Indicators of Student Engagement

In more than 20 years of academic research on student engagement, scholars have constantly tried to identify what reflects student engagement. Some studies have focused on teachers’ reflections about student engagement, while others have fixated on supposedly objective perspectives on students’ time-on-task and other observable phenomenon.

When I became Washington state’s first-ever student engagement specialist in 2000, I conducted a three year action research project to identify and advocate for the active, intentional, and practical engagement of every learner throughout K-12 schools. Since then I have supported more than 2,000 schools in their efforts to foster, expand, and sustain student engagement.

These are Adam F.C. Fletcher's five indicators of student engagement for
These are Adam F.C. Fletcher’s five indicators of student engagement for

SoundOut’s Indicators of Student Engagement

Following are the the five main indicators of student engagement I have identified through my work with SoundOut and beyond.

  1. Academic engagement is repeatedly choosing connection with curriculum, learning, and assessment within schools. Frequently positioned as “book learning” or “classroom learning,” academic engagement is shown through formal, structured, and specific activities and demonstrated through similar outcomes;
  2. Emotional engagement happens through Social Emotional Learning in classrooms and beyond. Emotional engagement is demonstrated through increased emotional intelligence, or EQ, and isn’t simply attached to curriculum. Instead, EQ is reflected in the interplay between classroom, climate, community, and interpersonal / intra-personal exhibition;
  3. Social engagement is reflected in connections students make through peer-to-peer relationships as well as with younger and older students, teachers and administrators, student support staff, and the broader school community. Again reflecting intra-personal engagement, the social indicator of student engagement is a direct reflection of culture and climate throughout the school environment;
  4. Cultural engagement is demonstrated through the continuous connections a student makes to language, history, dance, clothing, songs, and other types of cultural learning experiences within schools and beyond. Its obvious display isn’t the only way cultural engagement happens; rather, it is through stated, obvious, and demonstrable connectivity that students make their engagement known;
  5. Personal engagement is shown through students’ repeated connections to what matters most within themselves and throughout the world around them; and many other forms of student engagement. This is a largely interpersonal indicator, apparent only in the focuses of learners as they demonstrate interest, show consistency, and practice any given area of personal engagement.

All of these types of engagement happen within schools right now. However, with the exception of academic engagement, they are often treated as coincidental to the schooling experience. Research and practice reflected in literature from the last 20 years shows that quite the contrary, these indicators of engagement are essential for learner success in many ways.

With the breadth of student engagement clearly understood, it becomes easier to understand the rampant reality of student disengagement in schools today. This is what makes it essential to radically rethink how students are engaged throughout the education system.

What do you think of these indicators? I would love to read your thoughts and ideas, so share them in the comments. Interested in learning more? See the links below or contact SoundOut right now!

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How to Sound Out: Making School Meaningful

For more than 20 years, SoundOut has been supporting Meaningful Student Involvement. But what makes school meaningful for students? After working with thousands of learners in more than 500 K-12 schools across the U.S., Canada and beyond, we have found that there are four steps every school can take.

To make school meaningful, every student should learn about learning, learn about schooling, learn about meaning, and learn about voice.
To make school meaningful, every student should learn about learning, learn about schooling, learn about meaning, and learn about voice.

To make school meaningful for every learner, everywhere, all the time, students should do these steps. Every student should…

  • Learn about Learning
  • Learn about Schooling
  • Learn about Meaning
  • Learn about Voice

Following is an exploration of each step for how to sound out by making school meaningful for all learners.

Learn about Learning

Learning is treated like a puzzle in schools today, where educators cryptically choose is learned, how its taught, why its important, where learning happens, and what the outcomes should be. However, through Meaningful Student Involvement students deliberately learn what learning is and why it matters; how learning happens and how they learn best; they choose when and where learning happens; and students themselves select who can teach them and what they want to learn.

Instead of acting as a sage-on-the-stage, teachers become learning facilitators and coaches whose mission is to help infuse the love of education into the hearts and minds of all learners. In places where Meaningful Student Involvement happens, starting at the earliest ages, students become empowered, engaged co-facilitators for themselves and their peers, interacting across grade levels and beyond individual topics to experience entwined learning across curricular areas in order to have rich, holistic learning experiences. Constructivist approaches ensure appropriate learning occurs, while jointly identified learning goals encourage student ownership and student agency throughout school. Learning about learning is the first step toward Meaningful Student Involvement for all learners, everywhere, all the time.

