What is meant by engaged learning?


I came across this article about student engagement. The article, by author Stephen Bowen, begins with "Engagement is increasingly cited as a distinguishing characteristic of the best learning in American higher education today. Vision statements, strategic plans, learning outcomes, and agendas of national reform movements strive to create engaged learning and engaged learners. Despite this emerging emphasis, an explicit consensus about what we actually mean by engagement or why it is important is lacking. Is engagement an end in itself, or a means to other ends? Is engagement as important as other characteristics of a good education such as intentionality, balanced breadth and depth, complexity, multidisciplinarity, integration, and contextual awareness? And, while we are asking questions, perhaps we should begin by asking--Engagement with what?"

So, what does engagement in adult education mean? How do we know we have achieved it? And is engagement really important? 

I'd love to hear your thoughts and definition. 

Kathy Tracey


Hi Kathy and all, A few years ago, I wrote an article for the CAELA network on learner engagement, "Promoting Learner Engagement When Working With Adult English Language Learners."  Here's a take on engagement at the postsecondary level that I included in the article. "The National Survey of Student Engagement, conducted annually among college students, described learner engagement in postsecondary settings as 'active and collaborative learning, participation in challenging … and enriching educational experiences, and feeling legitimated and supported' by the learning community (Coates, 2007, p. 122; see also Connor, 2009)." 

I'd be interested to hear from members about this way of describing learner engagement. How well does this description fit an adult literacy education context?

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition and Teaching & Learning CoPs. 

This topic of learner engagement is related to a number of other questions and work that has been over several decades to answer those questions. In the 1980s, my doctoral dissertation (“Learner Participation Practices in Adult Literacy Efforts in the United States”) went into some depth about identifying various levels of learner participation in adult literacy programs (i.e., from physical attendance in a program; to carrying out required activities; to giving some input into the direction of the program; to having high levels of responsibility, control, and reward vis-à-vis program activities). 

Through a literature review and national survey of programs that were in some way consciously trying to involve learners in more-active roles, our research identified two major categories of activities – instructional and management – in which learners were playing more-active roles, along with many examples of those activities. 

From this, we identified three potential purposes for involving learners in more active roles:  program efficiency, learner personal development, and social change. 

This was followed by six case studies of programs based in several types of institutions. an analysis of the challenges and potential of learner-centered efforts, and recommendations for what might be done to further develop learner-centered, participatory types of literacy services. 

In the intervening decades, many programs, support agencies, funders, and other stakeholders in some way or another supported the further development of learner-centered/participatory approaches to basic education, though many of the leaders in those efforts have moved on to other things or retired. 

Those now interested in learning from, building on, and further developing this important approach might – if they haven’t already done so – review the resources (e.g., research, curricula, resource guides, program models) already developed. And be willing to think creatively and communicate and collaborate with each other in new ways. 

Paul Jurmo


Paul, thanks for sharing your dissertation work. Very interesting! A few of our instructors are experimenting with a student generated newsletter, as suggested in your dissertation page 116. We are working to track student engagement and their "sense of community" through surveys. I hope to share results in the coming months.

I equate autonomy with engagement. If the learner is involved in class activities and has a choice in their learning, then they can be fully engaged. Susan, your article makes some great points on strategies that support engagement. I've seen both project-based and task-based learning used by the educators in our program teaching ESL, GED, and ABE classes.



Thank you for the thoughtful comments. Engaged learning is certainly a complicated subject. We need to consider engaged learning a bit broader than only the lesson at hand. As you all have touched on, students need to engage in the learning process but that can only happen when students also engage with the broader subject. How can you engage a student in a lesson about meiosis if they aren't interested in science in general? Engaged learning takes intention from our design and lesson planning. Finally, students need context - why do they need to know this. Without all three pieces being a part of the overall instruction, can we truly 'engage' learners?   

I'm looking forward to the continued discussion. 


Thanks, Kathy, Paul and Alecia, I believe that choice has a lot to do with learner engagement. The instructional approaches mentioned in my CAELA piece, i.e., problem-based, project-based and task-based, are likely  to be much more effective when learners choose the focus of the projects and tasks. I'd love to hear example of how teachers are offering learners choices.

What are some creative ways to offer choices that allow students to dig deeply into learning content in math, science, social studies, language arts, etc.

Cheers, Susan


Thanks for starting this important and interesting discussion on student engagement. I especially enjoyed reading about the 4 ways teachers think about student engagement, in the article you’ve shared.

You also ask: “What does engagement in adult education mean?”  Based on my experience as a Learning Consultant, it seems to mean different things to different people (teachers, administrators, and training professionals).  

For example, the most common definition of student engagement I have encountered has been all about keeping students busy completing classroom activities (time on task). Then, again, one may ask what type of learning tasks?  

Here is my take on the topic. From a cognitive science standpoint, student engagement with content is indispensable to effective learning and information retention. Why? Authentic engagement leads to deep thinking, and like Daniel Willingham said:“Whatever you think about, that’s what you remember. Memory is the residue of thought.”

Now my question is: how do we help adult learners reach a level of engagement that promotes critical thinking and effective learning?