Engagement by Design

Engagement by Design and the Power of Intentionality  


Learn how can we measure or observe engagement by design in classrooms.

Craig Perrier

A collection of topics and ideas in education project an aura of timelessness. You know this select core of terms like assessment, instruction, relationships, and standards. They have driven education and been impacted by the field’s shifting landscape. But, among this conceptual canon exists a practice that simultaneously underlies and often eludes the classroom experience – student engagement.

A group of educators plan for the classroom.
Engagement by Design

Despite the temptation to dismiss educational practices as mere “jargon,” it is essential to overcome that simplification and take stock of the practices, policies, and beliefs we hold to be necessary for successful experiences. What makes “engagement” a misleading term is that it can easily be confused with other behaviors. For example, compliance is often misread as engagement because students are dutifully “doing the work.” Instead, as scholar Allison Zmuda noted, “compliance is polite disengagement.”

Likewise, participation and engagement also often get confused. Where engagement is typically described as the mental effort exerted to master the subject, participation is best described as the physical indicators that people may (or may not) demonstrate. Consider this; anyone can participate in a conversation about a topic they are not engaged in. For example, if you ask someone about geography and mention land features, continents, and the Pacific Ocean, that person has participated in the conversation. Still, there is no evidence that the person was engaged.

So, how can we measure or observe engagement by design in classrooms? 

Student engagement inside a classroom.
Student Engagement

As a possible answer, I turn to the research on engagement conducted by professor John Almarode of James Madison University. As you review the eight items below, it is essential to remember that each of these is the design element that you can intentionally use when you create a unit or lesson. In turn, we can conclude that engagement is something that can be obtained, observed, and nurtured with intent. Almarode’s design elements are:


1. Does the activity, strategy, task, or idea allow the student to personalize their response? Can they bring their life experiences into the activity and make it their own?

2. Are there clear and modeled expectations?

3. Is there a sense of audience above and beyond the teacher and the test? Does the activity have value to someone else?

4. Is there social interaction? Do students have an opportunity to talk about the learning and interact?

5. Is there a culture of emotional safety? Are mistakes valued because they are an opportunity to learn?

6. Do students have opportunities to choose within the activity?

7. Is it an authentic activity? This doesn’t mean it always must connect directly to the student’s world, but it should connect to reality.

8. Is the task new and novel? If kids are bored, it’s hard to see engagement


Almarode’s research conclusions are undoubtedly compelling, if not transformative. “In classrooms where you had at least three characteristics (design elements) in each assignment, students demonstrated sustained cognitive engagement between 84 and 86 percent of the time…When only two characteristics were present, students were only cognitively engaged about 16 percent of the time. That number dropped to less than four percent when only one characteristic was present.”  


When you think about how to revise classroom practices, starting with engagement must be at the top of the list. Using Almarode’s design elements intentionally can transform teaching and learning by making student experiences the center of the classroom experience.  


I wish everyone a great school year!

To learn more about how to supplement learning loss, contact Agile Education Marketing today. 


Skip to content