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Igniting Student Engagement with Thinking Maps

JANUARY 16, 2024

Are we in a student engagement crisis? Many educators seem to think so: in the 2023 Gradient Learning Poll, 80% of teachers said that student engagement in classroom learning was a significant concern. And 50% of students polled in the 2021-22 Speak Up Research Project admitted they were unengaged in learning “most of the time.”

Student engagement is a critical factor in the learning process and has a significant impact on educational outcomes. Thinking Maps enhance engagement by encouraging active participation in the learning process, facilitating collaboration, and providing students with structure and support for academic success.

Three Aspects of Student Engagement  

Student engagement is a measure of how interested students are in learning topics, how motivated they are to learn, and how active they are in the learning process. The Glossary of Education Reform defines student engagement as “the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education.”

The concept is typically broken down into three key components of engagement

  • Emotional Engagement: This relates to students’ emotional reactions to school, including their feelings of belonging or connectedness to the school, their interest in the learning material, and their interactions with teachers and peers.
  • Behavioral Engagement: This involves students’ participation in academic and social activities. It includes actions like attending class, participating in class discussions, and submitting assignments on time.
  • Cognitive Engagement: This aspect refers to the intellectual effort students put into their learning. It includes their willingness to engage in complex thinking, go beyond basic requirements, and apply strategies to comprehend challenging materials.

Student engagement can break down along any of these dimensions—or all of them at once. Indeed, the elements of student engagement can be highly interrelated: Students who are struggling with the cognitive load of learning activities often become discouraged and develop negative feelings about school, which then manifests in behavioral issues such as failing to complete or turn in homework, acting out in class, or chronic absenteeism. Poor engagement can ultimately create a snowball effect that results in students falling further and further behind on academic measures.

Strategies for Student Engagement

What can teachers do to break the cycle and get students back on track? Engaging students in the learning process is a critical first step toward academic achievement and growth. Engaged students are 2.5x more likely to excel in school, and schools that score well on measures of student engagement have more students that meet or exceed proficiency standards than schools with less engaged students. 

For best results, teachers and administrators must address all three aspects of engagement: emotional, behavioral and cognitive. 

  • Emotional: Students need to feel emotionally safe at school and connected to the school community. Fostering a positive classroom environment where students feel empowered to take intellectual risks, try (and fail at) new things, and share their ideas with teachers and peers will go a long way toward increasing engagement in the classroom. Strong student-teacher relationships built on trust, compassion and understanding will also help keep students involved. 
  • Behavioral: Clear expectations and goals and a structured environment can help to address student behavioral issues. Students need to know exactly what is expected of them, how to meet those expectations, and the consequences if they do not. At the same time, it is important to give students opportunities for autonomy and choice and plenty of chances for peer collaboration and interaction within that structure. 

Cognitive: To increase cognitive engagement, it is important to give students the support they need to be (and feel) successful. That means providing appropriate scaffolding, differentiating instruction to address varied student needs, and giving students timely and constructive feedback on assignments. Cognitive engagement can also be supported by igniting students’ natural curiosity and helping them connect learning to their interests and real-world scenarios. Finally, learning activities that require active student participation and higher-order thinking rather than passive consumption of information spark much higher levels of cognitive engagement.

Thinking Maps and Student Engagement

Thinking Maps support higher levels of student engagement in a variety of ways. Thinking Maps provide a structure for activating higher-order thinking and processing that naturally supports active learning, metacognition and engagement. And because they enable students of all backgrounds and abilities to be successful with learning, they build the confidence that students need to stay engaged. 

Here are a few ways that Thinking Maps support student engagement. 

  • Active learning: Thinking Maps require active thought and participation by students—much more so than filling in blanks in worksheets or traditional graphic organizers. Students must decide which Thinking Map to use for a learning task and how to draw and organize their Map to show their thinking. Thinking Maps can also support active learning methods such as project-based learning and inquiry learning. 
  • Critical thinking: Thinking Maps are designed to build the cognitive pathways and skills students need to activate higher-order thinking. They provide structure and support for critical thinking that works across all content areas and grade levels, from pre-K to postsecondary.
  • Confidence: All students can be successful with Thinking Maps, including young learners, English Learners, and students with learning differences (including special education and gifted and talented education). By supporting deeper comprehension, aiding retention and recall, and providing a structure for thinking, talking and writing about a topic, Thinking Maps build confidence for learners of all ability levels. 
  • Collaboration: Collaborative learning can be enhanced by using Thinking Maps. Students with diverse abilities and backgrounds can work together to create shared Thinking Maps and then use their Maps to generate a final learning product. Collaboration can also be enhanced using digital tools in Map Builder, part of the Thinking Maps Learning Community (TMLC). 
  • Social-Emotional Learning (SEL): We know emotional and behavioral engagement are core elements of student success, and Thinking Maps can help here, too. Social-emotional learning strategies with Thinking Maps help students understand classroom expectations and develop important skills such as self-regulation, self-awareness, decision-making, problem-solving and relationship skills. 

When used consistently, Thinking Maps build engagement along all three dimensions: emotional, behavioral, and cognitive. As students develop proficiency with Thinking Maps, their confidence in their learning ability grows, and they are naturally more engaged and active in the learning process. Over time, students take ownership of these learning strategies, enabling them to be active, engaged learners in any context. 

More Student Engagement Resources

Want to learn more? Thinking Maps Learning Community subscribers can find additional resources in this month’s TMLC Navigator: Student Engagement—a Critical Factor for Learning

Not a subscriber? Contact your Thinking Maps representative to get started. 

Here are more resources from around the web: 

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