Student Engagement in the Middle Years of Schooling (Years 7-10): A Literature Review

Publication Details

Research undertaken in New Zealand and other countries consistently suggests that student engagement in school and learning decreases during the middle years of schooling. The aim of this literature review, which was undertaken by Evaluation Associates and Massey University on behalf of the Ministry of Education, was to explore the relationship between academic engagement and student achievement and what can be done to raise levels of engagement in New Zealand schools.

Author(s): Robyn Gibbs & Dr Jenny Poskitt [Report to the Ministry of Education]

Date Published: 03 June 2010

Part B – The pedagogical approaches that promote and support student engagement for improved


What impact can teachers have on student engagement, particularly those students who exhibit low levels? Can students become more interested and engaged learners? Fortunately, teachers can organise their teaching and learning programmes to have a positive impact on student self-efficacy, and therefore on student engagement and learning in the classroom (Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2003). This section of the report explores a range of principles and classroom strategies that are known to positively influence student engagement and learning. Be aware though that it is necessary for teachers to combine their own practical experience with the suggestions presented here because interactions between personality, past learning experiences, social, cultural and school environments may require different responses to some individuals and groups of students from others (just like parenting – children respond better to some strategies than others!). Therefore, teachers need a large inventory of instructional strategies to engage a variety of students (Garcia-Reid, Reid, & Peterson, 2005).

Brown, Reumann-Moore and Hugh (2009, p. 24) used a framework based on four interrelated “lenses” to promote student engagement, problem-solving and critical thinking.  The lenses are thought to be central to good learning and teaching: “social (learning in a collaborative, social context); meaning-centred (relating new information to existing prior knowledge); language-based (reading, writing, and talking for authentic purposes); and human (self-reflecting to increase awareness of one’s own unique learning)”. These lenses are adapted and discussed in this report in relation to what teachers can do to structure their classroom environments and learning interactions to develop and sustain high levels of student engagement.

This section discusses four ‘key approaches for fostering middle school students engagement in learning (a) nurturing trusting relationships (as per Brown et al’s “social” lens); (b) engaging students in fun learning activities (as per Brown et al’s “language and social based”); (c) making learning meaningful (as per Brown et al’s “meaning-centered”); (d) enabling students to learn better and helping them take responsibility for their learning (as per Brown et al’s “human”); and (e) concludes with a general overview about teachers fostering student engagement in the classroom. These approaches incorporate the factors discussed above.

Nurturing trusting relationships (relate to factors one and two)

The need for belonging, acceptance by peers, having opportunities to demonstrate competence, and opportunities for autonomy are characteristic developmental needs of middle school students (Walter, Lambie, & Ngazimbi, 2008). Students’ motivation to succeed academically may be overshadowed by their desire to succeed socially. “They tend to be passionate about matters of justice and fairness, and they are acutely sensitive to how their teachers express care for them” (Cushman & Rogers, 2008, p. 15). In their social interactions students are learning how to deal with conflict and how to reach agreement. “When students are given opportunities to collaborate, they are more likely to focus on learning, are more interested in the subject matter and feel less anxious” (Cushman & Rogers, 2008, p. 15). To stimulate student interest and active involvement in learning, teachers might deliberately integrate social learning into the curriculum. Indeed, research by Johnson (2008, p.81) suggests that, “classroom time spent primarily in interactive instructional formats is highly engaging for adolescent students and may be used in combination with lesser proportions of lecture and independent work to create a more engaging educational environment.” Fundamental to the nurturing of trusting relationships is the sense of being cared for and valued by significant others.

Caring about them

Students interviewed in Strahan’s (2008) study identified three types of care that contributed to trusting relationships and focused learning. The first was ‘discovery talk’ – informal conversation to discover students’ interests outside of the classroom so that connections could be made by the teacher to foster more meaningful learning (e.g. use of relevant metaphors and real-life examples and interests of students’ when explaining new concepts) and to check that things were okay for the student. The second was ‘help’ – for personal problems and instructional help for improving learning. Thirdly, ‘friendly listening’ to personal issues that may affect classroom and academic performance. A major conclusion from this study was, “that caring relationships were the key to reengaging disengaged learners… when a student learns to trust a caring teacher, he or she can begin to take chances, find the will to invest effort in a task, and receive the guidance needed to improve skills” (p.7).