Learn about Schooling

Almost every student goes through schools without understanding what they are part of, why it matters, and how it operates. Instead, they go through the education system with the expectation that at some point they’ll be finished. Rather than being the passive recipients of adult-driven decision-making, all students of all abilities in all grade levels can become active, engaged, and equitable partners with educators and parents throughout the entire educative process. Starting in kindergarten and extending through to graduation, learning about schooling includes understanding the structure of the education system; the practices throughout the entire educational journey; the outcomes of schools; and the surrounding factors that make schooling a necessary and productive part of everyone’s learning in life. Learning about schooling is the second step towards engaging all students everywhere through Meaningful Student Involvement.

Learn about Meaning

Making meaning in our lives, our learning, and schooling should be the core of every students’ experience in K-12 education. As students learn about their attitudes and abilities, they should come to understand the meaning of what they’re acquiring starting in kindergarten, and why it matters all the way through graduation. When they understand why schooling matters for themselves, students can do almost anything necessary in order to learn. This is completely opposite from how many schools address meaningfulness today; instead, they act as if students need to be able to do anything demanded of them without any sense of purpose or meaning. SoundOut’s approach to Meaningful Student Involvement is contingent on students finding the meaning of their schooling experience, no matter what age or ability they have. This is the third step.

Learn about Voice

The last step in Meaningful Student Involvement happens when students learn about student voice; that is, any expression of any student about anything related to learning, schools, and education. When students learn what student voice is, how student voice is shared, why student voice matters, and who student voice is shared by and for, students find the deepest possible meaning and purpose for schooling. This can allow students to be effective and equitable partners throughout the education system, from the smallest classroom lesson to the largest hallway traffic to the most important school board meeting. Most importantly though, it can also allow them to be active agents of change in the systems that affects them most, including education, community, and democracy. That’s the goal of Meaningful Student Involvement.


As this article shows and our experience attests to, its entirely feasible for every student of any ability level in every grade to experience Meaningful Student Involvement every single day. There is a lot of work involved in this; however, this is what schools should be for: ensuring the meaningfulness of every student’s life every single day in every single way possible.

To find out how SoundOut can help you make school meaningful for every learner, contact us now »

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Student Voice Revolution: The Meaningful Student Involvement Handbook by Adam Fletcher

Early Learning and Meaningful Student Involvement


The emerging reality that early learning is a key to successful lives for everyone, everywhere all the time makes it a key issue that can be addressed through and ultimately embody Meaningful Student Involvement.

As brain research continually shows, human development is completely footed in the early years, with conclusive evidence demonstrating the strong connection between the early childhood years and life-long health, well-being and learning. Focusing on early learning means creating and sustaining safe and support learning environments and coupling those with, positive, powerful and meaningful learning experiences for children throughout their early years.  Its in these years that young learners discover they have a voice, learn they have purpose, and embrace their abilities to create change in the worlds around them. These are the years when the concept of partnership with adults can be fostered, nurturing a sense of self-awareness and purpose in learning, teaching and leadership.

Ultimately, the architecture of Meaningful Student Involvement can nestled wonderfully throughout early learning.

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Critical Thinking

Tools for Teachers
Tools for Teachers

Critical thinking is a key skill infused within Meaningful Student Involvement. Its also a powerful approach to learning, teaching and leadership throughout the education system.

What It Is

Meaningful Student Involvement is built on critical thinking in several ways, including:

  • Empowering students to use reasoning to identify order and create meaning in their experience of schooling, learning and education
  • Enhancing the capacity of students to engage with the curriculum of schools, both seen and unseen
  • Fostering open-mindedness through questioning their own assumptions, challenging others and themselves and work with adults as partners, not supervisors
  • Enriching students’ and adults’ abilities to be challenged by others and encouraging them to see when they’re wrong
  • Encouraging students to test their desires for schools and search for truth in education.

What It Does

Infusing critical thinking throughout education means giving students of all ages the space to critically analyze the structures and cultures of schools on all levels. By developing their abilities to question, reason, predict and identify patterns in their experiences, students can become more than passive recipients of teaching. Instead, they can become equitable partners with adults in every aspect of the education system. That’s the goal of Meaningful Student Involvement.

