Why measure ‘engagement’?

This project aims to explore barriers to inclusion for autistic pupils, so why is it ‘engagement’ that’s being measured?

Early work on the project explored barriers to inclusion more broadly (Bailey & Baker, 2020). The emerging priority was to address a lack of literature on positive aspects of educational experience – what makes educational provision effective for autistic and neurodiverse students?

So, why ‘engagement’?

  1. Because it’s a term that is easily understood and yet already explored and defined in the education literature.
  2. Because it allows for discussion of a full range of aspects of the learning experience.

Connecting to conversations

‘Engagement’ is a term already widely used in the education literature. It’s is a very broad term, but is meaningful to practitioners and flexible (Christenson et al., 2012; Jang et al., 2010). It gets to the heart of the education process, and conversely, disengagement is clearly indicative of a dysfunctional educational process. For this study ‘engagement’ has several important affordances as it:

  • Focuses on the end point of processes operating within the classroom and therefore allows for interaction between processes.
  • Translates across different learning activities.
  • Is easily understood by teachers and students.
  • Allows for uncertainty of mechanism (a barrier to engagement has a real effect regardless of the extent to which the causes are understood).

Is engagement a trait or a state?

In the education literature, ‘engagement’ is conceptualised variously as a trait or quality, as a predictor of outcomes, or as a state in a particular context  (Christenson et al., 2012).  It is engagement as a contextualised, variable state that fits with the aims of this study; engagement as an action or behavioural, emotional and cognitive manifestations of motivation (engaging with something). and therefore can’t be separated from environment and immediate context (Fredricks & McColskey, 2012).

Context-specific engagement

The engagement literature first developed out of work on students dropping out, developing a conceptualisation of engagement as an attitude (Mosher & MacGowan, 1985). The concept was developed through the 1980s in the context of a continuing concern with dropout (Newman 1981). Skinner and Pitzer (2012) use engagement as an active verb.; a proximal process in ecological models drawing on Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory in which engagement is the only pathway to achievement, shapes experience of school and contributes to academic development. However, more recent models focus on academic, social, cognitive, affective engagement (Greenwood et al., 2002). School context is often considered, but not always broken down from whole-school to task specific areas. Aspects of context commonly covered by research are teacher relationships (warmth, supportiveness) and instructional approaches (Guthrie et al., 2012; Skinner & Pitzer, 2012).  

Engagement as a metaconstruct

There is now general agreement that engagement should be considered a ‘metaconstruct’ – an organising framework. Most commonly, conceptualisations are multidimensional, for example distinguishing between emotion, behaviour and cognition (Reschly & Christenson, 2012).

Operationalising engagement

Engagement is not an easy construct to operationalise (Reschly & Christenson, 2012, p. 13) ask how can you separate context from self? How can you distinguish between an objective measure of goal orientation or school climate from pupils’ internal processes of these? A key distinction in self-report tools is between situational engagement and engagement as a trait of the student. For this study, to explore the relationship between student engagement and the learning environment, a situational measure will be developed, through which students can easily, quickly and meaningfully report their experience of a specific learning activity.


Bailey, J., & Baker, S. T. (2020). A synthesis of the quantitative literature on autistic pupils’ experience of barriers to inclusion in mainstream schools. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs. https://doi.org/10.1111/1471-3802.12490

Christenson, S. L., Reschly, A. L., & Wylie, C. (Eds.). (2012). Handbook of research on student engagement. Springer.

Fredricks, J. A., & McColskey, W. (2012). The measurement of student engagement: A comparative analysis of various methods and student self-report instruments. In Handbook of research on student engagement (pp. 763–782). Springer Science + Business Media. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-2018-7_37

Greenwood, C. R., Horton, B. T., & Utley, C. A. (2002). Academic Engagement: Current Perspectives in Research and Practice. School Psychology Review, 31(3), 328–349.

Guthrie, J. T., Wigfield, A., & You, W. (2012). Instructional contexts for engagement and achievement in reading. In Handbook of research on student engagement (pp. 601–634). Springer Science + Business Media. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-2018-7_29

Jang, H., Reeve, J., & Deci, E. L. (2010). Engaging students in learning activities: It is not autonomy support or structure but autonomy support and structure. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(3), 588–600. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019682

Mosher, R., & MacGowan, B. (1985). Assessing Student Engagement in Secondary Schools: Alternative Conceptions, Strategies of Assessing, and Instruments. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED272812

Reschly, A. L., & Christenson, S. L. (2012). Jingle, Jangle, and Conceptual Haziness: Evolution and Future Directions of the Engagement Construct. In S. L. Christenson, A. L. Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Student Engagement (pp. 3–19). Springer US. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-2018-7_1

Skinner, E., & Pitzer, J. R. (2012). Developmental Dynamics of Student Engagement, Coping, and Everyday Resilience. In S. L. Christenson, A. L. Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Student Engagement (pp. 21–44). Springer US. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-2018-7_2

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