Brain and Behavior

Study Shows High Engagement is Secret to Students’ Success

When education experts in Australia wanted to determine the best ways to improve students’ academic outcomes, they set out to analyze the transcripts from filmed classroom observations.

The Research

Developing a coding guide based on the Interactive, Constructive, Active, Passive (ICAP) theory, they focused on the lesson tasks used by 20 teachers to promote student cognitive engagement, as well as the links between these tasks and student learning. The researchers, who conducted the study in partnership with Flinders University and Melbourne Graduate School of Education, discovered that:

• 70% of the observed lesson tasks were categorized as passive and/or active (e.g., taking notes, answering simple questions, listening to teachers).

• Only 30% of the lesson tasks were assigned the Constructive and Interactive codes.

• Only half of the 20 experienced teachers engaged students in Constructive and Interactive tasks.

• For a large number of students, classroom learning only happens at a superficial level.

With fewer than one-third of teachers engaging student in complex learning, the opportunities for students to build critical thinking and problem-solving skills was limited.

“When we look at learning, the greater the engagement, the deeper the learning,” explains University of South Australia Researcher Dr. Helen Stephenson. “But too often students are doing low-engagement passive work. While there is certainly a place for such tasks in a classroom, student learning is much improved when students spent more time engaging in complex activities that promote deep and conceptional learning.”

According to Stephenson, deep learning needs knowledge to be organized into conceptual structures in order to improve the retention of information. To improve outcomes, teachers can make small adjustments to their lesson plans and adjust their existing classroom activities to ensure that more tasks are on the deeper end of the learning scale.

Examples of Deeper Learning

Stephenson offered some specific examples to better help teachers and educational experts understand passive, active, constructive, and interactive tasks:

• Passive: Watching a video in the classroom

• Active: Watching the video and taking notes using the presenter’s words

• Constructive: Writing questions that arise for them while watching the video

• Interactive: Watching the video and discussing it with another student to generate different ideas

“Interactive engagement in classrooms is where students are involved in activities with other students that stimulate them to develop deeper understand,” explained Stephenson. “They’re making judgements, proposing and critiquing arguments and opinions, and working out solutions to problems. These activities can also help them to develop critical thinking and reasonings skills … all of which are predictors of improved learning.”

The results were published in the July 2023 edition of “Teaching and Teacher Education.”


Wendy Burt-Thomas writes about the brain, mental health and parenting.

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