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  • Thinkers’ Toolbox from Kestrel – A collection of tools useful for teachers to plan lessons and students as well as teachers to learn from.

Cultural Competency and Meaningful Student Involvement

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Cultural competency is the root within schools that allows them to embrace, enrich and promote students’ senses of ownership, agency and belonging through Meaningful Student Involvement.

What It Is

More than just acknowledging diversity, cultural competence can include acknowledging, accepting, embracing and empowering differences between and among students, students and educators, and the school and the larger community. Meaningful Student Involvement can put those steps into action as students learn the enthusiasm and energy education can possess.

Culture is anything and everything that makes up the parts of a person’s entire way of living. Culture is organized into groups, including a person’s geographic location, political identification, sexual orientation, familial makeup, friends, religion, jobs, and AGE. Age is a cultural group because of the traits shared among different age groups throughout society.

Ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia are all rooted in these cultural realities. Adultism, which is bias towards adults, is rooted in our cultural realities, too.

In order to successfully, meaningfully and wholly engage children and youth anywhere, anytime for any reason, adults have to confront our bias towards adults, and the consequence of that: discrimination against young people. The question of becoming aware of the culture of young people is at the very core of Meaningful Student Involvement for a lot of reasons.

For all that schools continue expanding Euro-awareness of the value of indigenous culture and the culture of people of color; for the cultural expansion towards equitable roles between women and men; for the upsurging awareness of the equal rights of GBLTQQ folks; we’re missing a key element in these conversations, and that’s the cultural shoehorn known as children and youth.

Students in schools have a distinct and unique culture among themselves for many reasons, not the least of which being the routine and systematic segregation of them from society by adults. The culture of students is almost wholly and constantly neglected, denied and dismissed by adults. They are actually and actively repressed, consequently fostering adultism and the adultcentric nature of schools and homes and businesses and government and much more.

That’s why cultural awareness is at the middle of what SoundOut does. From our perceptions, we’re talking about human rights, and the distinct right students should have to be themselves. Schools can and must embrace this in order to see the future for all it can hold…

What It Does

Successful schools that combine these approaches might have:

  • Elective courses designed by students from diverse backgrounds, such as Combating Intolerance
  • Peer mediation that allows students from diverse backgrounds an opportunity to guide other students as they talk about potentially divisive issues
  • Student-driven clubs that help students retain cultural identity (e.g., Muslim Student Society)
  • A committee for the families of students of color that organizes evenings for their parents to come to school in smaller groups and learn about the college admissions process, SAT prep classes, scholarship and grant opportunities, etc.
  • Open communication with students, led by students
  • Establishment of programs in the first languages of students


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Meaningful Student Involvement in Classrooms by

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Student Centered Learning and Meaningful Student Involvement

Focusing on each student’s interests, abilities, and learning styles, student centered learning can reposition classroom relationships as student/adult partnerships. This happens when students are taught, positioned and sustained to successfully choose what they will learn, how they will learn, and how they will assess their own learning.


When compared to traditional classrooms, student centered classrooms have several different attributes. They include:

  • Personalization: Through deliberate approaches to teaching, various methods and intentional processes throughout learning classrooms meet student needs directly.
  • Interactive environment: Students know and expect to have consistently hands-on, interactive learning experiences in every learning area.
  • Student-driven learning: Working with teachers as learning facilitators, students identify what they want to learn, learn how they learn best, identify learning goals from their time, and take action.
  • Student-centered assessments: Focused on identifying how students learn best, student-centered assessments can include portfolios, self-assessments, peer assessments and more.
  • Knowledge-creation: Rather than banking education, learning in student-centered classrooms is focused on students creating new knowledge in addition to learning previous outcomes.
  • Student engagement: Building sustained connections within students is a key to ownership, agency and outcomes.

Student centered classrooms don’t have to force teachers to choose compliance over learning. Instead, they allow students to assume an appropriate amount of authority in relationship to the responsibilities they fulfill. There are many configurations learning can have, including group work and solo time, teaching styles and approaches to assessment. Because personalization is key to student centered classrooms, the engagement styles of students become central to teaching and learning, and student agency and motivation become key to academic success.

