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Focus On Basics

Volume 8, Issue B ::: May 2006

Shaping and Sustaining Learner Engagement in Individualized Group Instruction Classrooms

by Hal Beder
Engagement is defined as mental effort focused on instructional tasks or, more simply, working hard at learning. Learners cannot progress unless they are engaged. It is important for teachers to understand what affects engagement so that they will know how to keep learners engaged and what to do if learners become disengaged.

To conduct a number of studies on adult literacy, the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) at Rutgers partnered with the New Brunswick Public Schools Adult Learning Center (NBPSALC) in the National Labsite for Adult Literacy Education project. One of these studies was a five-year qualitative study conducted in six classes to determine what influenced learners' engagement and how it was fostered. Five of these classes used individualized group instruction (IGI): students working on their own on materials chosen for them. In this article, we share some findings from the study. We also highlight aspects of the IGI model that can either support or detract from engagement.

Researchers study engagement from one of two perspectives. In one tradition, often called cognitive engagement, they look at engagement as a mental process closely associated with other mental processes such as motivation and self-concept. Researchers from the cognitive tradition often focus on self-regulation. Self-regulated learners are able to contemplate their own learning and, as a result, to come up with learning strategies appropriate to the task at hand (Corno & Mandinach, 1983; Meece et al., 1988; Pintrich, 1990). In another tradition, researchers focus on the contextual factors that affect whether and how learners are engaged. For example, Newmann and his associates focused on how the organization of schools affects student alienation and how alienation, in turn, affects student engagement (Newmann, 1981; Newmann et al.,1992).

In our study of engagement, we focused on the contextual factors for both theoretical and practical reasons. From a theoretical perspective, we were concerned that almost all the literature that might guide our work was from the K-12 context. Yet as adult literacy researchers, we knew that the adult literacy context differs substantially from that of K-12. Thus it made sense to begin the line of research on engagement in adult literacy education by first exploring how contextual factors affect engagement. Other work is in progress that investigates engagement more from the cognitive perspective.

Practically speaking, teachers can usually tell whether learners are engaged just by observing them. Are pencils moving? Are pages turning? Are learners responding to teachers' questions? These are very visible markers of engagement.

The Labsite, the Methods

Our partner, the NBPSALC, serves about 3,700 learners each year in adult basic education (ABE), preparation for the tests of General Educational Development (GED), and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) classes, an adult high school (which awards a New Brunswick Public Schools diploma to adults), and several other programs. In accordance with state regulations, all the teachers of the classes we studied were certified in a K-12 area. We studied three beginning-level ABE, two adult high school, and one GED class. We used a qualitative methodology called grounded theory, in which analysis is built from the bottom up as opposed to testing hypotheses generated from existing theory. The goal of grounded theory is to discover themes and categories that explain what is going on in a given context. It is not a useful strategy for outcome assessment but is appropriate for studying behavior or contextual factors.

To collect data we used multiple data sources, including videos of classroom behavior, ethnographic observation, and interviews with learners. The teachers with whom we worked participated in some of the data analysis sessions, and when they were present, we tape recorded and transcribed the session (For insight into the impact of these sessions, turn to the article on page 10). When all the data sources were consistent with a point of analysis, we were confident that it was valid. On the other hand, if some of the data sources were inconsistent with our continuing analysis, we reconsidered the analysis. When the study was finished, the teachers read and commented on the analysis. Comments were minor and the report was modified to account for them.


We found that engagement was very high in the classes we studied. Learners' eyes were focused on their work, pencils moved, pages turned. If learners talked to each other, the conversation almost always focused on the business of the class. If learners took breaks, they were short and usually taken in place. After the break, they went back to work.

When we interviewed learners we learned that a major reason for high engagement was that they were very motivated to achieve their learning goals. Most of the GED and adult high school learners we interviewed had explicit career goals and most wanted to continue on to postsecondary education. Although many of the basic-level learners also had career goals, many also had more modest, short-term goals. One woman, for example, wanted to write letters to family who lived abroad, and another woman wanted to read and write because she was the only one in her family who could not. That learners were motivated, at least initially, stands to reason because the learners in our study attended voluntarily. If they were not motivated, they would not have come. Thus initially high motivation is a resource that feeds engagement; as with any resource, it can be either used productively or squandered.

The learners whom we studied at the Labsite were disposed toward engagement; the issue was how to support and maintain their engagement by influencing the contextual factors that shape engagement. We found that three primary factors shaped engagement in the classes we studied: the instructional system, teachers' behavior in the role of IGI instructor, and classroom norms. We believe that these factors are tools that teachers can use to support and promote their students' engagement.

