School-based research

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The relationship between interesting, challenging, and appealing activities and the engagement of 3 Vmbo1 students in the English lesson.


Student engagement is the product of motivation and active learning. It is a product rather than a sum because it will not occur if either element is missing.”

Elizabeth F. Barkley, Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty

(Goodreads, 2015).

Mignon Beukers

Student number 1618623

Practical Research OAR-MPRAKOND-12

Supervisor: Dr T. Pollard

Students’ engagement is a probable problem for teachers. Third year Vmbo2 students prefer doing other things, like work and earn money, than participate actively in the English lessons. This has led to the following research question:
“If students are given interesting, challenging, and appealing activities, will this increase their engagement in the English lessons?”
These terms are subjective terms, therefore one of the sub questions was

“What are interesting, challenging, and appealing activities?”

In order to answer these questions pre- and post-subject motivation tests were filled in by the experimental group and a control group. Different types of activities have been implemented into the lessons of the experimental group and they were analysed using questionnaires. Observations by other teachers were held during the activities.
The questionnaires held after the activities showed that activities, like the “much/many” activity, the quiz, and the bingo, contributed most to the engagement of the experimental group. Also the hand-outs that were given to the students were greatly appreciated. However, the final subject motivation test showed that the engagement of the control group had increased more. Other significant factors that have not been part of this research, can also be of influence to the increase of engagement.
This research has led to the conclusion that not only adding different types of activities to the lessons contribute to students’ engagement. Other factors, like the teaching style of the teacher and the interpersonal relationship, are also important factors to have students engaged in the lessons.


I would like to thank the following people in random order:

  • The students of 3 Vmbo basis/kader school year 2013-2014 for providing me with data needed for the problem analysis and research plan.

  • The students of 3 Vmbo basis/kader school year 2014-2015 for providing me with data used in this dissertation.

  • My colleagues of the English department Regius College Schagen Vmbo basis/kader for their endless support and answering my questionnaires during the problem analysis.

  • Mrs S. Edward of the Hogeschool Utrecht for her help during the problem analysis and the research plan.

  • Dr T. Pollard of the Hogeschool Utrecht for his help during the school-based research.

  • Miss M. Dorée for her help during the school-based research.

Table of Contents

Abstract page 2

Acknowledgements page 2

Table of contents page 3

1. Introduction and research question page 4

1.1 Situation page 4

1.2 Goal of research and research question page 5
2. Literature review page 6

2.1 Introduction page 7

2.2 Literature review page 7

2.3 Conclusion page 10

3. Methods page 11

3.1 Participants page 11

3.2 Materials page 11

3.2.1 Interventions page 11

3.2.2 Methods page 12

3.3 Procedure page 13

3.4 Reliability and validity page 13

3.5 Analysis page 13

4. Results page 14

4.1 Subject motivation test page 14

4.2 Observations page 15

4.3 Questionnaires page 15

4.4 Marks page 20
5. Conclusion and discussion page 21

5.1 Discussion of the results page 21

5.2 Conclusion page 22
References page 23

Appendix A (subject motivation test) page 26

Appendix B (interventions) page 32

Appendix C (questionnaires) page 70

Appendix D (observations) page 75

Appendix E (account of data) page 79

1. Introduction and Research Question
In this research we looked at students’ engagement of two third-year-Vmbo classes during the English lesson and how this could be enhanced. Therefore, this research was conducted as an action research. Action research is used to improve routines of, among others, education and the quality of it (Van der Donk & van Lanen, 2009). The partners in this research were firstly two groups of students. One group was the experimental group. This group would be subject to the interventions. The other group became the control group. This group was a conventional classroom using a text- and workbook and an occasional YouTube clip. Secondly, colleagues became partners in the research during the problem analysis and during the observations of the interventions.
1.1 Situation

Dutch students in secondary education lack engagement. This is seen as a bottleneck both by students as well as by teachers (Inspectie van het Onderwijs, 2015). Interviews with colleagues within the English department have indicated that in the lessons students are more occupied with other things like their phones, each other, and problems that might have occurred, which has been confirmed by observations (Beukers, 2014a.) The interviewed teachers also stated that students might be more engaged when they have to do assignments that are more within their experience and when these assignments are challenging and/or competitive. Interviews with students showed students consider English to be boring, they do not understand the relevance of English, and/or they prefer to do something else (Beukers, 2014a.). As a result, students start to panic at the end of the school year. They realise that they might not be able to go to the next level or, for the students who are in their fourth year, they might not pass their exams (Beukers, 2014a.). Is this only the students’ fault or can teachers also do something about it?

