Unpacking a survey – High School Survey of Student Engagement

This post is by Steven Hicks, who is our project specialist at Generation YES. He writes about a recently released 2009 survey – High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE) out of Indiana University. This year, 42,754 high school students participated in the survey. These students where selected from 103 different schools in 27 different states and reflected a cross section of the US population. The study sought to solicit student opinions in three broad areas of engagement: intellectual/academic, social/behavioral, and emotional.

Be sure to watch the video at the end, I found it very interesting that they talked about engagement as a measure of the “relationship” a student has with school, teachers and peers.

Enjoy! – Sylvia

“When we are curious about a child’s words and our responses to those words, the child feels respected. The child IS respected.” – Vivian Gussin Paley

Many schools seek and collect data to help them construct and measure reform efforts in their districts. Typical tools used for education policy analysis are attendance, performance, and achievement data. Data on student perceptions of school — why they go, why they stay (or don’t), and what methods/policies they feel enhance their learning experience are far less common. Unfortunately, student voices are often inferred from quantitative data, which misses the nuances of student motivation and engagement; the omission of student opinion in policy-making results in inadequate, “wishful thinking” policies that inherently prevent students from taking ownership of their learning.

The results for “time on task” questions on the survey may cause concern to those who exclusively view this as a measure of student engagement – 77% of students reported spending five hours or fewer per week on homework. However, when asked about the importance of activities common to adolescents, students overwhelmingly (79%) felt that doing homework was paramount. Students clearly make a distinction between the amount of time spent doing an activity and the importance of the same activities. Combined with the 42% of students who “do not see the value in the work they were being asked to do” and the small percentage (23%) of students who believe that school helps them “solve[ing] real world problems”, it could be inferred that schools should be more concerned with the quality of assigned work and less with traditional “time on task” method of measuring student engagement with the material.

Students were also asked to rate the degree to which various instructional methods excite/engage them. Overwhelmingly, students chose collaborative activities where they are active participants in the learning process as being “some” or “very much” exciting/engaging: “Discussion and Debate” (61%), “Group Projects” (60%), “Presentations” (46%), “Role-Plays” (43%), “Art and Drama Activities” (49%), and “Projects and Lessons Involving Technology” (55%) were all rated very highly by students. Contrast these activities with more independent/passive ones such as “Teacher Lecture” (26%), “Individual Reading” (30%), and “Writing Projects” (30%); it can be noted that “Teacher Lecture” was the least engaging activity with 45% of students saying that it was not at all exciting/engaging to them.

The conclusion of the 2009 HSSSE Survey revealed the same gaps in engagement as previous years. These “engagement gaps” closely mirror the typical gaps in achievement shown by multiple other studies: girls are more engaged than boys, Caucasian and Asian students are more engaged than black or Latino students, wealthier students are more engaged than those on free lunch, etc. The relationship between the achievement and engagement gaps needs to be further studied, however, the results of this survey suggest that gaps in engagement are potentially more addressable than achievement gaps at the school level — simply modifying the quality of assignments and delivery of knowledge may go a long way to increasing performance.

There is plenty of room to debate about why students feel the way they do, or whether they “know what’s best” for themselves; some may even question to what degree schools should be concerned with making content “interesting”. However, we teach students to consider their audience when conveying information — why should they expect less from us?

The full report, this video and more information about the HSSSE can be found here.

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