Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Cultivating Engaged Learners and Optimal Learning Environments

Shernoff, D. J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (n.d.). Cultivating Engaged Learners and

Optimal Learning Environments. In M. J. Furlong (Ed.), Handbook of Positive

Psychology in Schools (pp. 131-145). (Original work published 2009)


The chapter begins with an introduction that offers a very brief overview of the central issues the authors will address: low levels of student engagement, different models in motivation theory, and the role of flow theory in explaining student engagement. The authors then present a short and very cogent explanation of flow theory, which is excerpted below. They place special focus on the challenge-skill relationship, which is a construct developed by Csikszentmihalyi in which varying combinations of challenges and skills correlate with psychological states. Those states range from apathy to flow.

The authors present clear examples of the challenge-skill relationship, using various examples to highlight the continuum along which flow states are more likely to occur. They acknowledge the similarity between the challenge-skill idea and Vygotsky’s “zones of proximal development” and conclude this section by making an interesting point. The authors state that flow activities (ones that offer a high level of challenge just beyond the practitioner’s skill but within reach) tend to be repeated because they are gratifying. They use the term “psychological selection” to describe this repetition.

The authors go on to explain the research method used in flow theory research. This method is called the Experience Sampling Method, and consists of a system where participants wear an electronic pager that signals them (at random times) to complete a short questionnaire about their activities at that moment. The authors describe how they conceptualize student engagement as a concurrent combination of high concentration, enjoyment, and interest in the learning activity.

The authors present a dismal picture of the average high school experience, in which students rarely report flow experiences and often report disengagement, apathy and anxiety. They explain that the data from large studies supports the idea that schooling is often a passive, individualistic, and teacher-controlled activity. The authors then go on to present very positive findings in which students report far higher levels of enjoyment, self-esteem, and engagement when they (students) feel active, in control, and competent. This, of course, is reinforced by the challenge-skill relationship discussed earlier. The authors highlight this connection to conclude this section of the chapter.

The authors briefly explore some of the individual factors that affect engagement, such as relative levels of optimism and self-esteem, family supportiveness, age, race and gender. The authors note that female students report more frequent flow experiences than do male students. The authors go on to state that African-American and ethnic minority students, as well as students from low socioeconomic backgrounds report more flow experiences than both Caucasian students and students from high socioeconomic background. These findings are, according to the authors, rigorous and have been validated by a number of other studies.

The authors then go on to explore the connection between engagement and academic achievement. There is, unsurprisingly, a strong correlation between high levels of engagement and subsequent grades. The authors present evidence that high levels of engagement in high school classes (math and the sciences, in this case) correlate strongly with choices students make in college about their majors and potential careers as well. This suggests that the effect of an engaging classroom extends far beyond the time spent in class.

The authors go on to present a conceptual model of student engagement and optimal learning environments. They use the phrase “academic intensity” to refer to the varying levels of challenge and relevance and their effect on student engagement. The authors describe a positive emotional response as being equally important to engagement as academic intensity.

The authors then explore the role of teachers in influencing students’ levels of engagement or boredom. They present research that suggests a combination of challenge and emotional support is necessary for encouraging high levels of engagement. They describe certain qualities of optimally engaging teachers, and those passages are excerpted below.

The authors then begin a lengthy exploration of educational contexts that promote engagement and conclude the piece by discussing implications for student engagement from this research.

Discussion of Value:

This is a tremendously valuable article. Though dense, it presents many avenues for further research, most notably soliciting student voice on what specific classroom practices and systems encourage engagement. It also provides areas for the creation of professional-development programs that might encourage teachers to create engaging classrooms. Finally, it reinforces many of the design principles and general practices that define HTH and also offers possible areas for analysis of student engagement based on the factors discussed in the chapter.

Highly, highly recommended for practitioners interested in what genuinely engages students.


So, if children begin life as curious learners, why is it that they dislike the main place that they come together to learn?”

Increasingly, there is the sense that frustration is a close cousin to boredom, frustration stemming from an inability to act or to be somebody—learned powerless- ness, if you will.”

By interviewing individuals from diverse backgrounds about their peak experiences, Csikszentmihalyi (1990) and colleagues identified the phenomenological characteristics of the most meaningful and satisfying moments in life. From rock climbers to chess players to accomplished scientists and artists, optimal experiences in diverse activities were often described in similar terms: intense concentration and absorption in an activity with no psychic energy left over for distractions, a merging of awareness with action, a feeling of control, loss of self consciousness, and a contraction of the normal sense of time (i.e., time seems to fly). “Flow” describes the subjective buoyancy of experience when skillful and successful action seems effortless, even when a great deal of physical or mental energy is exerted. The subjective experience of flow also appeared to be enhanced by certain properties of the task. In most flow activities, goals were clear, and feedback with respect to meeting those goals was immediate and forthcoming. The activities were also autotelic, or a goal in-and-of-itself performed for the sheer experience of it—sometimes even in the face of personal risk or danger.”

“Perhaps the most central condition for flow experiences to occur is that the challenge of the activity is well matched to the individual’s skills. That is, the challenges and skills are high and in balance—individuals stretch their skills to their limits in pursuit of a challenging goal.”

The theory of flow is inherently related to learning. When learning a new skill, the challenge of undertaking even a basic task may exceed a student’s beginning level of ability, and hence they may feel overwhelmed—even “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” may be too difficult for the novice pianist. To reach flow, the level of skill must increase to match the challenge.”

