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The measurement of engagement: Finding that small changes in teacher behaviour have significant results for active engagement in education

Dr Julia Morris, Edith Cowan University

Students, and teachers, should be actively engaged in quality teaching and learning. Broadly speaking, active engagement means that the tasks are relevant, and of value to the individual (Alter, 2015; Christenson, Reschly, & Wylie, 2012; Ely, Ainley, & Pearce, 2013; Winchmann, 2011; Yonezawa, Jones, & Joselowsky, 2009). This may sound simple, but anybody who has been to a school would know that there are many factors that make up a learning experience. Not only is it challenging to isolate the factors that ‘make or break’ quality teaching and learning, it is even more complex when you start to determine ways to measure these factors so that data can be used in the development educational practices that are engaging and meet intended learning outcomes.

Most of my research to-date has explored engagement in the context of visual arts, from both the student and teacher perspectives. I have sought to measure the factors that help or hinder students’ and teachers’ engagement in education.

Student engagement: Working on developing ‘soft’ skills

Australian visual arts education has two core components, the physical practice of art (termed art making) and the interpretation of art (termed art responding). I have been interested in both of these components, as they each support students to develop critical communication skills, creativity and problem solving (Gilbert, 2016; Morris & Lummis, 2014); skills that are broadly referred to as 21st century learning skills or ‘soft’ skills, widely cited as enhancing employability for the next generation (Heckman & Kautz, 2012; Whitehall, Hill, Yost, & Kidwell, 2018).

These broader skills were frequently cited by secondary students as the challenges when it came to engaging in visual arts. Students found it very difficult to search the internet for reliable information, particularly when researching artists and contextual information for art analysis. They generally have low strategic knowledge (an aspect of metacognition, and aspect of cognitive engagement), indicating that web-based searches provided so much information and so many choices that they hinder students’ abilities to make decisions about what is important to their learning (Morris, Lummis, & Lock, 2017). Making decisions was also a challenge for students, who preferred their teachers to be responsible for decision-making as opposed to having autonomy. Students described how they would choose artworks that were easier to analyse so they could achieve higher scores on visual arts assessments, even if they knew they were not challenging their own learning or were less motivated or interested in the artworks they had chosen (Morris, Lummis, et al., 2017).

Despite these challenges to student engagement, there are some choices that appear to improve students’ engagement within senior school visual arts. For example, reading about art and attending art exhibitions have significant effects on students’ intrinsic motivation to engage in visual arts, as well as their perceived self-efficacy. This doesn’t mean students need to be at the gallery every weekend; one exhibition every 3-6 months had the greatest impact on their motivation and subsequent engagement in visual arts education (Morris, 2018).

Teacher engagement: Community as a driver of active engagement

Engaging with the broader arts community has a similar effect on teachers’ engagement with the profession. The Teacher as Practitioner (TAP) project is a collaboration between the University of Melbourne (where it was initiated in 2009) and Edith Cowan University, exploring how secondary teachers’ engagement in discipline practice beyond teaching can increase their perceived quality of teaching as well as retention in the profession (http://teacheraspractitioner.com/). Over the past eight years, TAP has found that teachers who continue to engage in their art practice and identify as a practitioner-teacher have much higher perceptions of their teaching quality than non-practitioners. We are currently gathering this evidence within the science teacher community, with the addition of science teachers into the sample since 2017. In encouraging teacher discipline practice, TAP hosts an annual exhibition/exposition where teachers are invited to submit work they have done in the past year. Even making one work can change participants’ sense of identity, and the community of TAP practitioners has been cited as boosting participants’ intrinsic motivation to sustain their practice over time (Morris, Imms, Toscano, & Coleman, 2017).

In researching engagement across both student and teacher populations, it has been evident that small changes to practice, whether it be in art making or responding to art, can have a significant influence on students’ and teachers’ engagement within the subject. Perhaps more importantly, data show that creating a sense of community and supporting affective engagement is vital to individuals’ learning.


Alter, F. (2015). Beyond the school gate: A study of arts engagement and employment in post-secondary school years. Australian Art Education, 37 (1), 74-91.

Christenson, S. L., Reschly, A., & Wylie, C. (Eds.). (2012). Handbook of research on student engagment. New York, NY: Springer.

Ely, R., Ainley, M., & Pearce, J. (2013). More than enjoyment: Identifying the positive affect component of interest that supports student engagement and achievement. Middle Grades Research Journal, 8 (1), 13-32.

Gilbert, A. D. (2016). The Framework for 21st Century Learning: A First-Rate Foundation for Music Education Assessment and Teacher Evaluation. Arts Education Policy Review, 117 (1), 13-18.

Heckman, J. J., & Kautz, T. (2012). Hard evidence on soft skills. Labour Economics, 19 (4), 451-464. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.labeco.2012.05.014

Morris, J. E. (2018). Arts engagement outside of school: Links with year 10 to 12 students’ intrinsic motivation and self-efficacy in responding to art. The Australian Educational Researcher, 45 (4), 455-472. doi:10.1007/s13384-018-0269-8

Morris, J. E., Imms, W., Toscano, M., & Coleman, K. (2017). TAP to TAP2: Research report 2017. In W. Imms, K. Coleman, & M. Toscano (Eds.), Ebb & Flow. Melbourne, Australia: University of Melbourne.

Morris, J. E., & Lummis, G. W. (2014). Investigating the personal experiences and self-efficacy of Western Australian primary pre-service teachers in the visual arts. Australian Art Education, 36 (1), 26-47.

Morris, J. E., Lummis, G. W., & Lock, G. (2017). Questioning art: Factors affecting students’ cognitive engagement in responding. Issues in Educational Research, 27 (3), 493-511.

Whitehall, A. P., Hill, L. G., Yost, D. M., & Kidwell, K. K. (2018). Being Smart Is Not Enough to Ensure Success: Integrating Personal Development into a General Education Course. The Journal of General Education, 65 (3-4), 241-263.

Winchmann, S. S. (2011). Self-determination theory: The importance of autonomy to well-being across cultures. Journal of Humanistic Counseling, 50 (1), 16-26.

Yonezawa, S., Jones, M., & Joselowsky, F. (2009). Youth engagement in high schools: Developing a mulitdimensional, critical approach to improving engagement for all students. Journal of Educational Change, 10 (2), 191-120.