Knowing them well

Strahan (2008) reports on a series of case studies with teachers who were successful in transforming reluctant students in challenging circumstances to become focused and highly engaged learners. These teachers “demonstrated warm, supportive relationships by showing a deep knowledge of individual students. Not only could they describe in detail the emotional, physical, cognitive, intellectual and family needs and circumstances of students in their classes, they addressed these needs by responding to students as individuals” (p.6). In one school team where students made significant academic gains, teachers had created a climate of trust, “shared responsibility through team building and positive discipline, taught explicit strategies for performing academic tasks, and developed instructional activities that linked inquiry, collaboration and real-world experiences” (p.6). These aspects are possible in climates of trust (because students are more likely to take risks in their learning) and belief in students as people and as highly capable learners.

Being fair

In Brown et al’s studies (2009, p. 25) students believed that fairness was important, such as giving all students opportunities to contribute to class discussions. For students fairness involved treating all students with respect; however students’ notions of fairness are sometimes perceived differently from teachers. They hate it when the whole class is punished for an individual or small group of students’ misdemeanors; and intensely dislike being embarrassed or humiliated in front of their peers. Students appreciate teachers who address individual discipline matters in private. With classroom issues, having group or class conversations, and encouraging students to work with the teacher to find solutions helps build collaborative relationships and conflict resolution skills.

Engaging students in fun learning activities (relates to factors three and four)

Making learning fun

Students are more actively engaged when learning is perceived to be fun, inspiring and challenging (Brown et al, 2009). To this age group, fun means variety, novelty and a sense of adventure, as well as the use of age-appropriate humour and laughter. Students appreciate teachers who can resolve a potential issue with humour, saving face for all involved, and who view learning from a student perspective. After considering learning from a student perspective, this section includes a variety of learning activities to promote student engagement in learning.

Viewing learning from a student perspective

The teacher’s task, in striving for student engagement, is to figure out students’ thinking and learning about the content, and how their emerging ideas relate to experiential and authoritative sources. To do this, strategies like the following can be used: using a range of metaphors, analogies, problems, pictures and diagrams; being aware of aspects students typically misunderstand; transforming context to make it accessible; being aware of the emotions, perceptions and translations of students; and presenting key ideas in interesting and helpful ways (Anderson, 2002). One way for teachers to discover students’ perspectives, is through learning discussions.

Learning Discussion

Classroom discussion is a frequently used teaching strategy, but is often unwittingly dominated by teacher talk. Carrington (2006) argues that middle-school students need opportunities to engage with others in substantive conversation, linking the classroom world with the world outside of the classroom so that students are intellectually challenged in a meaningful and supportive environment. Referring to the work of Education Queensland (2000), Carrington indicates increased need in the middle years for, “ analytic depth, intellectual challenge and rigour, critical thinking, critical literacy and higher order analysis, dialogue, connection to students’ cultural backgrounds, knowledge problem-based learning and worlds of work, citizenship and community life” (2006, p.121).  In some classrooms there is a need for greater intellectual demands on students to challenge and extend their growing knowledge and competencies. One vehicle for this extension is carefully scaffolded classroom discussions and learning conversations.

Indeed, students who participate in conversations acquire more energy, self-confidence and tendency to initiate subsequent conversations, since positive emotional energy builds from acceptance into the group and successful interactions.  Emotional energy determines how students feel about the discussion, how much they want to talk and how successful they will be in making a contribution  (Milne & Otieno, 2007). Teachers can look for signs of positive emotional energy (and engagement) in student actions such as eye gaze, overlapping speech, conversation that builds on previous comments, and shared actions, use of language associated with the particular curriculum or topic area, a willingness to focus on observation and explanation and a desire to work together to construct knowledge.  Students who are cognitively engaged are likely to have synchronous (similar) body language, especially body posture such as head nodding, eye contact (varies according to cultural mores), humour, overlapping speech (rate, intensity and pitch) and the completion of each other’s sentences. Matching movements at the beginning and end of an interaction constitutes “attention signals” and cognitive engagement, according to Milne and Otieno (2007) . These actions are readily observable by classroom teachers and can be used to monitor levels of student engagement.

Taylor (2007) suggests several strategies for stimulating focused learning discussions with students that encourage reflection and meta-cognition.  An activity called fishbowl can promote discussions of challenging or controversial material in areas such as science, social studies or literature; whilst also teaching skills in reflection, meta-cognition, self and peer assessment.  With fishbowl, seats are organized with an inner and an outer circle.  About five students sit in the inner fishbowl and begin a discussion, using prompts provided by the teacher (or with experienced groups the comments or questions can be generated by students prior to the discussion).  Only students in the inner fishbowl can speak. Outer circle students can tap a student on the shoulder and swap seats with them. If students are reluctant to enter the inner fishbowl the teacher can change the rules so that after a few minutes the inner group can tap others into the fishbowl; or if they are too quick to jump into the fishbowl the teacher can set a time limit for being tapped out. A further modification is to have the outer group remain quiet and record their observations of the discussion. After a period of time the discussion can be stopped so the outer group critiques the discussion or offers suggestions.  The teacher might also identify strengths of the discussion and offer ways to improve the discussion.

