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Rethinking the Effects of Classroom Activity Structure on the Engagement of Low- Achieving Students


by Sean P. Kelly & Julianne Turner — 2009

Background/Context: A common perspective found in the literature on classroom activity structures hypothesizes that a whole-class mode of instruction is linked with increased problems of achievement motivation for low-achieving students. If whole-class methods of instruction (e.g., recitation-style question-and-answer sessions) are rich in evaluation and foster social comparisons among students, low-achieving students may become disengaged in an effort to avoid negative evaluations. It is important to consider the evidence on activity structures and engagement carefully because this perspective represents a sweeping critique, concluding essentially that the predominant mode of instruction in American schools is detrimental to achieving widespread educational success.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Are whole-class modes of instruction linked with increased problems of achievement motivation and disengagement for low-achieving students?

Research Design: This study is a review of research on the association between student engagement and activity structure. We review both quantitative and qualitative studies investigating the link between activity structure and student engagement, with an emphasis on studies that identify an interaction between students’ level of achievement, activity structure, and engagement. In interpreting the evidence, we focus on studies of classroom discourse—particularly studies of dialogic and scaffolding instruction, which illustrate variability in the effects of whole-class instruction on student engagement.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Although many relationships between motivational climates and levels of engagement have been clearly documented, we find no conclusive evidence of a link between whole-class instruction and disengagement among low-achieving students. Research on classroom discourse illustrates that the activities that constitute whole-class instruction are not inherently problematic for low-achieving students and can, in fact, promote engagement.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 7, 2009, p. 1665-1692
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15308, Date Accessed: 6/24/2017 11:35:51 AM

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About the Author
  • Sean Kelly
    University of Notre Dame
    E-mail Author
    SEAN KELLY is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame. His research has focused on several educational issues facing America’s schools, including problems of student engagement, tracking, and the process of matching teachers to classrooms. His research on student engagement and classroom instruction has been published in Social Science Research and Social Psychology of Education.
  • Julianne Turner
    University of Notre Dame
    E-mail Author
    JULIANNE TURNER is associate professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame. Her current research on intermediate school mathematics instruction examines teachers’ understanding and application of principles of motivation and how teachers change their beliefs and instructional practices. Her recent research on facilitating student engagement has appeared in Educational Psychologist, Teachers College Record, and the Handbook of Educational Psychology.
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