Great Framework for Creating Engaging Student Work


Qualities of Engaging Student Work

A critical factor for improving learning lies in providing high-quality work for students- work that engages students, work that enables students to learn what they need in order to succeed in the world.
The traits of engaging student work listed below evolved from Dr. Phillip Schlechty’s book, Working on the Work . (Note: each of the listed qualities of engaging work below is a hot-link that will scroll down the page to a short description of the trait, along with some examples of what the trait looks like in the hands of the learner – paired with non-examples, for clarity.)

  • Personal Response- More than one right answer
  • Clear/Modeled Expectations- Student knows what success “looks like”
  • Emotional/Intellectual Safety- Freedom to take risks
  • Learning with Others (Affiliation)- Learning has a social component
  • Sense of Audience- Student work is shared
  • Choice- Students have meaningful options
  • Novelty and Variety- Learning experiences are unusual or unexpected
  • Authenticity- Connections to experience or prior learning

Personal Response– More than one right answer

Work that engages students almost always focuses on a product or performance of significance to students. When students explain their answers (or the logic and reasoning behind those answers), they are invested in their personal response.

What it looks like:

  • Supported predictions
  • Opinions
  • Remembrances
  • Connections
  • Comparisons
  • Analogies
  • Summary Statements
  • Strategies
  • “I think…because…”

It is not: Recall of answers, Only one answer possible, Only one answer accepted

Caution: Optimal personal response is based upon activities that force all students to articulate their ideas (rather than four or five students). For that reason, written personal response may be more powerful than oral response.

Clear/Modeled Expectations– Student knows what success “looks like”

Students prefer knowing exactly what is expected of them, and how those expectations relate to something they care about. Standards are only relevant when those to whom they apply care about them.

What it looks like:

  • Clear objective of activity & learning
  • Models of expectation and strategy
  • Visual exemplars that persist
  • Rubrics & self-assessment
  • Clear formats & procedures
  • Sources
  • Quantity & quality required in personal response activities
  • “I included…”

It is not: Oral explanations by teacher; Inconsistent expectations; “Grading”

Emotional/Intellectual Safety– Freedom to take risks

Students are more engaged when they try tasks without fear of embarrassment, punishment, or implications that they are inadequate. Personal response activities that students must support with logic, reasoning or explanation require more intellectual safety than answering a question that has only one right answer.

What it looks like:

  • Students explain why/how their answer is plausible
  • Students take risks with “unpopular” or more subtle answers
  • Sources, evidence & examples are cited
  • Reasoning first, answers second
  • Answers questioned or defended
  • “I disagree with the author because…”

It is not: Answering single-answer questions, answers without explanation, students being “correct” or “incorrect,” students critiqued

Learning with Others (Affiliation)– Learning has a social component

Students are more likely to be engaged by work that permits, encourages, and supports opportunities for them to work interdependently with others. Those who advocate cooperative learning understand this well, and also recognize the critical difference between students working together and students working together independently on a common task (which may look like group work, but isn’t).

What it looks like:

  • Think, pair, share
  • Literature circles
  • Small group discussion
  • Reciprocal teaching
  • Peer revision or review
  • Student A reports/paraphrases student B’s thoughts
  • “When David talked about the symbolism, I thought…”

It is not: Taking turns talking, group grades in isolation

Sense of Audience– Student work is shared

Students are more highly motivated when their parents, teachers, fellow students, and “significant others” make it known that they think the student’s work is important. Portfolio assignments- which collect student work for scrutiny by people other than the teacher- can play a significant role in making student work “more visible.”

What it looks like:

  • Increased level of concern
  • Connections to audience/purpose
  • Voice
  • Responsibility to the group
  • Proficient work posted
  • Student work as exemplars
  • The ballgame, the concert, the play
  • “When I finish this business letter, I will mail it to…”

It is not: Being “singled out”

Choice– Students have meaningful options

When students have some degree of control over what they are doing, they are more likely to feel committed to doing it. This doesn;t mean students should dictate school curriculum, however: schools must distinguish between giving students choices in what they do and letting them choose what they will learn.

What it looks like:

  • Tiered assignments
  • Self-selected reading material
  • Product
  • Selecting tasks from a list
  • Meaningful options
  • Decision-making
  • “I chose to present my thoughts in graphic form”

It is not: Opting out of standards; avoiding an assignment; overwhelming choices

Novelty and Variety– Learning experiences are unusual or unexpected

Students are more likely to engage in the work asked of them if they are continuously exposed to new and different ways of doing things. The use of technology in writing classes, for example, might motivate students who otherwise would not write. New technology and techniques, however, shouldn’t be used to create new ways to do the same old work- new forms of work and new products are equally important.

What it looks like:

  • Variety of products
  • Diverse perspectives
  • Integrated fun
  • Layered interests
  • Games
  • Simulations and role-play
  • Competitions
  • Responding “in the voice of…”
  • “Rather than working problems in math, we wrote two new work problems”

It is not: Chaos; lack of procedure or protocols

Authenticity– Connections to experience or prior learning

This term is bandied about quite often by educators, so much that the power of the concept is sometimes lost. Clearly, however, when students are given tasks that are meaningless, contrived, and inconsequential, they are less likely to take them seriously and be engaged by them.

What it looks like:

  • Relevance to age group
  • Tasks that represent the personalities of the learners
  • Real-life activities
  • Inquiry or discovery learning
  • Hands-on manipulative
  • Current events/issues
  • “Learn, then label”
  • Transfer or synthesis beyond content
  • Extension of workplace activities
  • Use of workplace or home technology

It is not: Vocabulary in isolation; Contrived activities; Practice without context; Repetition of low-level work

Sources: Adapted from Schlechty, P. (2002) Working on the Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.