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Fake Engagement (Plenary)



In order for students to learn a language, they need to engage with it. Sometimes, however, students are reluctant to engage seriously in these activities. At other times, they may even feign task engagement such as to please the teacher. These learners may disengage cognitively, emotionally, or behaviorally. This presentation will discuss how to address fake engagement and promote authentic learner engagement.
Ali H. Al-Hoorie
Plenary at TUELC2021, Taif University, Saudi Arabia
What is engagement
Engagement vs. motivation
What is fake engagement
Empirical results
How to promote authentic engagement
Motivation: intention to learn (inward)
Engagement: the actual learning action (outward)
Motivation is a prerequisite to engagement, which is in turn a prerequisite to learning
Motivation => engagement => learning
Thus: no engagement, no learning
No matter how high your motivation is
Behavioral engagement
Asking questions
Taking notes
Not playing with phone
Not chatting with peers (about irrelevant things)
This may be the first thing that comes to teacher’s mind
Cognitive engagement (less obvious to the teacher)
Thinking, paying attention, not daydreaming
Emotional engagement (less obvious also)
enjoyment, enthusiasm vs. anxiety, boredom, frustration, anger
Behavioral engagement without cognitive and emotional engagement
Related terms:
Strategic compliance: doing what is expected or required
Ritual compliance: doing the minimum required to avoid negative consequences
Retreatism: causing no problems as long as not forced to comply
Rebellion: refusing to comply and actively diverting attention elsewhere (Schlechty, 2011).
Studenting: behaving in a way that does not lead to real learning (e.g., figuring out how to
get high grades, what will be in the exam, how to ‘beat the system’) (Liljedahl, 2019)
Haven’t received much attention
Students “appear” to be engaged
Intentionally manipulating their behaviors to feign engagement to deceive the teacher
Fake engagement: behaviors that are made, consciously or unconsciously, by learners to achieve
an outside appearance of being attentive and on-task; however, in reality, their internal states,
are not congruent and, for diverse motives, they may be complying or just merely pretending
compliance (Mercer et al., 2021).
Authentic engagement: congruence between the internal and external states and expressions of
leads to genuine, deep and meaningful learning
involves multiple dimensions and not just behavior
Mercer et al. (2021) conducted interviews with university English language learners in Austria
Focus group interviews
Individual interviews
What does fake engagement look like?
When do students fake their engagement?
Why bother to fake engagement?
What does fake engagement look like?
1) Bodily display behaviors (eye movements, gesture, posture)
“Just want to make the teacher feel that what she says is important. Make her feel that I am listening. I also
nod and give her eye contact, make her feel I am listening.
“So, I just took… the very concentrated thinking and writing [pose]
2) Task-related actions (note-taking, reading)
“Like writing notes, uh, I just did like this morning. I was studying for my exam which I have very soon
So, taking notes, taking fake notes on something else.
“When Iam using my laptop, the teacher can’t really tell what I am doing. When you open your laptop, it’s
like a wall between you and the teacher. Most of the time, they stand in front. They don’t really know what
you are doing. If you don’t type anything, I think they might know that you are not doing anything.
When do students fake their engagement?
1) Physical conditions
“those times where you are kind of like so tired, and you almost fall asleep… but it also has a lot to with
having lunch before, something, or just really, really, sleepy.
“I think the room is very important, the environment. Some classes are in the basement. It’s not good… the
lighting, the air.”
2) Teaching style (lecturing, seating arrangement)
“the organization of the class, just in rows, sit like in school, and the university hall where the teacher just
stands in front, tells you one and a half hours about certain topics. This is very hard to concentrate.
“I think at the university how the tables form definitely makes a huge difference, because in some rooms
there is a U. It can sometimes have positive sides and negative sides. If you’re sitting on this side… facing
other students, it happens easily that you look at them doing. It’s really hard. The rows often schools use is
calming, is not engaging, but again everybody facing the front, something like lectures, it’s easy to focus. It
depends on the setting…”
3) Content
“If you have to be there because it’s mandatory but you know there is nothing you can get out, and all the
colleagues to your right already do other stuff, at some point you will start to, just study, do homework or
whatever, but you’re not listening anymore. At least for me it’s like that.
4) Other attentional priorities
“I had a very important exam the next day… but we were sitting in the seminar, in my head, I was revising
everything. I was thinking of something completely else, but I was still in the class. So definitely, because I
got very nervous about the exam, it’s a really important exam.
