Exploring Learner Engagement

The Global Education Leaders’ Partnership (GELP) sets out to transform education at local, national and global levels. The partnership is a global community of education leaders working alongside thought leaders and consultants from world-class organizations, who are committed to creating education systems that equip every learner with the skills, expertise and knowledge to thrive in the 21st century.

The Global Education Leaders’ Partnership (GELP) sets out to transform education at local, national and global levels. The partnership is a global community of education leaders working alongside thought leaders and consultants from world-class organizations, who are committed to creating education systems that equip every learner with the skills, expertise and knowledge to thrive in the 21st century.


Moving from measures of school engagement to measures of deep engagement in learning is seen as an important shift in transforming education processes and outcomes. As part of a GELP working group, a set of four diverse jurisdictions have taken part in a large scale survey of learners aged 13-15 using a common instrument to determine levels of engagement amongst young people in their schools. Their aim is to develop strategies which make learner engagement a central aspect of system transformation.


The survey outcomes suggest that although Australian students are interested in school and want to succeed, there is a large cohort who are not experiencing a level of engagement that would generate a lifelong love of learning. The survey offered no surprises as it confirmed our view that student engagement in learning is a significant issue in Australian schools. When viewed as a broad brush-stroke picture of engagement in Australia’s schools, interesting snapshots emerge about attitudes to learning and schooling against levels of engagement in the learning itself.”


Extract from report on survey results – Australia


‘It's well-established that the kid goofing off in the back of the classroom, who plays hooky and turns in homework late, is disengaged, and at a higher risk of falling behind and eventually dropping out of school. But where are the red flags for the student who sits quietly, answers when spoken to, and politely zones out?’

Education Week, July 10 2013


Partners from four GELP countries – South Korea, Australia, Kentucky and Finland – have worked together to carry out an international survey of student engagement in learning. Engagement is a complex concept which has been the subject of much research over recent years. The Canadian Education Association (CEA) helpfully defines it as having three aspects:


‘Academic engagement’ - the commitment to work that is typical of high achieving students – attending lessons, regular homework, participation in lessons.


‘Social engagement’ – the school-level forms of participation which a student might participate in without being engaged in school work – for example, having a feeling of belonging at school, being part of extra-curricular activities, good attendance.


‘Intellectual engagement’ – the serious emotional and cognitive investment in learning that results in confidence as knowledge-builders, problem-solvers, conceptual thinkers, self-motivated learners; orientation to original work and often collaboration


The necessity for a distinction between ‘academic engagement’ and ‘intellectual engagement’ reflects a growing consensus that good performance at school does not necessarily reflect deep learning; nor is it not sufficient for success in work and life after school. The partners in this project recognized the need to understand and recognize this deeper kind of intellectual engagement as a goal, and wanted to explore the prevalence of it within their school systems.  


There was no international-scale survey that looked at learner engagement, so the GELP community undertook a literature review of relevant research and then designed a prototype survey tool to try to establish a measure of deep engagement in learning. The four jurisdictions administered the tool, capturing responses from tens of thousands of students aged 13-15. They learnt about some surprising contradictions in the responses, which seemed to point to relatively high levels of valuing school and learning, but sometimes limited real engagement in (or recall of) day-to-day learning in school.


‘We found that no existing surveys served the right purpose in terms of prioritizing engagement in learning over engagement in school. Our survey is not perfect yet, and we have already learnt things from collaborating with GELP members in different locations. Reviewing the findings in our workshop will help to strengthen the tool and support individual jurisdictions to build a strategy around the use of this kind of data.’


Extract from GELP Learner Engagement working group, Workshops pre-reading: from securing the concept to practical next steps


The engagement survey was developed with help and advice from the University of Bristol and an OECD survey specialist. It was designed to take account of the following aspects of engaging learning:

  • Is learning a part of the students’ identity?
  • Is learning pervasive – does it extend beyond the school?
  • Is learning social – does it extend to relationships with peers and others in the community?
  • Is learning deep – does it result in memorable and meaningful experiences?
  • Is learning relevant – do students feel its connection to their future lives, not just their next exam?


Each jurisdiction uncovered a slightly different picture of engagement from their survey results. Two sets of findings are summarized below:



In Finland the survey was completed by nearly 15,000 students (8% of all young people aged 13-15). Results highlighted that most young people are interested in what they are learning at school (63%), find what they are learning at school relevant to their lives (69 %), and that just over half like being at school (52%). But a significant proportion said they were usually bored at school (40%) and 28% agreed with the claim “At school, I spend a lot of time pretending to pay attention (34% didn’t know).


‘Outcomes of the survey give a lot to reflect on. On the first look it seems that results are surprisingly positive and give reason to be pleased. But there are two phenomena that rise from the data: young people appreciate learning but are bored at school, and liking school seems to be polarized.’



In Australia, where 1600 students completed the survey, there was a consistent 75% of students who reported being interested in what they are learning, liked being at school and believed that school is preparing them for life after school. However, there was also a consistent quarter of students who were either explicitly disinterested in their schooling and learning, or weren’t able to say either way. A third of students were also bored at school and spend a lot of time pretending to pay attention.


‘We anticipate the engagement survey outcomes will have a number of uses. AITSL will use this data, alongside broader data collected from students aged 5 to 18, to add to a growing and compelling case for approaching the issue of disengagement in new ways in Australia, and schools participating in the Learning Frontiers initiative will use their data as the basis for planning explorations and interventions to develop engaging practices within their school context and beyond.’



All four partners are carrying out more in depth research with students to better understand how young people are experiencing school and learning, and are beginning to convert the survey responses into an even more powerful tool for change. As they think about what practical steps can be taken to deepen and increase learner engagement, they have identified two important questions to answer. The first is, ‘engagement in what?’ – what aspect of school, work or learning the respondent is actually engaged in or by? And the second, ‘who is increasing engagement?’ – in order to place a greater focus on learner engagement at a time when many schools and school systems are under intense scrutiny, there need to be ways of focussing on the key players and assessing the impact of what they are doing.


‘There are several responses that have implications for our work moving forward. While there weren’t too many surprises in the results, there were a few responses that will require further discussion by our team. Specifically, the questions related to hands on opportunities, engagement with outside stakeholders, and the high percentage of respondents that pretend to pay attention are all areas where we could improve student engagement.’

Extract from Kentucky survey results analysis


Engagement in school and learning literature review


The survey tool


Insights and ideas issue 2 – publication from the Australian Learning Frontiers program, in which the survey was utilized