Classroom Management · New Teacher Tips

A Simple, Quantitative Trick for Measuring Student Engagement

At the end of the day I can tell in about 10 seconds how engaging my lesson was. Obviously there are the usual methods of measuring engagement: observation, surveying, looking at student work, etc., but with this method I can tell at a single glance I can get a pretty good assessment of how engaged by students were.

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Here’s what my bathroom sign out looks like on a day with decent engagement. 

What’s my tool? The Bathroom Sign Out.

My bathroom use procedures are pretty standard. One person at a time, sign out, and take the hall pass. I use and expo marker and the back window of my classroom as the sign out board. Here’s what I’ve noticed: the more engaging my lesson is, the fewer students leave to use the bathroom, maybe 7-10 across all of my classes. If my lesson is not engaging then the board will be filled. Obviously there are some other factors besides engagement that influence bathroom usage, but the correlation is strong.

Engagement is not to be confused with fun. Sometimes a fun lesson isn’t super engaging and sometimes the most boring lessons are more engaging. Engagement has more to do with the urgency of learning.

Based on my observations, here are examples of lesson styles where the students are the most engaged:

  • Straight lecture. As much as I try to avoid this type of lesson, sometimes I fall back on a lecture to deliver content. I’ve always been surprised how often students ASK for a lecture, and how students almost never leave when one is being delivered. That said, I’ve only done about 3 lectures this school year and I don’t intend to do more any time soon.
  • Stations. I have a few theories on why stations are engaging. The activities are short and numerous, students are moving and learning in different ways, and there tends to be a time limit so they need to be focused and work quickly.
  • Labs. No explanation needed.
  • Project Based Learning. This refers to true, real world, interdisciplinary projects with an authentic audience. These projects have a level of urgency not found in most school assignments.
  • Creative projects. I’ve noticed my students tend to be more engaged if the project task is creative, for example making an infographic or a stop motion video.

And here are some lessons with the lowest engagement:

  • Seat work. Any time I have a lot of seat work students have pretty low engagement. My kids are really good and the majority of them are focused but the work is not urgent enough to keep them really engaged with the content. And unfortunately in Biochemistry we tend to do a lot of seat work, problem sets, practice, etc. My goal as a still fairly new educator is to use different strategies and formats to make these tasks more engaging.
  • Reading/writing tasks. This might be an avoidance thing as these tend to be the most challenging for students in our school and the thing they hate the most.
  • Project work time. This one may be surprising. These are in-class projects such as research projects, not interdisciplinary project based learning. There are a few caveats. There is low engagement in the earlier days of the project then extremely high engagement in the last day or two of the project. This points to some procrastination on the students’ part but also a lack of urgency for the projects. And as mentioned above, creative tasks tend towards higher engagement.