Student engagement “refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education” (The Glossary of Education Reform, 2014). An engaged student participates actively by asking questions, taking notes, and responding to questions, whereas a disengaged student does other things like talking to other students (Johnson, 2012).
1.2 Goal of the research and research question

The goal of this research is to find a way of teaching that increases students’ engagement and reduces teachers’ stress. As the interviewed teachers stated that students might be more engaged when they have to do assignments that are more within their experience and when these assignments are challenging and/or competitive the focus of the interventions was on assignments. The procedure of the research can be found in chapter 3. At the start and at the end of the research a subject motivation test was conducted among both groups. This subject motivation test was provided by the school (appendix A). The activities that have been implemented as interventions focussed on grammatical issues (appendix B). These activities were followed by a questionnaire (appendix C) and the activities were observed by fellow-teachers (appendix D). A recapitulation of the interventions and methods used in this research can be found in table (1).

Table 1. Recapitulation of interventions and methods



August 2014

Method: Subject motivation test

August/September 2014

Intervention: Activities chapter 1

Method: observations

Method: questionnaire

October/November 2014

Intervention: Activities chapter 2

Method: observations

Method: questionnaire

January/February 2015

Intervention: Activities chapter 3

Method: observations

Method: questionnaire

February/March 2015

Method: Subject motivation test

The problem analysis and research plan have led to the research question that is stated in (1):

1 If students are given interesting, challenging, and appealing activities, will this increase their engagement in the English lessons?
Interesting, challenging, and appealing are subjective terms. One cannot argue about tastes. What one person might consider interesting or appealing, another person might consider boring. Also the curriculum of the English department had to be kept in mind. Therefore the sub-questions stated in (2) were added to the main research question:

1. what kind of assignments are interesting, challenging, and appealing for 3 Vmbo students?

2. how can these assignment be integrated into our curriculum, taking the P.T.A. (Programma

van Toetsing en Afsluiting)3 into account?

3. how can student engagement be measured?

2. Literature review
Previous research provided possible solutions to students’ engagement (see table (2). Teachers have to be aware and make use of the different learning styles of their students (Coffield, Mosely, Hall & Ecclestone, 2004) or change their own teaching style (Center for Teaching Excellence, n.d.). Other solutions are the integration of multimedia/ICT (Corda & Westhoff, 2010) and (Leone & Leo, 2011, p. 319) or drama and games (Chapman & Vagle, 2011, p. 116).

Table 2: Solutions to students’ engagement





Be aware and make use of different learning styles

Coffield, Mosely, Hall & Ecclestone, 2004


Teacher changes teaching style

Center of Teaching Excellence, n.d.

Teacher has to be willing to experiment to see what is effective, what his strengths are, and that students learn in different ways.


Integration of multimedia/ICT

Corda & Westhoff, 2010

Leone and Leo, 2011

Digital material is not necessarily more educational than printed material and students do not learn from what happens on the screen but from the activity it causes in the brain. The teacher has to wonder whether a student learns something when the computer does most of the work.

A combination of printed learning material and digital learning material is how education should be offered as the teacher can then meet the personal needs of a student.


Other challenging, interesting, and appealing possibilities like drama and games

Chapman & Vagle, 2011

It is important to have purpose, learning goals, and procedure clear and the teacher has to make sure there is a fair competition in which not only the best students win.

As stated under 1.2 the focus of the interventions in this research was on assignments. These assignments had to contribute positively to students’ engagement and most importantly, the interventions had to be within the students’ experience; they had to be challenging in order for students to be willing to participate and the assignments had to be active. A possibility was to make use of multimedia, ICT, and drama.

However, does research support these interventions? Under 1.1 the question was raised whether students’ disengagement is only the students’ fault or whether the teacher can do something about it as well.

My initial assumption was that by altering the type of assignments a teacher also changes his/her teaching style, students learn in different ways, and a teacher can make use of the different learning styles of the students. Is this a correct assumption?

In this chapter the results of the latest research will be presented.
2.1 Introduction

Is student engagement influenced by the student or by the teacher?

Harmin and Toth (2006) state that there are different types of learners and teachers can influence their engagement. Van Uden (2014) states that a teacher can influence student engagement both positively and negatively, depending on the relationship the teacher and the student has. This has been confirmed by Sullo (2009) who states that engagement and motivation increase by eliminating fear from the classroom. Harmin and Toth (2006) state that learning from real-life issues is not realistic, however, Schuit, de Vrieze & Sleegers (2011) state that students are more motivated when they learn new things that are within their experience and this is confirmed by the document Motivatieproblemen op School (Groeneveld, 2005). The latter and Schuit, de Vrieze & Sleegers (2011) state that working together enhance student engagement.

