RVS Teacher – How do you determine if your students are intellectually engaged? Are they completing their assignments, appearing interested in the task, and showing up to school regularly? Beyond observations, how do you really know? Further, how do you know a new initiative is driving good practice? This post hopes to shed some light on how understanding intellectual engagement can help inform teacher practice based on findings from a small study on cohort learning.
Many high schools across Alberta are now involved in the Moving Forward with High School Redesign initiative to help increase student engagement, foster high levels of achievement and quality teaching. Some schools are prototyping innovative program designs to engage, make learning relevant and integrate career experiences. W.H. Croxford High School in Airdrie, is an example of a school supporting new practices on how learners are supported in both choice and topic of study through an offering of Grade 10 cohort academy learning experiences. Cohort learning is when students are grouped into learning arrangements who begin and complete learning experiences with the same students throughout most of their time in an academic program, such as a learning Career Academy (Alberta Education, 2009). Think of a cohort like a small learning community providing curriculum with a career related theme.
At W.H. Croxford, Grade 10 students can choose to enroll in a cohort topic of their choice ranging from Mechatronics, Visual Art and Media, Cavalier Music Academy, and Building Futures to name a few. With such new initiatives, how do we then know these offerings are supporting learning? One tool is for educators to use data to understand how intellectually engaged learners are in their learning.
What does it mean to be intellectually engaged? Intellectual engagement is a psychological investment in learning that encompassing students’ sense of enjoyment, interest, motivation and relevance of curriculum (Friesen, 2009). Essentially, you are so immersed in learning, that you often don’t want to stop (in state of flow), you are challenged (not too much, not too little) and the learning is relevant and interesting to you. Studies continue to show that when students are intellectually disengaged, they have increased risks of dropping out of school. Intrigued by the cohort model, I wanted to investigate how this grouping could help promote intellectual engagement.
Why This Study Matters
In a study of over 60,000 students across Canada, only 41 percent indicated they were experiencing intellectual engagement (Dunleavy, Milton & Willms, 2012). Further, many students who are behaving in ways traditionally associated with appearing engaged at school (e.g., attending classes, participating on teams, high grades etc.) reported actually experiencing low levels of intellectual engagement in learning. In fact, student intellectual engagement in school stagnates and declines dramatically in Grade 6 (Willms, Friesen & Milton, 2009; Willms, 2003) and continues to remain low into high school (Wang, Chow, Hofkens, & Salmela-Aro, 2015; Dunleavy, Milton & Willms, 2012). More worrisome, is students who are intellectually disengaged, have increased chances of dropping out of school. When students don’t finish high school, this can negatively impact not only the student, but also society as a whole.
Therefore, the purpose of this study was to explore how cohort learning promotes intellectual engagement for students and gather learner evidence to inform teacher practice. Results from this small study of 26 Grade 10 participants found cohort students seemed to indicate higher than nationally reported averages for intellectual engagement. To investigate how such a cohort model helps promote intellectual engagement for Grade 10 learners, an online survey asking questions related to intellectual engagement was implemented and analyzed. Questions were asked regarding flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), effort, motivation, interest, relevance and enjoyment, specifically about Grade 10 Career and Technology Studies (CTS) and Grade 10 English courses. Responses were collected from three cohorts including Visual Art & Media, Building Futures and the Academy of Mechatronics.
Findings seem to indicate that a cohort model helps promote intellectual engagement, as overall, there was a 72 percent student psychological investment during the two-week period studied for the English Language classes and CTS classes. These results were higher than previously reported national intellectual engagement trends of 54 percent for high schools participating in the High School Flexibility Enhancement Pilot Project and the Canadian norm for Intellectual Engagement Composite for high schools for the 2010/2011 school year was 44 percent (Fijal, 2013). The students in this survey indicated an 18 percent higher psychological investment in their learning.
