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Student disengagement: is technology the problem or the solution?

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Interactive Learning Environments
ISSN: 1049-4820 (Print) 1744-5191 (Online) Journal homepage:
Student disengagement: is technology the
problem or the solution?
Sue Greener
To cite this article: Sue Greener (2018) Student disengagement: is technology the
problem or the solution?, Interactive Learning Environments, 26:6, 716-717, DOI:
To link to this article:
Published online: 10 Jul 2018.
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Student disengagement: is technology the problem or the
it is the disease of not listening, the malady of not marking, that I am troubled withal.
Falstain King Henry IV Part 2 (Act 1, Scene ii)
Falstain modern translation wittily refers to having the "not-paying-attention sickness". When we
consider learning in the twenty-rst century, teachers worldwide are well aware of such a
problem. We grace it with the term "student disengagement". Is student disengagement increasing
because of digital device usage? The potential distractions of device notications are not currently
reducing; McCoy (2016), in a survey of American college students in 2015, found they used digital
devices for non-class activities for over 20% of class time, results which were an increase over a
similar survey in 2013.
Sally Weale, writing in the UK Guardian (March 2018) cites Higher Education Statistics Agency
statistics showing that 26,000 students in England, who began studying for their rst degree in
2015, did not progress to a second year of study. We know from research evidence that engagement
of students within their rst year of undergraduate study is vital for continuing retention. We also
know that patterns learned in full-time education at school contribute to the concept of self-ecacy
and possibly learned helplessness, which inuence engagement or disengagement in later study. A
US Gallup poll in 2015 suggested that student disengagement increased as students got older,
roughly doubling between 6th and 12th grade (Brenneman, 2016). Within a Higher Education
context, the time frame for seeing a reduction in attendance at classes can be even shorter, dropping
sharply after the rst few weeks.
So our rst problem is how to dene the concept of student disengagement and then to consider
whether such disengagement can be associated with current technology. A denition is far from clear
in the literature. Balwant (2018), building on work denitions of engagement and disengagement
from organisational behaviour literature, denes disengagement as "studentssimultaneous withdra-
wal of themselves and defence of their preferred self in displaying low activation behaviours that are
characterised by physical, cognitive and emotional absence and passivity" (p. 398) although he advo-
cates further conceptual work to achieve greater clarity on a concept which is not simply the opposite
of student engagement.
The regular US National Survey of Student Engagement (2017)uses the following themes to
discuss student engagement: academic challenge, learning with peers, experiences with faculty
and the learning environment and it is to these themes we should return if we are trying to
improve learning engagement through technology. But to consider for a moment the way disen-
gagement is discussed, Earl, Taylor, Meijen, and Passeld (2017) produce empirical evidence in a
study involving secondary school age children around both active and passive disengagement.
Active disengagement is here seen as disruptive behaviour in class, whereas passive disengagement
(which may in an HE context be associated with dropping class attendance) is discussed as avoidance
of tasks and lack of contribution in class. The study proposes a link between psychological autonomy
frustration and active disengagement, and a link between competence need frustration with passive
So does this mean that passive disengagement may be reduced if teachers oer greater develop-
mental support of competence and more evidence to students of achievement? Logic suggests that if
© 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
2018, VOL. 26, NO. 6, 716717
studentsperceptions of self-ecacy and competence are low, they are more likely to passively dis-
engage, more likely to contribute poorly to learning tasks, showing low vitality and disinterest and
complete the cycle by producing lower results or simply dropping out. Self-determination theory
(Deci, 1971) underpins this idea, especially the needs for competence and autonomy, and the inter-
play between behavioural, cognitive and emotional aspects of engagement are evident. Learning
technology, particularly pedagogic designs which use digital tools to encourage feedback on
achievement and promote interest and peer working, could help here. As suggested by Eccles
(2016, p. 72), if we wish to improve engagement this would require an integrated approach to con-
centration, interest and enjoyment. And that is just what is prescribed in games-based learning
according to Hamari et al. (2016). They consider that engagement is closely associated with ow
and involves complete absorption in a task, leaving no room for distractions (p. 171). So we begin
to see a sense in which learning technology becomes part of the solution rather than the problem
of student disengagement. If we can use such tools to increase academic challenge, learning with
peers, relationships and communication with faculty and a learning environment which ts digitally
engaged learners, we stand a chance of reducing passive disengagement, and ultimately tackling
attendance, albeit virtual attendance some of the time.
The papers in this issue demonstrate a range of ways to enhance student engagement through
the use of learning technology. These include game-based learning, collaborative peer learning,
adaptive learning and enquiry-based learning and aim to tackle self-enhancement and the needs
of low achievers in relation to the competence and autonomy needs of learners. These examples
relate directly to the pressing need to address student disengagement, using pedagogic and psycho-
logical concepts to drive the use of learning technology.