Following a further look into the research mentioned in this introduction.

2.2 Literature review

Harmin and Toth (2006) mention four types of learners. Firstly, there are the “fully active students” who are self-motivated. Secondly, there are the “responsible students” who will do what the teachers asks, but nothing more. Thirdly, there are the “half-hearted students” who only do either half of the work or do it badly. Lastly, there are the “work avoiders” who do next to nothing. Some teachers are able to inspire all their students in such a way that they all become responsible or fully active learners. However, for many teachers this is not the case. Teachers have to help the students “realize his potentialities to daily schoolwork”. In order to do this, the authors state that teachers can influence five abilities, which they group using the acronym DESCA (Harmin & Toth, 2006). See table (3).

Table 3: DESCA



Students want to be treated with respect and want to receive credit for what they do.



Students want to be energetic instead of sitting still the whole time.



Students want to think for themselves and not be bossed around. They want to make their own choices in where to sit in the classroom or with whom they want to work.



Students want to be part of the group



Students do not want to be bored.

Teachers should wonder if they are motivated enough to take care of the students’ education or if they are more focussed on their own needs, like the need to control. Are they teachers who are willing to try new things and improve themselves and, hence, change their teaching style and, maybe, their own motivation? When teachers are more focussed on their own needs, they miss the opportunity to encourage and inspire students by preparing lessons that will keep students involved and participating. When they do prepare lessons that are interesting for the students, the result for the teacher will be that the routine teaching tasks will become easier. (Harmin & Toth, 2006).

Other research mention different types of engagement. A study by Archambault et al mentions three types of engagement in the classroom: behavioural (the student pays attention, participates actively), emotional (the student is curious or bored), and cognitive (the student want to understand/know) (Archambault, Janosz, Fallu, Pagini, 2009). In the dissertation The Teacher as a Linchpin: The Teacher’s Perspective on Student Engagement (Van Uden, 2014) the author quotes Harris stating that “behavioural and emotional engagement can be seen as engagement in schooling and cognitive engagement should be fostered to engage students in learning” (Harris, as cited in Van Uden, 2014, p. 5).

Table 4: Type of students and types of engagement

Types of students

Fully active learners

Responsible learners

Half-hearted learners

Work-avoiders (Harmin and Toth, 2006)

Types of engagement



Cognitive (Archambault et al., 2009)

Behavioural and emotional engagement can be seen as engagement in schooling and cognitive engagement should be fostered to engage students in learning (Harris, as cited in Van Uden, 2014, p. 5).

Some research claims that teachers influence students’ engagement. Schuit, de Vrieze & Sleegers (2011) claim, based on research conducted by Ryan and Deci (the Self Determination Theory), that students with extrinsic motivation (e.g. students who identify themselves with the value of an activity, determine it is important, and take responsibility for the outcome) are more engaged and have better results (Ryan & Deci, as cited in Schuit, De Vrieze & Sleegers, 2011). According to the Self Determination Theory (SDT) students have three main needs, being the need for autonomy, the need for competence, and the need for psychological relatedness (Ryan & Deci, as cited in Schuit, De Vrieze & Sleegers, 2011). When these needs are met, this will contribute to extrinsic motivation. In other words, instead of a teacher giving instruction, the student has to become an autonomous learner who chooses his own learning activities, plans and organises his own activities, monitors progress, and reflects. However, the authors also raise the question whether this is suitable for all students, as less intelligent students will have more problems becoming autonomous learners than intelligent students. The authors advise teachers to provide their students with a certain guidance: the teacher demonstrates, guides, and supports. Schuit, de Vrieze and Sleegers (2011) also refer to a publication by Martens (Martens, as cited in Schuit, De Vrieze & Sleegers, 2011). Martens connects the Self Determination Theory to teachers who should become more active and more in charge of their own professionalization. Martens states that many teachers do not comply to the SDT’s three main needs (need for autonomy, competence, and psychological relatedness). Teachers also need these three main needs in order to make use of the opportunity to create the conditions for their own motivation.