Another discussion strategy is the ‘ticket to talk’ (Taylor, 2007).  Students write anonymous comments or questions about a text or topic at the end of class (exit ticket) or for homework (entry ticket to next class discussion).  These student-generated questions or comments can be used as class or small group discussion, increasing student participation and indicating students’ levels of understanding to teachers.

Discussion webs (Taylor, 2007) encourage students to consider different sides of an issue before drawing conclusions. Essentially the students phrase yes/no type questions and provide reasons, before coming to a conclusion. For example, students might construct a question like, “Should our secondary school allow alcohol at the school ball?” The student generates positive and negative reasons before coming to a conclusion. These discussion webs can provide the notes for students to contribute to group or class discussions in a meaningful way, or visual displays of different ideas.

“Say something” (Taylor, 2007, p. 57) is a more structured approach, “providing a set of discussion prompts for pairs of students to use in a text or topic-centred conversation”. The “say something” might include summarizing the material, asking each other questions, relating to a character. Prompts might include, “make a prediction, ask a question, clarify something you misunderstood, make a comment, make a connection” (p.58). The subsequent discussion develops meaning and deeper learning of the content.

Question-answer relationships (QARs) encourage students to examine the question and the type of information required to answer the question (e.g. specific recall (textually explicit), combining prior knowledge and information from the text to make inferences (textually implicit), or interpretive questions). The QARs strategy can help students to foster meta-cognitive conversations.

These strategies (fishbowl, ticket to talk, discussion webs, say something and question-answer relationships) can help motivate students to actively participate in learning discussions.

Cooperative learning

The challenge in teaching is not covering the material, but uncovering the learning with students  (Smith, Sheppard, Johnson, & Johnson, 2005). Cooperative learning, when well structured, meets students’ social needs of belonging, peer acceptance and demonstration of competence. Informal cooperative learning consists of students working together to achieve a joint learning goal in temporary, ad hoc groups (e.g. ‘turn to your partner’ or ‘think/pair/share’ discussions) to personalize learning and identify and correct misunderstandings.  The teacher ensures that students are involved intellectually by organizing material, explaining, summarizing and integrating new learning into existing conceptual frameworks.  In listening to students’ discussions teachers can give direction and gain insight into how well students have understood the concepts and material being taught.  

Formal cooperative learning groups are more structured, generally stay together longer and are based around more complex tasks. According to Smith et al (2005, p. 8), “there are five essential elements to successful implementation of formal cooperative learning groups:

  • Positive interdependence
  • Face to face promotive interaction
  • Individual accountability/personal responsibilities
  • Teamwork skills
  • Group processing”

Positive interdependence relates to responsibility for one’s own and others’ learning; and joint performance (agree on a group answer, each member is able to explain group answer, each member fulfils their assignment role responsibilities).  Students interact face to face to help each other accomplish the task and promote each other’s success. Incorporating self and peer assessment helps promote positive interaction, as does randomly calling on individual students to report on their group’s efforts.  Students learn together to subsequently perform better as individuals.  Purposeful teaching of teamwork skills (leadership, decision making, trust building, communication and conflict management) is helpful for middle student development but also in developing lifelong skills. Finally, allocating sufficient time for group processing, (e.g. list 3 things the group did well and at least one thing that could be improved) and making decisions about what to continue or develop as a group, builds social skills and feelings of competence. To be effective, cooperative learning needs: time, task complexity, and development of skills (critical thinking, higher level reasoning and teamwork skills) (Smith et al, 2005).

Peer tutoring

Peer tutoring involves pairing students (as opposed to larger teams in cooperative learning) together for deliberate shared learning experiences. Frequently peer tutoring involves pairing two students of differing abilities and backgrounds who become teachers and resources for each other. It can help learners attain higher levels of achievement because, as they converse and listen, there is immediate feedback, clarification and modification. “Sometimes it takes a peer to say the exact same thing [a teacher] has said for them to get it”  (Pickens & Eick, 2009, p. 355).  Students claim they learn better when working with other students and enjoy learning more (Pickens & Eick, 2009). Students may also develop friendships with students from different backgrounds (Allison & Rehm, 2007). Teachers benefit as students reflect and explain their teaching in accessible student language, pairing students together enables the teacher to circulate the classroom, listen to students’ and respond to different needs, adjusting learning to target particular concepts or skills. There are risks though of time spent socializing and higher achieving students resenting use of time assisting others. Thoughtful pairing of students, specific guidelines about working together and judicious use of the strategy can minimize these risks.