Balwant, P. T. (2018). The meaning of student engagement and disengagement in the classroom context: Lessons from
organisational behaviour. Journal of Further and Higher Education,42(3), 389401.
Brenneman, R. (2016). Gallup student poll nds engagement in school dropping by grade level. Education Week,35(25), 6.
[Online] Available at
Deci, E. L. (1971). Eects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology,18, 105115.
Earl, S., Taylor, I. M., Meijen, C., & Passeld, L. (2017). Autonomy and competence frustration in young adolescent class-
rooms: Dierent associations with active and passive disengagement. Learning and Instruction,49,3240.
Eccles, J. S. (2016). Engagement: Where to next? Learning and Instruction,43,7175.
Hamari, J., Sherno, D. J., Rowe, E., Coller, B., Asbell-Clarke, J., & Edwards, T. (2016). Challenging games help students learn:
An empirical study on engagement, ow and immersion in game-based learning. Computers in Human Behaviour,54,
McCoy, B. (2016). Digital distractions in the classroom phase II: Student classroom use of digital devices for non-class
related purposes. Journal of Media Education,7(1), 532.
National Survey of Student Engagement. (2017). [Online] Available at
Sue Greener
University of Brighton
... While engagement is often described as the visible and measurable outcome of motivation (Boekaerts, 2016;Fredricks & McColskey, 2012), many teachers report that student disengagement is the biggest challenge they face in their classrooms (Fredricks, 2016). Where engagement is strongly correlated with proactive behaviours for learning, general school success and retention Finn & Zimmer, 2012;Wylies & Hodgen, 2012), disengagement is related to disruptive behaviours, negative attitude, withdrawal, absenteeism and school dropout (Alexander et al., 2001;Greener, 2018;Griffiths et al., 2012). However, engagement and disengagement are malleable (Fredricks et al., 2004;Fredricks et al., 2019), and thus teachers, learning environments and digital technologies (and the various uses of them) may influence engagement (Bond & Bedenlier, 2019). ...
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It is well-recognised that engagement is critical for learning and school success. Engagement (and disengagement) are, however, also influenced by context. Thus, as digital technologies add complexity to the educational context, they influence classroom leadership, lesson designs and related practices, and thereby engagement. Despite being critical, engagement and disengagement are not well explored concerning these influences, with a lack of research undertaken within socially disadvantaged schools. In this qualitative study, 14 classroom observations were conducted, during five months, in twelve classes in an upper secondary school in Sweden, along with dialogues with teachers (n=12) and students (n=32). The data were analysed using thematic analysis and descriptive statistics. Identified themes include digital context, teacher leadership, engagement and disengagement. A network of relations between the (dis-)engagement compound and themes is presented. The results identified processes in which engagement shifted into disengagement and vice versa; in particular, that the intention of active learning does not automatically translate to active learning for all students, although teachers employed a higher work pace than did their students. Teacher self-efficacy and awareness of how to manage digital technologies in and outside the classroom was found to play a vital role in facilitating engagement. Understanding the (dis-)engagement compound in blended learning environments is key to inform active and visible learning for future research and supportive organisational structures.
Students’ engagement in a learning environment has been a crucial factor in evaluating the quality of learning and predicting their academic success. With technologies being more applied in science education for enhancing learning engagement, it is important to study how learning environments with different levels of technological engagement (LTEs) affect students’ learning. Data were collected from 168 fourth-grade students, ages 9–10, divided into 3 groups of different learning environments: (1) game-based instruction (high LTE) and (2) video-based instruction (medium LTE) as the two experimental groups, and (3) traditional instruction (low LTE) as the control group. Students’ learning was monitored with two tests: scientific concept test and the scientific argumentation skills test. Descriptive and inferential statistics including t-test, ANCOVA, and the Johnson-Neyman procedure were used to examine how different LTEs affect students’ learning as a group and by level (high-, medium-, and low-achieving). Findings demonstrated that (a) three forms of technology-supported learning significantly improve students’ scientific knowledge and argumentation skills; (b) higher LTEs lead to significantly better learning of scientific knowledge, except for some high-achieving students who can learn equally well in traditional instruction; and (c) higher LTEs lead to significantly better learning of argumentation skills across all students.