In The Motivated Student: Unlocking the Enthusiasm for Learning the author states that there are teachers who think that by creating a classroom environment infused with fear (not to be confused with respect for authority) the student will become more motivated (Sullo, 2009). These fears can be fear of the teacher, of failure, or of an unknown future. As a result the teacher might have a class that is easy to manage for him/her as students are too scared to react or to neglect doing their homework. However, the students are not engaged or motivated for the subject. According to Sullo one of the ways to get a student motivated is by eliminating fear from the classroom. When students learn something they are vulnerable and they need to experience success instead of fear (Sullo, 2009). The feeling of success adds to the level of motivation. Also Van Uden (2014) underlines the influence of a good relationship with the teacher on student motivation. The teacher is the person who interacts with the student and, hence, can influence motivation positively as well as negatively. In her dissertation she refers to a Dutch study in which 195 teachers in pre-vocational and vocational education in the Netherlands and 2299 students participated. In this study student engagement from the teacher’s perspective was examined. Teachers stated that interpersonal teacher behaviour, self-efficacy, and the understanding of didactic and pedagogical competence are important factors for student engagement. Students are of the opinion that the interpersonal relationship is by far the most important factor for student engagement (Van Uden, 2014). Sullo also states that teachers have their rules as they think students need structure. He states that “human beings are driven to be autonomous and self-determining. We naturally resist when others attempt to exert undue control over us” (Sullo, 2009, p. 15). School is a coercive organisation. There are already many rules, like the schedule, the amount of years students have to spend at school, and what students have to do and know. All these rules can cause students to do what they have to do without much motivation or not work at all.

Some research discusses the effect of real-life issues on students’ engagement. Harmin and Toth (2006) state that solutions like real-life issues or convincing the students of the importance of learning are unrealistic. However, Schuit, De Vrieze and Sleegers (2011) claim that students are more motivated to learn new topics when these are meaningful to them, in other words, within their experience. Therefore it is important that teachers are aware of their students’ world and interests and choose appropriate assignments. Groeneveld (2005) claims that a diversity in tasks that are challenging, achievable, interesting, and relevant (“uitdagend, haalbaar, interessant, persoonlijke relevantie en betekenis”) is extremely important to increase students’ engagement.

Other research mention the relationship between students’ engagement and being part of a group. Harmin and Toth (2006) mention it as one of the five abilities a teacher can influence. Groeneveld (2005) claims that working in small groups, in which students help each other and learn from each other, can contribute to the motivation and the engagement in the classroom. Schuit, de Vrieze and Sleegers (2011) state that working together not only meets with the need for psychological relatedness, but it also leads to better results which in turn stimulates students.

Lastly, research also mention the influence marks have on students’ engagement. Sullo (2009) claims that rules can cause students to do what they have to do without much motivation or not work at all, especially if a certain assignment does not count for a mark. He claims that students will have more motivation when they can make some choices themselves in what they have to do, for example when they can choose from two equally valid assignments or when they can create their own assignment around a particular educational objective. Nelis and Sark (2014) state that students often ask if something is for a mark. Without a mark, students are less motivated for the task. The authors refer to an international research conducted by the OECD (OECD, as cited in Nelis & Sark, 2014). The OECD conducts research internationally on the skills of 15-year-olds in the field of reading, mathematics, science, and problem-solving skills every three year. This research is also known as PISA. During the 2012 research they also investigated, among other matters, the engagement in the lesson of mathematics. The results made clear that too many students do not have perseverance, drive, motivation, and belief in their own skills. Almost two out of three students postpone a difficult assignment, almost half of the students give up when facing a difficult assignment, and only one of three students likes to solve difficult assignments (Nelis & Sark, 2014). The OECD states that many tasks students have to do at school undermine their motivation instead of stimulating it. Extrinsic motivation (e.g. getting a mark) has become more important than intrinsic motivation (e.g. the joy of learning) and when the mark is lower than expected, the motivation becomes even less. Nelis and Sark (2014) suggest that the lessons should be more activating for the students. Students are the ones who have to look for answers, instead of the teacher providing them. Adding digital tools, like instruction on YouTube or interactive apps with review questions, can make these lessons more interesting and valuable for both students and teachers. Students have to become more active and making use of digital tools is a good way to learn something and that motivates at the same time. Teachers have to follow the curriculum of the school and make sure that the students know what they have to know, but it is important to keep in mind that motivating students start with the teacher.

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  • Student engagement is the product of motivation and active learning. It is a product rather than a sum because it will not occur if either element is missing.”
  • 1. Introduction and Research Question
  • 1.2 Goal of the research and research question
  • Table 1. Recapitulation of interventions and methods
  • Table 2: Solutions to students’ engagement
  • Table 4: Type of students and types of engagement

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