In addition, open ended questions found student expressed themes related to feeling connected (with teachers, peers and experts), a strong sense of enjoyment and motivation to go to school, a positive classroom culture (feelings of trust, acceptance and belonging) and relevant and meaningful learning experiences. Lastly, students shared why they chose a cohort over a regular school stream, and many expressed a desire for new learning experiences beyond “regular school.” It seems students these students are telling us these cohorts are fostering a sense of community with relevant learning experiences. These results also support previous High School Redesign research findings in successful schools fostered trust and student voice (Friesen, Jacobsen, Brown, & Alonso-Yanez, 2016).
Now What? Recommended Next Steps
- Teachers/Educators: Do you want to know if your students are intellectually engaged using evidence? Grade 5-12 educators should consider integrating the Alberta Education TTFM (Tell Them From Me) survey as a formative assessment tool to collect engagement data. This survey can help teachers improve learning experiences for students and target specific areas in their classrooms most in need of intervention (Reschly, Appleton, & Pohl, 2014), all while promoting student voice in their own learning. Also, this survey provides data on more complex issues, such as student wellness and classroom climate.
- Administrators: Consider using this survey as a data-based decision making tool. Share student perspectives with staff to target specific school issues and improve learning (Lovelace, Reschly, & Appleton, 2017). Bring students together in staff meetings to discuss results in partnership to develop creative solutions. Also, consider how a cohort model could support community building in your school.
- Rocky View Schools: Continue to research innovative practices and share findings locally and globally to better understand what does and does not work in school redesign. Also, consider offering more cohort topics to more learners. Maybe we ask students what they want to know more about and design cohorts around those topics?
In summary, this study found a cohort model may help promote intellectual engagement. Improving our practice as educators requires listening to student’s critical voices. We cannot do this without asking the students themselves and we must be willing to be vulnerable and find out what is and isn’t working in our practice. In a light of fostering student voice, making learning relevant, meaningful and developing a sense of belonging, the cohort model may be one possibility to help foster intellectual engagement and a sense of community.
Alberta Education. (March 2009). High school flexibility enhancement: A literature review.
Appleton, J. J., Christenson, S. L., Kim, D., & Reschly, A. L. (2006). Measuring cognitive and psychological engagement: Validation of the Student Engagement Instrument. Journal of School Psychology, 44, 427–445. doi:10.1016/j.jsp. 2006.04.002.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper Perennial: New York, NY.
Dunleavy, J., Milton, P., & Willms, D. (2012). Trends in intellectual engagement. What did you do in school today? (Research Series Report Number Three). Toronto: Canadian Education Association.
Reschly and Christenson (2004)
Fijal, J. (2013). High school flexibility enhancement pilot project summary report.
Friesen, S. (2009). What did you do in school today? Teaching effectiveness: A framework and rubric. Toronto: Canadian Education Association.
Friesen, S., Jacobsen, M., Brown, B., & Alonso-Yanez, G. (2016, April). Highly adaptive learning systems: Research in Alberta’s redesigned high schools. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association (AERA), Washington, DC.
Lovelance, M. D., Reschly, A., Appleton, J. J. (2017). Beyond school records: The value of cognitive and affective engagement in predicting dropout and on-time graduation. Professional School Counselling, 21(1), 70–84.
Reschly, A. L., Pohl, A., Christenson, S. L., & Appleton, J. J. (2017). Engaging adolescents in secondary schools. In B. Schultz, J. Harrison, & S. Evans (Eds.), School mental health services for adolescents. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Wang, M.-T., Chow, A., Hofkens, T., & Salmela-Aro, K. (2015). The trajectories of student emotional engagement and school burnout with academic and psychological development: Findings from Finnish adolescents. Learning and Instruction, 36, 57–65. doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2014.11.004.
Willms, J. D. (2003). Student engagement at school: a sense of belonging and participation (Paris, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).
Willms, D., Friesen, S., & Milton, P. (2009). What did you do in school today? Transforming classrooms through social, academic and intellectual engagement, final national report. Toronto: Canadian Education Association.