and thoroughly explored the relationships between inspired pedagogy and students’ motivation to learn and hence engagement with school. This edition reported on the results of a 2013 Gallup Student Poll that observed that 54% of students reported being engaged in their learning, 28% reported not being engaged or mentally checked out and 17% reported being actively disengaged. The authors (p.10) suggest that schools should, “Monitor their students’ sense of hope, engagement, and well-being because these are significant predictors of academic achievement.”
Paralleling this advice, the 2014 OECD study, What 15-year-olds know and what they can do with what they know, observed that drive, motivation and confidence in oneself are essential if students are to fulfil their potential. This study concluded that, “Teachers and school principals need to be able to identify students who show signs of lack of engagement with school and work with them individually before disengagement takes firm root”( P.22).
This growing literature reinforces the case that educators and policymakers are increasingly interested in developing students’ non-cognitive skills in support of academic success and long-term life outcomes. Happily, the Student Orientation to School Questionnaire (SOS-Q) was developed by Alberta Education as a multi-year project from 2003 to 2009 as a direct follow-up to recommendations in the Removing Barriers to High School Completion study (Alberta Education, 2001) to pay closer attention to students’ affective experience of school. The SOS-Q is premised on what factors or constructs keep students connected to school, including: safe and caring, external resilience, internal resilience, self-confidence and peer relationships. In addition, in the junior-senior high version extra-curricular activities, utility of school and, if the student works part-time, work-school integration and handing work-school pressures are included.
Rocky View Schools, with the assistance of an initial Alberta Healthy School Communities Wellness Fund grant ran a small pilot on the applications of the SOS-Q in four schools that grew to nine schools between 2011-13. The success of this pilot, described in an article published in CASSA Magazine lead to a $45,000 grant to scale up the application of the SOS-Q as a key component of a broader Comprehensive School Health strategy in 2013-15.
During the 2013-14 school year SOS-Q’s were completed by 1556 RVS upper elementary students. Of this cohort 126 or 8% were in the below average range on their total SOS-Q score, and thus may be disengaging from school. On the positive side, 113 or 7.3% were in the above average range reflecting high engagement with school, and the remaining 1317 students were in the average range.
In the same time period, the SOS-Q was administered to 1713 grade 7-12 students. Of this cohort 12.2% were in the below average range on their total SOS-Q score demonstrating a growing phenomenon of disengagement with grade level, a finding consistent with the research literature on student disengagement or alienation.
Other patterns of interest when 1072 jr. high student SOS-Q results were analyzed indicated that female students had significantly lower internal resilience or higher levels of anxiety than male students. Also, not surprisingly disengagement increased with each increase in grade level. When students coded as gifted were compared to non-coded students they demonstrated higher levels of self-confidence, but lower levels on extra-curricular activities, school utility and peer relationships. Lastly, the relationship between SOS-Q results and classroom achievement results demonstrated positive correlations on nearly all SOS-Q factors and highly significant relationships between self-confidence, utility of school and total SOS-Q score and academic achievement in English language arts and mathematics.
Action research on the SOS-Q within Rocky View Schools is clearly demonstrating the diagnostic potential of the SOS-Q in identifying the powerful relationships between the constructs measured by the SOS-Q and student academic outcomes. The SOS-Q Program Manual was re-written this summer to capture the insights and experiences with this instrument during the 2013-14 school year and to enhance the strategies to support students who manifest patterns of disengagement from school. This manual will shortly be distributed to all school administrators.
In 2013-14, 18 RVS schools used the SOS-Q for some or all of their students and already at the start of the 2014-15 school year five schools have requested to administer the SOS-Q in October. Having recently obtained the full copyright to the SOS-Q, Rocky View Schools is clearly leading the way in the area of applied, action research on student affect and ways to support student engagement with their learning opportunities.
I want to leave you with the SOS-Q challenge. If we blend understanding by design, universal design for learning and balanced assessment as a foundation for inspired pedagogy with a focus on student affect, let’s see if we can’t reverse the common pattern of student disengagement as grade level increases for our students.