Learning from lockdown: Trying to understand the variations in student engagement

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Learning from lockdown: Trying to understand the variations in student engagement

Our report Learning from lockdown: What the experiences of teachers, students and parents can tell us about what happened and where to next for New Zealand’s school system, details the experiences of teachers, parents and students during New Zealand’s first lockdown, and was completed just as Auckland headed into lockdown for the second time.

The primary finding of the report was the substantial variation both in how schools and individual teachers approached teaching and learning during the lockdown period and how these approaches were experienced by teachers, students and parents. None of this was truer than in the variation in student engagement. Below, we describe the nature of this variation and the reasons our participants identified for it.

This variation in engagement manifested in a range of ways:

  1. changes in engagement over the lockdown period – for some students, their engagement decreased over the eight weeks, while for others, their engagement increased as they grew concerned that they would be behind on their return to school
  2. differences in engagement between schools – ranging from 5-10% of students regularly engaging in learning at some schools through to 95-100% of students at others
  3. differences within a school in individual student engagement between classes and subjects, across the school day, and with different types of activities

The reasons for engagement and disengagement were varied. Teachers typically identified access to a device or internet connection and the nature of the home environment as the primary reasons for disengagement. In contrast, parents and students identified a greater range of factors:

  1. the ability of students to self-regulate, stay motivated and manage their time and learning
  2. the age of students, with younger students often requiring greater parental support
  3. families deciding to opt out – particularly at the primary and intermediate level – because it was becoming too stressful, required too much parental input, or it was considered to be low-level “busywork”
  4. the quantity of work provided was too great, and became demotivating
  5. a lack of expectation from teachers for work to be completed and a corresponding lack of accountability or feedback
  6. a lack of interest in what was being taught
  7. students determining which learning activities they would participate in and which they would not, based on need, interest, engagement – a number of students decided to not attend some or all video calls.

The range of reasons identified as contributing to the variation in student engagement demonstrates the challenge that engagement represents for teachers and schools. The differences in the factors most commonly identified by teachers on the one hand and parents and students on the other suggests that the collection (and analysis and use) of student voice is essential to better understand the complex range of factors contributing to engagement and disengagement, and to ensure that it is not only conceptualised as a “problem” with the student. This is particularly important given the research evidence that suggests that engagement is a multi-faceted concept which is connected to the design and context of learning, characteristics in students such as self-regulation and self-directedness (which further research suggests must be explicitly taught to students), and whether students are motivated, interested and socially interactive.

It also is important to consider that, while disengagement and non-engagement became more evident to teachers during lockdown, this does not necessarily indicate an overall increase in disengaged students.Teachers were able to utilise the (admittedly blunt) measure of who was logging onto the online platforms, participating in calls and submitting work to track engagement. While attendance is higher overall during face-to-face lessons, this should not be used as a proxy for engagement (and in turn engagement, while important, is not a proxy for learning). As one teacher reflected, “50% engagement is not great, but what is it like in f2f? Probably about the same, but the attendance is higher f2f”. Student accounts suggest that many of them benefit from the supports and accountability structures of school-based learning. However, levels of disengaged behaviour remain high in many face-to-face settings.

It is critical that we better understand student engagement, including the factors driving it and how engagement levels vary for individual students. While engagement should not be used as a proxy for learning, research clearly demonstrates that engagement with learning is essential to academic progress.

We will be releasing the full report soon.


Dr Nina Hood

Nina is responsible for the strategic direction and day-to-day operations of The Education Hub. She is a trained secondary school teacher, and taught at Epsom Girls Grammar and Mt Roskill Grammar in Auckland. She undertook an MSc (with distinction) in learning and technology, and a DPhil in Education at the University of Oxford. Since returning to New Zealand in mid-2015, Nina has been employed as a lecturer at the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, where she specialises in new technologies in education.

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