In addition, flow activities tend to be selected and replicated over time because they are so gratifying. This process of psychological selection plays a crucial role in the development of specific interests, goals, and talents over the course of one’s life (Delle Fave & Massimini, 2003). Flow has been empirically related to the development of talent in adolescents (Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, & Whalen, 1993). In addition, highly creative adult artists and scholars have reported flow when they are engaged in the creative processes of discovery and invention (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996).”

Based on flow theory, we conceptualized and measured student engagement as the simultaneous occurrence of high concentration, enjoyment, and interest in learning activities (Shernoff, Csikszentmihalyi, Schneider, & Shernoff, 2003). Concentration, which is central to flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), is related to meaningful learning (Montessori, 1967), including depth of cognitive processing and academic performance (Corno & Mandinach, 1983). Enjoyment is related to the demonstra- tion of competencies, creative accomplishment, and school performance (Csikszentmihalyi et al., 1993; Nakamura, 1988). Finally, interest directs attention, reflects intrinsic motivation, stimulates the desire to continue engagement in an activity, and is related to school achievement (Hidi, 1990; Schiefele, Krapp, & Winteler, 1992).”

Finally, high school students were less engaged while in classrooms than anywhere else. Their concentration was higher than outside of classrooms, but their level of interest was lower and their enjoyment was especially low. Students were also found to be thinking about topics entirely unrelated to academics a full 40% of the time in classrooms (Shernoff, 2001).”

These findings support the notion of schooling as largely a passive, individualistic, and teacher- controlled activity dominated by direct instruction (Goodlad, 1984). Although repeated studies have found that schools do engender heightened concentration during classes, alternative approaches appear to be needed in order to provide what is most lacking: greater enjoyment, motivation, and opportunities for action in the learning process (Bassi & Delle Fave, 2004; Shernoff et al., 2003).”

This finding suggests that students are more likely to become engaged when academic work intellectually involves them in a process of meaningful inquiry extending beyond the classroom (Newmann, Wehlage, & Lamborn, 1992). Students experienced greater enjoyment, motivation, self-esteem, and overall engagement when they perceived themselves to be active, in control, and competent. Such findings suggest that the perception of competence and autonomy contributes to students’ motivation, perhaps via self-efficacy and perceptions of self-worth, as suggested in much of the motivational literature (Schunk, Pintrich, & Meece, 2008).”

Concentration and attention in classrooms were optimized by an appropriate balance between challenge and skills, where “appropriate” may be taken to mean offering the reasonable prospect of success with a good faith effort (Brophy, 1983). For example, students were found to be paying attention 43% of the time in the apathy condition, but 73% of the time—almost twice as frequently—when challenges and skills were both perceived to be high. Optimally engaging activities were therefore neither trivially simple nor impossibly hard; rather, the appropriate match between challenge and skill led to higher quality learning experiences in terms of perceived engagement, intrinsic motivation, mood, and self-esteem.”

Finally, African American students reported experiencing more flow in classrooms than Caucasian students, as did students from low socioeconomic communities compared to those from high socioeconomic communities. The tendency for ethnic minority students and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds to be more engaged in comparison with Caucasian students and those from high socioeconomic backgrounds, respectively (Shernoff & Schmidt, in press), has been corroborated in other ESM studies of engagement (Lindstrom, Ulriksson, Arnegard, & Brenner, 2005; Uekawa, Borman, & Reginald, 2006) as well as those using other methodologies (M. K. Johnson, Crosnoe, & Elder, 2001).”

In a follow-up study in which we interviewed the high school sample several years later once they had enrolled in college (Shernoff & Hoogstra, 2001), we tested whether students reporting high engagement in math and science classes during high school were more likely to continue their interest in those subjects (as demonstrated by majoring in them 2 years later). After accounting for student background char- acteristics including academic performance, engagement was a significant predictor of continuing motivation in science. Enjoyment and interest during high school science class were the strongest predictors of choosing a science-related major in college. In addition, student engagement in high school math and science classes was the strongest predictor of reported grades in college—even stronger than grades in high school. These findings suggest that spontaneous engagement with school learning may operate in subtle ways that have important, long-term effects on students’ intellectual and professional development.”

Challenge and relevance have strong effects on students’ concentration, interest, and attention. We refer to these aspects as academic intensity. For example, students taking a test or a quiz, or completing tasks in math class are usually very challenged and concentrate very hard, but do not enjoy the experience. On the other hand, experiencing high skill, control, and activity level are associated with significant increases in positive affect, enjoyment, esteem, and intrinsic motivation.”

Specifically, teachers in high-involvement classrooms fostered intrinsic motivation and utilized more scaffolded instruction to adjust the challenge of the material to students’ level of skill. Teachers of high involvement classrooms directed more attention than those in low-involvement classrooms to helping students reach understanding and become autonomous learners. Conversely, teachers in low-involvement classes tended to emphasize procedures and used extrinsic incentives with higher frequency.”

Optimally engaging teachers might require fewer problems, but challenging ones, and support the competence necessary to solve them independently. Teachers also ask questions for higher order conceptual understanding, combined with providing the feedback, strategies, and encouragement that are emotionally supportive. Emotional supportiveness is also modeled through enthusiasm, humor, and risk-taking.

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