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Your FREE copies of the Meaningful Student Involvement series are online at

Methods for Meaningful Student Involvement

Classroom learning and student involvement are connected by passion and purpose. By making student voice more substantial with the following methods, teachers can infuse meaningfulness into learning, teaching and leadership. 

Methods for Meaningful Student Involvement

This deliberate connection ties together the strategies for meaningful student involvement with the purpose of education. Using these methods for teaching and learning can all educators to thoroughly foster substantial Student/Adult Partnerships and signify the intention of adults to continue transforming learning as opportunities for learners themselves evolve.

No single classroom method, approach, style or ideology encapsulates Meaningful Student Involvement, and that’s why SoundOut promotes the broad conception. However, several different methods can be used to enhance, enrich, encourage and enliven student involvement throughout learning, teaching and leadership. When infused with Student/Adult Partnerships, these methods can add up to classrooms and schools that are more meaningful than ever before.


These are just some methods for Meaningful Student Involvement. What would you add to the list? Do you have any questions, concerns or ideas? Share them in the comments section!

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Jefferson County Open School

The Jefferson County Open School is a public preK-12 school in Edgewood, Colorado, that embodies Meaningful Student Involvement.


All students focus on personal identity, social interaction and intellectual inquiry. This holistic curriculum is reflected in the twenty-four graduation expectations and the incorporation of personal goals in an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) which is carried out in mutually agreeable programs worked out between each student and advisor.


At this school, students of all ages interact and learn from each other. Self-direction is a fundamental principle, and every student is engaged in and in charge of their own learning. The Open School provides a dynamic environment that fosters the development of the unique potential in each individual by nurturing and challenging the whole person. There is an emphasis on self-direction, learning through experience, shared responsibility, and the development of life long-skills. Students experience a lot of out-of-school learning opportunities, with overnight camping trips for elementary students and trips for older students to travel the world.

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Charter Schools and Meaningful Student Involvement

The connection between charter schools and Meaningful Student Involvement is inseparable. Unfortunately, many charters haven’t realized that yet.

Launched across the U.S. and around the world in the name of innovation, many charter schools operate independently of the public education system, while others have minimal supervision. With their commitment to new approaches to teaching and learning, charters were initially seen as potential informants and inspirations for public school reform efforts. However, in many cases they were show to be simple money chutes shoveling dollars towards private corporations and undo the democratic premise behind public schools.

In the meantime and as with a lot of school reform attempts, students are caught in the middle. Luckily, some charters actually realized the potential of Meaningful Student Involvement, or even relied on the approach. At one school in Oakland, students actually designed, implemented and sustained a charter school for their peers and the future of their community. A similar thing happened in New York City. The innovation that was supposed to be at the core of charters became apparent in these institutions. In other cases, Meaningful Student Involvement is being integrated into elements of schools.

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Zero Tolerance and Meaningful Student Involvement

Zero tolerance is the practice in schools of showing absolutely no acceptance for certain behaviors. Teachers, principals and other school staff are largely responsible for enforcing school rules against firearms, other weapons, alcohol, drugs, violence, and tobacco. Other issues include clothing, like skirt lengths and sagging pants, as well as free speech topics and challenging student-adult relationships.

Enforcing zero-tolerance rules, particularly in low-income schools and with students of color disrupts education for everyone, especially those who are directly involved. Oftentimes, students who are likely to be affected by zero tolerance rules are those who aren’t involved in schools. This makes students who comply eligible to participate, and pushes those who don’t further to the fringes of schools, promoting the school-to-prison pipeline.

The school-to-prison pipeline is being challenged through student advocacy. In fall 2014, the Boston Public School Committee passed a historic code of conduct as a result of three years of advocacy work from students on the Boston Student Advisory Council, and others with the Boston Area Youth-Organizing Project and Boston Parents Organizing Project. Based on a framework of alternative discipline, the new code of conduct encourages schools to explore alternative options to suspension and expulsion, and allows students who have to leave school to work towards their diploma.

Using the avenue of Meaningful Student Involvement allowed students to influence systemic decision-making in that example. Students can also research zero tolerance in their schools, plan alternatives to zero tolerance in student/adult partnerships, and beyond that.

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