Problem-based learning

Problem -based learning “results from the process of working toward the understanding or resolution of a problem”  (Smith et al., 2005, p. 5). Key features of problem-based learning include: student-centred, small student groups, teachers are facilitators, problems are stimulus of learning, and new information is acquired through self-directed learning.  Middle school students enjoy grappling with real-life problems, making the learning meaningful while building their sense of growing competency.

“Hands-on” work

Pickens and Eick (2009), in their research on science teachers observed the value of scientific inquiry to high school student learning.  Although students sometimes exhibited low confidence in designing science experiments, with some guided teacher scaffolding students became more highly motivated about science, reported higher levels of enjoyment, and showed deeper understanding of scientific concepts. For example, students were given marbles, a stopwatch and materials of different levels of viscosity and challenged to design a demonstration.  The students were required to act like scientists (make observations, collect systematic data, construct data tables, and share results). Similarly, Paris, Yambor and Packard (1998, p. 267) claimed that “there were significant increases in students’ interest in science and significant improvements in their problem-solving skills,” after a six week extracurricular science program involving hands-on biology activities.  Students exhibit high levels of engagement during hands-on experiments, question what is happening, seek clarification from each other, wonder why certain reactions occur, strategize options, consider a range of ways to measure and record their data. Students also initiate more questions of teachers, seek explanations and share their enthusiasm; leading to higher levels of engagement and deeper learning.


In a study on a secondary school chemistry class, Milne and Otieno (2007), found that science demonstrations were instrumental in developing student interest, and engagement in learning about science. “Science demonstrations have the potential for experiencing science, talking about experiences, proposing questions, suggesting patterns, and testing those questions and patterns; … a specific content focus provides … cognitively focused interactions that support student learning” (p.551). Demonstrations provide more shared experiences to bind students emotionally, and cognitively, particularly when combined with effective teacher questioning, and group discussions.  This finding could be applied to other subject areas.

Use of video games and technology

Video games and simulations are a familiar part of students’ worlds, but also engage students through the incorporation of effective learning principles (for example, self-pacing, incremental challenges, novelty, player’s sense of power and control) (Gee, 2003). Incorporating technology and adapting popular, seemingly leisure activities, into the classroom with deliberate learning purposes, may be a vehicle for turning school learning into a more relevant and meaningful experience for less engaged students. Allison & Rehm (2007) argue this is because visual and multimedia tools engage different senses, and help reinforce concepts by presenting information in different formats as well as “capture the interest of active middle school students who require frequent stimuli to keep them engaged in learning” (p.14).

This section has discussed a number of strategies that can be used to meet student’s developmental needs for social interaction, peer approval and demonstration of increasing competence: meaningful and challenging learning conversations, cooperative learning, problem-based learning, peer tutoring, hands-on activities, demonstrations, and use of video games and technology.

Making learning meaningful (relates to factors four, five, six seven and eight)

Students perceive the relevance of learning when it is made meaningful for them. Making connections to their everyday life or to future anticipated experiences enables students to discern the value of their current learning, to devote more attention and effort to understanding, and to strive for deeper learning.  Connections across the curriculum and between school and wider life sometimes need to be explicitly made to enhance student learning.

Indicating why learning something is important and relating content to students’ lives

Teachers who ask students, “What is this [learning] useful for?” and use stories or examples relevant to the students’ lives alert students to the importance or usefulness of the learning, and create more engaging learning environments (Pickens & Eick, 2009; Brown et al, 2009).  For example, adapting a physics unit to focus on sport and investigate the flight of soccer balls or golf swings, or gear changes in cycling, creates more active interest in learning. Brown et al (2009, p. 25), reported that the ‘best’ teachers informed students by putting ideas into words that students understood and related to, and gave students opportunities to express their ideas.  Regularly using media such as magazines (sport) and television (e.g. Myth Busters), or popular fiction helps teachers introduce and challenge students’ ideas in relevant and meaningful ways. This is particularly so when teachers create an environment encouraging students to contribute personal stories to classroom discussions, and build on these student experiences in subsequent learning activities. Such actions help students to make links between their practical experiences and theoretical (such as scientific concepts) knowledge  (Bolstad & Hipkins, 2009; Victorian Government, 2009).  