“when you have classes in the basement, you can see all the people walking by. That can be distracting.
And laptops can be distracting too, because you can always see what other students are doing on their
laptops. That’s not always course-related. When you sit next to them, you can see everything. That’s really a
distraction, because people often do other things on laptops all the time, all the time.
Why brother to fake engagement?
1) Social norms
“I think it’s a kind of polite way… You make extra effort and you show respect to the teacher and other
students as well. Other students they come here to study. Although I don’t care, you can’t just disturb
others. I think it’s really impolite to sit in the class, look at your phone, and you talk to your neighbors.
Everyone is working, and you distract the students and your teacher.
2) To please the teacher
“We’re trying enough to satisfy the teacher. We’re participating in the activities although we’re not
interested and we don’t enjoy, because the teacher gives us a lot of pressure that we have to participate.
Especially, in the class we really have to participate because we are quite small groups, she knows
everyone. She always tells us that she knows exactly when we’re not participating. It will influence our
grade in bad ways.
What is the validity of classroom observation methodology?
Quantifying student behaviors systematically
Frequency of behaviors (e.g., hand raising, participating)
Charts, rating scales, checklists, but sometimes also narrative descriptions
Aims to give detailed & precise description of classroom behavior in naturalistic settings
Learning is in the mind, not in the observable behavior
Not to say that classroom observation is utterly useless
But these limitations should be kept in mind
How can you “observe” cognitive and emotional engagement in the class?
According to self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2017) three fundamental needs:
Need for competence (feel able to do the task)
Need for autonomy (feel they have some control on their learning)
Need for relatedness (feel a sense of security and connection to others)
Classroom context should be designed to satisfy these needs
Authentic projects
Conditions emerging from this study:
forming a group identity
attaching personal value
providing partial autonomy
Out-of-class activities:
Short (1 weekend) or long (1 semester)
working for a charity
presenting before a real audience
“on-task behavior is not the same as engagement” (Mercer et al., 2021, p. 145)
Alharbi, M. A., & Al-Hoorie, A. H. (2020). Turnitin peer feedback: Controversial vs. non-controversial essays.
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Ibrahim, Z., & Al-Hoorie, A. H. (2019). Shared, sustained flow: Triggering motivation with collaborative projects. ELT
Journal, 73(1), 5160.
Liljedahl, P. (2019) A commentary: Accounting-of and accounting-for the engagement of teachers and teaching. In M.
Hannula, G. Leder, F. Morselli, M. Vollstedt, & Q. Zhang (Eds.). Affect and mathematics education (pp. 309320). Springer.
Mercer, Talbot, K. R., & Wang, I. K.-H. (2021). Fake or real engagement Looks can be deceiving. In P. Hiver, A. H. Al-
Hoorie, & S. Mercer (Eds.), Student engagement in the language classroom (pp. 143162). Multilingual Matters.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and
wellness. Guilford Press.
Schlechty, P. (2011)Engaging students: The next level of working on the work. Jossey-Bass.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
In this commentary, I reflect on the chapters by De Simone; Khalil, Lake, and Johnson; and Montoro and Gil (this volume) and how they contribute to our understanding of engagement within mathematics education. I begin by exploring how engagement has been pursued in mathematics education in particular, and in education in general, and argue that each of these instances can be viewed as either an account-of engagement (ways in which participants engage) and/or an accounting-for engagement (and explanations for why they engage in this way). I then apply this duality of accounting-of and accounting-for in my commentary on the three chapters that make up this section.
Full-text available
Flow refers to a special experience of total absorption in one task. Sustained flow (also known as directed motivational currents) is the occurrence of flow in a series of tasks aimed at achieving a certain outcome (for example improving proficiency in a second language). In this article, we investigate shared, sustained flow—which occurs when a group of individuals working collaboratively experience sustained flow. Interviews were conducted with five participants (two teachers and three students) to find out the conditions perceived to have facilitated this experience during pre-sessional language courses at two British universities. The results point to three main conditions: forming a group identity, attaching personal value and providing partial autonomy. We discuss how teachers can apply these findings to design motivational out-of-class activities.
Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness
  • R M Ryan
  • E L Deci
• Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Press.
Engaging students: The next level of working on the work
  • P Schlechty
• Schlechty, P. (2011) Engaging students: The next level of working on the work. Jossey-Bass.