5 Introduction: What Do We Mean By Engagement?

Schlechty’s Levels of Engagement

For the purpose of this conversation, we’re going to use Phillip Schlechty’s five levels of student engagement.

  1. Engaged – Intrinsically motivated (when a student is willing to pursue something without any clear extrinsic reward).
  2. Strategic Compliance – Grade motivated achievement (A ‘smart’ student. Gives a teacher exactly what they want. Wins at the game of school).
  3. Ritual Compliance – Grade motivated for ‘just enough’ (a student who wants to finish the course with minimum effort, showing no special interest in the course and just looking for a passing grade).
  4. Retreatism – Passively resistant (when a student will not cause any distraction to the course but show little to no interest and would rather not show up or quietly not pay attention. Hands things in late.).
  5. Rebellion – Actively resistant (when a student has no interest in what they feel they are being forced to learn and lash out in acts of defiance, this means no learning is being done by the student and actively removes the engagement from the other student in hopes of change.)


The key distinction in Schlecty’s model is between engagement and strategic compliance. It is very easy to mistake strategic compliance for engagement. It might not even be possible, in some cases, to tell the difference between the two. A strategically compliant student is going to tell you that they are engaged. It’s part of the game. They pretend to care, tell you that you are smart, and then go on about their business getting an A in your course.

The game that we are talking about is a side effect of the way that a course is designed. If success in your course is amounts to a series of tasks that a student needs to accomplish in a certain way, it is structured for compliance. That might even be what you ‘need’ to do (more on this later) to teach certain material… but it doesn’t lead to engagement. As one of this summer’s CoOp student said at the start of their work term… (paraphrased)

I have to apologize to you. You’ve been asking for my opinion for a week and a half and I am now realizing I didn’t really believe you. No one has ever really wanted my opinion before. When they ask for my perspective, they already know what I’m supposed to say. It’s always a test. I think you actually want to know my actual opinion. It’s going to take me some time to adjust.

A Student perspective

Our perspective on what it means for a student to be engaged is to be truly interested in what they learn. If a student is interested in a course, no matter how difficult the course is, they will leave with a positive outcome and likely a good grade. When a student is engaged, they no longer see a course as just another grade. If a student is engaged in the course for their own self-interest, good class practices like note-taking, staying attentive during the lectures, and asking meaningful questions will happen naturally out of genuine self-interest. They are engaged in learning the material instead of exterior motives like fear of failure. If students felt more engaged in their studies, things like forcing class discussion, poor class attendance, and poor test results will diminish greatly, and students will instead come to class prepared with questions and ready to learn.


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Engaging Students in an Online Era Copyright © by David Cormier; Ghanem Ghanem; and Brandon Mailloux is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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