The Instructional System

As mentioned, five of the six classes we studied used IGI. One class used small-group instruction. Although the contrast between IGI and the small-group instruction class was very useful to our analysis, space limitations preclude a discussion here. In IGI, learners are tested at intake to determine their literacy skills levels. Based on this diagnosis, they are placed in classes where they are assigned instructional materials appropriate to their skill levels. Learners then work individually on the materials. When they complete an exercise, teachers correct their work. If it is essentially correct, more difficult work is assigned. If it is incorrect, materials at the same level are assigned and teachers often engage in one-on-one instruction to help the learner. If learners have trouble with the work, teachers assist. In the classes we studied, learners worked individually, deciding when they would come to class and engage. This is important because adult learners often experience conflicts that make regular attendance difficult. We noticed, for example, that learners sometimes came late or left early and occasionally they missed a class. When learners missed part or all of a class, they simply began where they previously left off, without penalty and without missing instructional content. Each learner also engaged at his or her own pace. Learners who were adept at reading or math progressed more rapidly, while slower learners progressed more slowly and did not fall behind, as they might have in a group-based class. Thus, with the use of IGI, learners have a considerable amount of control over their own engagement and engaging becomes more learner- than teacher-directed.

The materials, rather than the teacher, primarily conveyed instructional content, so the materials determined the subject matter in which learners engaged. Moreover, to a great extent the material's directions determined how the learner would engage. For example, reading materials commonly directed learners to read a passage and then to complete a multiple-choice exercise that gauged their comprehension of it. When a learner's answers on a given reading or math exercise were essentially correct, the teacher assigned materials at a more difficult level. Consequently, learners assessed the outcomes of their engagement by how successfully they were progressing through the sequence of materials. The instructional system plays a large factor in engagement. In the case of IGI, the elements of the instructional system that shape engagement are:

Assigning appropriate learning materials
In the IGI system, materials convey instructional content, so assigning appropriate materials is a critical aspect of classroom management. If the materials assigned are too easy, too difficult, or are uninteresting, learners' engagement can suffer. Based on our work at the Labsite, the key to the appropriate assignment of materials is teachers' experience. Although we did not study what makes materials effective (and this is an area that merits further study), we did talk to teachers about materials. In data analysis sessions, teachers told us that they continued to use the materials that seemed to work and gradually eliminated the materials that did not produce the results they expected. So teachers acquired an appropriate repertoire of materials over time. Three of the teachers in our study were full-time and had worked at the Labsite for many years. Their assignment of materials was finely tuned. For example, the GED teacher, who had been teaching GED full-time for six years, knew the materials so thoroughly that he was able to predict the problems learners would experience at various points in the materials' sequence. Thus when he assigned materials, he was ready to intervene when learners hit the trouble spots. For new teachers, however, selecting appropriate materials was more problematic, and in some cases the materials the previous teacher had used were the only guide for a new teacher.

Keeping learners engaged
In IGI, teachers rendered help on a one-on-one basis. That meant that while they were helping a learner, other learners who needed help had to wait. If teachers spent a good deal of time with individual learners, waiting time increased for the others. If they spent too little time, help was ineffective. Deciding how much time to spend with learners was one of the major challenges the teachers faced. Teachers at the Labsite used two different ways to help keep learners engaged during waiting. First, they made sure that learners had other materials in their folders that they could work on while waiting. Second, many of the teachers encouraged peer instruction: allowing learners to help each other while they waited for the teacher. The teachers' encouragement, however, was more in the form of moral support than a concrete intervention to create a formal peer-instruction system.

One-on-one help
For teachers who are used to group instruction, rendering one-on-one help can be a professional challenge. Teachers first have to establish mechanisms that initiate helping sessions. At the Labsite one teacher used a sign-up sheet. Others teachers monitored their learners for signs of difficulty or used the convention of raising hands. Helping had to be efficient, because if a helping session took too long, other learners who needed help had to wait too long. Helping also had to be as thorough as possible because if the problem that was blocking a learner was not solved, the block was likely to re-emerge. As with assigning appropriate materials, teachers at the Labsite learned how to render one-on-one help primarily through experience. Thus for programs that experience high teacher turnover, effective and thorough one-on-one help may be a challenge.