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Published in the Journal of Media Education, Vol. 7- Number 1, January 2016- A 2015 survey of American college students examined classroom learning distractions caused by the use of digital devices for non-class purposes. The purpose of the study was to learn more about Millennial Generation students’ behaviors and perceptions regarding their classroom uses of digital devices for non-class purposes. The survey included 675 respondents in 26 states. Respondents spent an average of 20.9% of class time using a digital device for non-class purposes. The average respondent used a digital device 11.43 times for non-class purposes during a typical school day in 2015 compared to 10.93 times in 2013. A significant feature of the study was its measurement of frequency and duration of students’ classroom digital distractions as well as respondents’ motivations for engaging in the distracting behavior.
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In this paper, we investigate the impact of flow (operationalized as heightened challenge and skill), engagement, and immersion on learning in game-based learning environments. The data was gathered through a survey from players (N = 173) of two different learning games (Quantum Spectre: N = 134 and Spumone: N = 40). The results show that engagement in the game has a clear positive effect on learning but immersion in the game does not have a significant effect on learning. Challenge of the game affected learning both directly and via the increased engagement. Skill did not affect learning directly but only via the increased engagement. Perceived challenge was an especially strong predictor of learning outcomes. For the design of educational games, the results imply that the challenge of the game should be able to keep up with the learners growing abilities and learning in order to endorse continued learning in game-based learning environments.
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Digital devices such as smart phones, tablets, and laptop computers are important college classroom tools. They support student learning by providing access to information outside classroom walls. However, when used for non-class purposes, digital devices may interfere with classroom learning. A survey study asked college students to describe their behavior and perceptions regarding classroom use of digital devices for non-class purposes. The respondents included 777 students at six U.S. universities. The average respondent used a digital device for non-class purposes 10.93 times during a typical school day for activities including texting, social networking, and emailing. Most respondents did so to fight boredom, entertain themselves, and stay connected to the outside world. More than 80% of the respondents indicated such behavior caused them to pay less attention in the classroom and miss instruction. A majority of respondents favor policies governing digital device distractions in the classroom.
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Conducted 2 laboratory and 1 field experiment with 24, 24, and 8 undergraduates to investigate the effects of external rewards on intrinsic motivation to perform an activity. In each experiment, Ss performed an activity during 3 different periods, and observations relevant to their motivation were made. External rewards were given to the experimental Ss during the 2nd period only, while the control Ss received no rewards. Results indicate that (a) when money was used as an external reward, intrinsic motivation tended to decrease; whereas (b) when verbal reinforcement and positive feedback were used, intrinsic motivation tended to increase. Discrepant findings in the literature are reconciled using a new theoretical framework which employs a cognitive approach and concentrates on the nature of the external reward. (26 ref.) (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
Despite the popularity of student engagement and, by association, student disengagement, the academic literature is unclear about the meaning of these terms. This review extends existing conceptual studies of student engagement by offering clear definitions and conceptualisations of both student engagement and disengagement in the classroom context. To develop these conceptualisations, the present review draws upon organisational behaviour theory on work engagement and disengagement because the literature in this discipline is notably more refined than in educational research. Using an organisational behaviour backdrop, student engagement and disengagement are defined by the degree of students’ activation and pleasure. In order to operationalise student engagement, measures that are aligned with the proposed conceptualisation are recommended. Recommendations are also suggested for the development of a measure of student disengagement. The proposed measurement of student engagement and disengagement should provide a unified direction for future empirical research on these topics.
Few studies have attempted to identify distinct psychological correlates of different forms of classroom disengagement. Drawing from basic psychological needs theory (Deci & Ryan, 2000), this study investigated two divergent mechanisms predicting active and passive classroom disengagement. Pupils (N = 647; age = 11–14 years) and their respective teachers completed a questionnaire measuring the study variables. Using structural equation modelling, pupils' perceptions of teacher psychological control positively predicted pupils' autonomy and competence frustration in class. Pupils' competence frustration indirectly and positively associated with teacher-rated passive disengagement (e.g. daydreaming in class), via reduced feelings of vitality. Pupils' autonomy frustration demonstrated positive associations with both active disengagement (e.g. talking and making noise) and passive disengagement but neither relationship was explained by feelings of vitality. These distinct mechanisms may have implications for educators, identifying potential causes of different forms of pupil disengagement and the importance of avoiding psychological control in classrooms.
In my commentary, I discuss the historical origins of the Fredricks et al. 3 dimensions of engagement, provide some critical assessment of the individual papers in this special issue, and lay out the argument for renewed theoretical analysis of the concept of engagement. Specifically, the importance of theoretical work related to the definitions of engagement, dimensionality questions, and origins of, and influences, on engagement are discussed.
Gallup student poll finds engagement in school dropping by grade level. Education Week
  • R Brenneman
Brenneman, R. (2016). Gallup student poll finds engagement in school dropping by grade level. Education Week, 35(25), 6. [Online] Available at