Enabling students to learn better and helping them take responsibility for their own learning

Students respond to lessons that scaffold instructions and teach strategies explicitly. When teachers provide helpful feedback to let students know what they are doing right and what/how they need to improve, students start to assess their own work more honestly, seek guidance from teachers and begin to set goals for themselves, make choices and experiment with new learning, and start to use self-regulation strategies. According to Strahan (2008), transforming reluctant students into engaged learners requires building on key phases of ongoing support from teachers, specific feedback, and dialogue about academic and personal choices (helping students internalize a sense of responsibility and locus of control). Details of the phases are displayed in table 5:

Table 5: Developing academic momentum with reluctant students
Dynamics of developing academic momentum with reluctant students (adapted from Strahan, 2008, p.9)
1. Creating classrooms communities that nurture trusting relationshipsCultivate trust through discovery conversations, understand academic strengths and needs, encourage shared responsibility and team building amongst students
2. Engaging in learning activitiesOnce trusting relationships develop, students begin risk taking in learning, taking small steps, teachers providing specific scaffolding, instruction and feedback
3. Setting goals and planningAs students start using learning strategies, teachers encourage goal setting and responsibility for learning
4. Experimenting with new behaviours, thoughts and feelingsOnce student goals established, provide choices of learning, making links to real-world experiences, use of varied knowledge and strategies
5. Growing stronger academicallyWhen students start gaining confidence, assess progress more candidly, monitor goals and improve skills, they increase their engagement and achievement.

For teachers, the encouraging findings from these studies are the impact of teacher support, quality instructional content and processes on student learning and engagement. Moreover, Walker and Greene (2009, p. 469) argue the importance of “teachers’ articulating, and students’ being able to understand, why and how learning is personally relevant to their future.” This is because perceiving a current task as instrumental in attaining one’s future goals enhances not only student motivation but also subsequent performance. Without some future orientation, the importance and relevance attached to current learning tasks is limited to their short-term appeal. When students perceive they are valued members of their classroom community (supported by teachers and peers), believe their current learning is instrumental to their future, have the self-beliefs, learning, feedback and self-regulation strategies to make progress, they are more highly motivated and engaged in learning (Walker & Greene, 2009).


Engaging students in learning is a demanding yet highly satisfying professional responsibility. Although engagement is commonly viewed as having three main components: emotional, behavioural and cognitive, it is evident in the theoretical and practical sections of this paper that attending to emotional and behavioural needs is foundational for deep cognitive learning. The first two of the eight factors identified by the authors as influencing student engagement were relationships with teachers and peers, and relational learning. These aspects were also evident in the practical frameworks of Brown et al (2009) and Strahan (2008).

However, student learning is more than relationships, and thus our theoretical section discussed six factors related to learning: dispositions to be a learner, motivation and interest, personal agency, self-efficacy, goal orientation and academic self-regulated learning. Similarly, Part B of this paper contained a practical section on nurturing trusting relationships (attending to students’ emotional and behavioural needs), followed by three sections about enhancing student learning (engaging in fun learning activities; making learning meaningful; and enabling students to learn better and helping them take responsibility for their learning). The higher phases of engaged learning require goal-setting, risk taking or experimenting and academic self-regulated learning; aspects to which teachers may need to pay greater attention.

Implementation of these theories requires teachers to foster student engagement in classrooms by developing interactive, varied and relevant lessons, being encouraging and supportive to students.  Classrooms in which students, feel comfortable asking questions, are expected to do their best, where instruction is challenging, specific feedback is given to help students with their current learning, are less likely to have bored and disengaged students. Most students like lessons to be paced and with varied learning tasks (not continuously listening to the teacher or note taking). Focusing on active learning (such as interactive group tasks, hands-on activities, differentiated instruction) and a relevant curriculum (drawing from students’ background, interests and academic needs) are fundamental elements.  Making connections between information taught and real life (e.g. using a roller coaster example with students can help to reinforce Newton’s Law of Motion), especially everyday concerns of the age group of students, is highly effective in engaging students.  Furthermore, encouraging students to set goals, make choices in their learning, experiment with new ideas, and self regulate their learning will enhance their engagement and achievement. Cognizance, and application, of these factors will enable student learning to indeed be an engaging affair.

In the end, the path to student engagement starts where young people are and helps them to chart a course that will take them where they need to go. On the way, the more they can find and use their voices to express who they are and what they want, the greater is the likelihood that they will seek and find what they need. Engagement is a habit of mind and heart. It is what we want young people to cultivate not just to get their diplomas, but as a lifelong way of being. It is what we want our schools and programs to foster with every aspect of their curriculum, organization, and culture. To engage young people requires of us what we ask of them: full commitment, a belief that it is possible, and a vision of a viable and productive future (Joselowsky, 2007, p. 273).