Teachers' Roles

Teachers' behavior in the role of IGI instructor pertains to how teachers define themselves as teachers and how they perform their classroom duties. All the teachers we worked with at the Labsite had K-12 experience. Most, however, lacked experience in either adult education or IGI when they were first hired. That meant that teachers had to self-define their roles in relation to IGI and teaching adults. In adapting to IGI, in which materials conveyed the instructional content, most of the time teachers performed the role of facilitator of learning rather than conveyor of content. Part of their role as facilitator was to monitor, encourage, and support engagement. Teachers monitored learners' engagement, taking disengagement to mean that a learner was blocked and needed help. Teachers supported engagement by constantly praising learners for work done well and by talking up learning tasks. In the basic-level classes, teachers provided extra one-on-one help to learners who were struggling. Thus in IGI, how teachers facilitate instruction is an important issue that affects whether initially engaged learners continue to be engaged until they achieve their learning goals. As facilitators, teachers need to identify learners who are experiencing problems. They need to be able to diagnose their problems, to render help efficiently and effectively, and to maintain learners' motivation over time.

Although in IGI the teacher's role was primarily that of facilitator, there were variations in how teachers performed that role. One teacher of a basic-level class, for example, emphasized helping her learners to get the correct answers on the teaching materials. Thus most of her efforts were directed at correcting the materials and showing learners what the correct answers were if their answers were incorrect. In contrast, when a teacher in the adult high school taught advanced writing, he conversed extensively with his learners in order to help them select writing topics that interested them and to refine their clarity of expression. To work with as many learners as she possibly could during a class, one experienced teacher stressed efficiency in her facilitation. Her interactions with learners began with a brief but friendly introduction, such as "How are you today?" and moved promptly to a diagnosis of the learner's problem. She then provided one-on-one help and generally concluded with a short quiz to make sure the learner had understood the material. She was usually able to provide the help learners needed in three to five minutes.

Classroom Norms

In all the classes we observed, the predominant norm was one we termed "sticking to business": it was primarily informal and accepted by learners and teachers alike. The only formal rule we identified that was directed at sticking to business was that cell phones were prohibited. Sticking to business meant that all behavior during class was directed toward the business of the class. When learners interacted with each other, and they often did, their interactions almost always focused on helping each other with their work. When learners entered the classroom, they picked up their folders and began to work immediately. Teachers adopted a very businesslike posture. We hardly ever observed a teacher negatively sanctioning a violation of the sticking to business norm, and in the very few cases in which a student was sanctioned, it was simply a friendly reminder that the student quickly complied with. Teachers did not have to apply sanctions, because learners accepted the sticking to business norm and complied with it willingly.

In all the classes in our study, teachers did orient new students to the class. Yet because enrollment was continuous, new students were constantly entering, and orientation took time away from facilitation. Orientations were typically brief — especially on busy days. Thus learners learned that sticking to business was an important norm primarily by observing the behavior of teachers and other learners.

The norm of sticking to business meant that engaging and maintaining engagement for the entire class session was the commonly accepted behavior of the class. It was so ingrained that it hardly ever needed to be enforced.


We have found that the context of the adult literacy education classroom shapes learners' engagement in instruction. The instructional system determines when, how, and in what learners engage. Teachers' interpretations of their roles affect the extent to which engagement is supported and classroom norms directed to sticking to business create a climate in which being engaged is the predominating value. Learners' level of engagement can function as a set of visible events that teachers can note and reflect upon in assessing the effectiveness of their teaching. If the results of the assessment prove negative, malfunctions of the instructional system, teachers' interpretations of their roles, and/or classroom norms may be places to search for possible problems and solutions.

Full Report Available

To read the full report on this research, go to http://www.ncsall.net/?id=29#28 and click on Report # 28.


Corno, L., & Mandinach, E.B. (1983). "The role of cognitive engagement in classroom learning and motivation." Educational Psychologist, 18, 88-108.

Meece, J.L., Blumenfeld, P.C., & Hoyle, R.H. (1988). "Students' goal orientations and cognitive engagement in classroom activities." Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 514-523.

Newmann, F.M. (1981). "Reducing student alienation in high schools: Implications of theory." Harvard Educational Review, 51(4), 546-563.

Newmann, F.M., Wehlage, G.G., & Lamborn, S.D. (1992). "The significance and sources of student engagement." In F.M. Newmann (ed.), Student Engagement and Achievement in American Secondary Schools (pp. 11-39). New York: Teachers College Press.

Pintrich, P. (1990). "Motivational and self- regulated learning components of class room academic performance." Journal of Educational Psychology, 82 (1), 33-40.

About the Author
Hal Beder, a professor at Rutgers University, Rutgers, New Jersey, has studied adult literacy for more than 30 years. He is the project director for NCSALL at Rutgers and for the National Labsite for Adult Literacy Education.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL