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, Evaluation Associates Ltd and Dr Jenny Poskitt, Massey University. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: June 2010

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Research, both international and local, suggests that student engagement in school and learning decreases during the middle years of schooling. In New Zealand, disengagement with school is evident in truancy, stand-down, suspension and expulsion rates, which increase rapidly from age 11 (Ng, 2006). Students' attitudes towards reading, writing and mathematics decline as they move through the middle years and they become more critical about some of the teaching they experience (Cox & Kennedy, 2008). Further evidence from the Competent Learners at 14 study (Wylie et al. 2006) indicates that a third of the 14 year old participants did not find school engaging and a fifth wanted to leave school as soon as they could.

Although the performance of New Zealand students in international assessment studies is relatively high when compared to students from other countries, there are nevertheless issues of concern for some groups of students that are likely to have their roots in poor student engagement in learning.  These issues include:

  • Too many young New Zealanders leaving school with low literacy and numeracy skills.
  • Too many students, particularly Māori and Pasifika, leaving school early with low or no qualifications.
  • The wide spread of achievement within and between groups of students.

The Ministry of Education is committed to ensuring the education system works for all students. The aim of the current project is to review the literature to find out more about student engagement and the relationship between academic engagement and student achievement and then to consider what teachers can do to raise levels of student engagement within their classes and schools. 

Research Questions

Specific research questions were developed by the Ministry of Education and these were the lens through which the researchers reviewed the literature and then report the findings:

  1. Thinking specifically in terms of learning and achievement outcomes for students over the shorter-and longer-term, what are the key elements of 'student engagement' during the middle schooling years?
  2. How, and to what extent, are these various elements of 'student engagement' linked to student learning and achievement?  Are certain elements more or less strongly linked to learning and achievement for particular students or groups of students?
  3. What promotes and supports 'student engagement' for improved learning and achievement during the middle schooling years?  Does it differ for particular students or groups of students?

Layout of the report

This report is produced to assist teachers who wish to foster student engagement within their classes.  It is organized in two parts: the first part, which addresses research questions one and two, is a review of the current literature on the construct of student engagement followed by a description of the multifaceted and interconnected factors that impact on engagement identified within this literature. 

The second part of the report addresses research question three.  It is a discussion of the steps teachers can take to make their classrooms and programmes more engaging for students, based on the factors identified in the first part of the report and additional research that captures the voice of youth learners. 

The report will commence with a brief description of the search methodology before moving on to explore the student engagement literature in relation to the research questions.

Literature review methodology

One objective of the literature review was to source writing from an eclectic range of domains (psychology, sociology, human development and education) with the purpose of extracting a broad range of possible indicators of engagement and the factors that impact on engagement. 

The research team was keen to locate material that applied to the New Zealand education system.  For instance, it explored the Te Kōtahitanga research (Bishop, Berryman, Cavanagh, & Teddy, 2007) with the purpose of identifying the culturally responsive pedagogical approaches teachers can take to engage Māori students and the outcome of these approaches on Māori students whose teachers took part in the Te Kōtahitanga programme.  We read relevant Best Evidence statements (Aitken & Sinnema, 2008; Alton-Lee, 2003) for explicit or implicit messages about pedagogical approaches that support student engagement.  We also read two reports (Caygill, 2007; Ministry of Education, 2009), to locate material that related to the attitudes and engagement of the New Zealand students that took part in PISA studies.  We found two local empirical studies that related to student engagement: Te Kōtahitanga (Bishop et al., 2007), and Growing Independence – Competent Learners at 14 (Wylie & Hipkins, 2006).  A further five New Zealand-produced studies had relevant material on aspects of student engagement.  A significant number of the remaining 48 articles were American empirical studies relating to the engagement of middle years students.  The following table explains the process the team used in sourcing relevant material and reviewing it prior to writing this report. 

Table 1: The process for carrying out the literature review
Task Tools/strategies
Stage One: Clarify understanding of the field
Identify domains Domains included:
  • Psychology (motivation, cognition)
  • Sociology (peer group, gender, home environment, youth voice and agency)
  • Human Development
  • Ecological theory (culture, classroom dynamics)
  • Educational/pedagogical (relationships, curriculum, teaching practices, learning approaches, alternative education)
Identify the fields under investigation Motivation, engagement linked to student achievement and learning
Establishing key words and terminology Make lists of these words and terminology e.g. self efficacy, youth voice, relational learning, metacognition and self regulation
Stage Two: Construct a search strategy
Conduct searches on academic library databases Record the fruitful pathways

Record the contiguous fields as they come up in the searches
e.g. flow theory
Determine the scope of the literature that will be searched
Stage Three: Read, evaluate and summarise the research
Read the research carefully and critically Assess the research in terms of:
  • relevance to the New Zealand context
  • trustworthiness (validity and reliability)
  • usefulness of methodological approach
Identify the theses and antitheses Make written summaries of what is read


  1. For example, the PISA 2006 results (Telford & Caygill, 2007) indicate that out of 30 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries New Zealand students performed very well in mathematics, science and reading literacy.
  2. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an international study that assess how well 15 year-old are prepared to meet the challenges of today's society. PISA assesses three key areas of knowledge and skills: reading literacy, mathematical literacy and scientific literacy.
  3. We assert that there is a significant gap in the New Zealand literature specifically on the phenomenon of middle years student engagement.