Challenges In Education: Engaging The Disengaged Students

As countries report on the growing disengagement of students, bringing students into the educational process becomes a focus of attention for policy-makers and educators. What is student engagement, why are students disengaged, and how can we engage the disengaged?

According to the Glossary of Education Reform, student engagement refers to “the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught”. Simply put, it is believed that the higher the degree of student engagement, the better the outcomes of learning. However, apart from the consensus on the general meaning of the term student engagement, there are many varying interpretations of this phenomenon and of what causes it. Some education experts perceive engagement as attending class, participating actively, and respecting deadlines. Others understand it differently, for example as demonstrating an active interest in the subject and being motivated to study. Researchers Ming-Te Wang and Jacquelynne S. Eccles point out in their publication that student engagement is often judged only by behavior. The authors note, however, that good behavior is not the only relevant factor as emotion and cognition are very important as well. The Glossary of Education Reform explains that student engagement might be interpreted through various dimensions, including behavioral, emotional, and intellectual, but also physical, social, and cultural.

Student Disengagement by the Numbers

According to the National Research Council, over 40 percent of American high school students are chronically disengaged from school. Similarly, the Australian Research Council reports that among Australian students at all ages, only 60 percent of all pupils are considered to behave productively, while the rest are either disengaged, low-level disruptive, or uncooperative. 

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has measured the engagement of students in a worldwide study of the school performance of 15-year-old pupils. The OECD’s PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) study reports a vast majority of students agreed that trying hard at school is important. However, the percentage of pupils who are engaged at school was significantly lower. It means that even students who believe that trying hard at school is essential commonly fail to engage. 

The Reasons for Student Disengagement

According to the OECD, schoolchildren need to be both physically and mentally present to be successful learners. In a report titled Students’ Engagement, Drive, and Self-Beliefs the OECD states that without such engagement even talented students will be unable to translate their potential into high-level skills and knowledge. 

What are the reasons that lie behind the lack of presence that ultimately leads to unsuccessful learning or even the phenomenon of students who drop out of schools and universities altogether?

There is no single answer to that question as the reasons vary from country to country, and there is no consensus among scholars on that matter, either. A 2004 report by the Center for Childhood Studies Faculty of Education at Monash University claims that both school and non-school factors affect levels of student engagement. School factors include for example school size, disciplinary climate, and peer relations while among non-school factors are self-esteem, family situation, and ethnicity.

How to Engage Them… 

Ways to engage students depend on the exact reasons why students fail to participate. There are many strategies, and most of them fall into six categories that overlap with the dimensions of student engagement given by the Glossary of Education Reform.


According to some educators, intellectual engagement methods address the belief that students are disengaged because they are bored or uninterested in the subject. Techniques used by teachers aim to spark students’ curiosity about the subject matter, for example by presenting science experiments.


Emotional engagement is linked to the students’ lack of self-confidence and the belief that school is unimportant. Among the strategies for dealing with disengagement on an emotional level are student advisories and mentoring programs that are based on the theory that students are more likely to succeed if they have support from an adult at school who inspires them to develop their skills. 


The behavioral engagement of students can be understood as following school and class rules. Problems with such engagement can be addressed by assigning student roles. Another way is related to breaking classroom routines, as monotony has a potential to disengage pupils behaviorally.


Kinesthetic learning is an example of a style in which traditional learning through listening, reading, and watching is replaced by physical activities. Some students may acquire knowledge more easily by hearing, others prefer reading, and some need to write down notes to remember. Teachers may combine various methods to ensure the engagement of all students. 


Social interactions may boost students’ social engagement. Introducing activities that require students to work in groups, preferably with community involvement, is a good way to engage students on a social level. Teachers may organize discussion teams or encourage students to volunteer.


To turn students into successful learners, schools should make students of diverse cultural backgrounds feel like they are a part of one community. The objective of cultural engagement strategies is to boost school activities and the academic performance of children who are at risk of disengagement as a result of cultural alienation. This can be achieved by organizing cultural festivals and visits of leaders who come from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Putting Individual Needs Front and Center

The recent discussion about student engagement sends an important message about education in general: all students are different, and therefore there is no one simple scheme of teaching that matches the needs of everybody in the classroom. Because of that, schools should think of their students not as a uniform group, but rather a number of individuals. One size does not fit all, and one strategy of student engagement will not address the needs of all students.

Photo: Shutterstock

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