Briefly Considering Cognitive Engagement

One of the discoveries of the cognitive and learning sciences with the greatest implications for teaching is that students cannot learn passively. While lecture, readings, and similar tasks do still have a role in classrooms, effective teachers include a range of task that lead to active cognitive engagement. These tend to find students discussing, asking and answering questions, constructing their own responses, and otherwise engaged with ideas and with both peers and mentors. In most, the role of the teacher changes from being the dispenser of knowledge to being a coach who observes and gives redirects so that performance is improved. 

The term engagement is used widely by educators; it seems worthy goal, but they do not often think carefully about what it is and why it is valuable. When students are cognitively engaged with a lesson, they are thinking about the materials; engage students are attentive and curious, they are monitoring their learning, and actively processing what they are seeing and hearing. It should be noted that a learner’s outward behavior may not be indicative of their level of engagement. Those who appear to be writing notes may simply be transcribing words and not thinking about them; those who are staring off may be reconciling an inconsistency what was just presented. The note taker is probably not engaged, but the one staring off is.