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Dealing with misbehaviour among students is a concern for all teachers. It is a crucial professional learning need not only among new teachers but also senior teachers like me. Student engagement is one of the most critical aspects of our ESL classrooms. When students aren’t engaged, they simply aren’t learning. However, by adjusting instructional strategies, teachers can actually increase the opportunities for students to be engaged in their learning (Blackburn, 2014).

Some teachers get stressed when students don’t fully engage in learning and I am pretty sure many ESL teachers feel the same way. It can be draining to constantly re-engage students when their attention is regularly lost. Why is this happening? There should be several contributing factors which may differ according to the learning contexts, teachers' and students’ backgrounds.

Some ESL teachers do need help especially when dealing with students who are weak yet clearly display their disruptive behaviours in class. The highly reluctant and unruly weak ESL learners just do not want to learn English. Most of them have zero interest to learn English despite various relentless attempts done by their teachers.

Only teachers who have faced such experiences will and can truly understand the stress, pain and frustration of ESL teachers who have to teach extremely disengaged students. Excessive stress and frustration are bad for teachers. Sometimes, highly stressful teachers can fall into bad habits: snapping at disengaged students and making aggressive or sarcastic comments to them. When that happens, everyone loses (Goss and Sonnemann, 2017).

Teachers especially those teaching poorer classes are calling for more support. How can we help them? What are the ways to further understand these challenging realities? Well, the least thing to do is to read more about student engagement and keep exploring ESL classrooms with the hope of being able to find the “right” ways to solve the issue at stake.

Student Engagement

Astin (1984: 518) defines student engagement as “the amount of physical and psychological energy that the student devotes to the academic experience”. Students learn more if they participate more in both the academic and social experiences afforded by college life. Student engagement can be considered as a measurable or observable construct of motivation where the emphasis is given more on the behavioural states than on cognitive or affective domains.

Dimensions of Engagement

Trowler (2010) makes literature reviews on student engagement and highlights three domains of engagement.

Dimension 1: Behavioural Engagement

Students who are behaviourally engaged would normally comply with behavioural norms such as attendance and involvement. They would not demonstrate the disruptive or negative behaviour.

Dimension 2: Emotional Engagement

Students who engage emotionally would experience affective reactions such as interest, enjoyment, or a sense of belonging.

Dimension 3: Cognitive Engagement

Cognitively engaged students would invest in their learning, seek to go beyond the requirements, and would favour challenge.

Levels of Engagement

Schlechty (2002, in Digamon and Cinches, 2017) develops Student Engagement Continuum Model and proposes five levels of engagement. Here are some details about each level of engagement. Schlechty’s Student Engagement Continuum claims that because engagement is an active process, it necessitates students’ commitment to the activity. This can be achieved when they find importance on what is required of them to do. Schlechty (2002) identifies five distinct categories and positions them in a continuum. Each category specifies the indicators that clearly set the students into the level they operate in doing the academic activity. According to Schlechty, there are five ways on how students dispose themselves in school-related tasks and activities:

Authentic Engagement (High Attention-High Commitment)

This is the highest level of student engagement. In this level, the students see that the activity is personally meaningful. They have the will to persist and learn in the face of difficulty. Moreover, the students feel that their goal is to get the activity right and perform well.

Strategic Compliance (High Attention-Low Commitment)

The students in this level still see the value of the work and find the activity as worthwhile but only because of certain reasons such as for good grades, approval and class rank. If the work does not guarantee them with these extrinsic returns, they will abandon it. Students in this level are also committed to their work primarily due to teacher recognition and peer appreciation.

Ritual Compliance (Low Attention-No Commitment)

This is the level where students set learning at a low level and are working only for the sake of compliance or obedience. They do the work only to avoid negative consequences such as getting a failing grade or being punished. Their prime aim is to avoid teachers’ reprimand and peer conflict.

Retreatism (No Attention-No Commitment)

The students are DISENGAGED in the classroom task and activity and are emotionally withdrawn. They do not participate in the task, and feel unable to do what is asked and expected of them. Furthermore, the students think they cannot do the activity because of poor capability and of lack of sense of activity relevance.

Rebellion (Diverted Attention-No Commitment)

The students are DISENGAGED; refuse to do the work and disrupt others. For this level, students develop a negative attitude and poor work, and sometimes influence others to rebel.

Personal Reflection

Clearly, student engagement is a rich research area (Taylor and Parsons, 2011). I believe educators must continue to seek to understand and apply specific, well-considered strategies that support student engagement in learning. It is not easy to ensure successful student engagement especially when ESL teachers have to deal with students who are either in the RETREATISM or REBELLION level. They are not only weak in English but are also very reluctant and uncommitted to their own learning. This stark reality in some of the English classes should not dampen ESL teachers’ commitment to keep on exploring ways to improve students’ engagement.

Surely there are always ways and options for ESL teachers to explore. It is significant for teachers to create the right classroom climate for learning: raise student expectations; develop rapport with students; establish routines; challenge students to participate and take risks. These all affect how much their students engage and learn (Goss and Sonnemann, 2017)

I believe the information about engagement shared above is beneficial for teachers. As ESL teachers, in order to promote better learning, we need to understand engagement better. Frankly speaking, even though educators have offered some ways to promote engagement among students, I believe their recommended ways have not really helped me to ensure my weak, reluctant and unmotivated students be engaged in their learning. Therefore, personally, I am still exploring on ways to promote learning engagement among my reluctant and uncommitted learners who are either in the RETREATISM or REBELLION level. I hope to find convincing answers soon. In the meantime, let’s explore, explore and explore!


Astin, A.W. (1984). Student Involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Personnel, 25, 518-529.

Blackburn, B.R. (2014). The Five Rules of Student Engagement.

Digamon, D. and Cinches, M.F.C. (2017). Schlechty’s Student Engagement Continuum in the Work Team Experience: A Pilot Study. experience_A_pilot_study/links/5a697c40a6fdcccd01a1c0b9/Schlechtys-student-engagement-continuum-in-the-work-team-experience-A-pilot-study.pdf?origin=publication_detail

Goss, P. and Sonnemann, J. (2017). Engaging Students: Creating Classrooms that Improve Learning.

Taylor, L. & Parsons, J. (2011). Improving Student Engagement. Current Issues in Education, 14(1). Retrieved from

Trowler, V. (2010). Student Engagement: Literature Review.

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