While there is limited research on engagement in adult literacy contexts across researchers, the literature shows a vast number of researchers have studied student engagement. The definitions and descriptions of student engagement are broad and range from engagement as ‘participation’ in school as a social system (Finn, 1989; Newmann, 1981; Newmann, Wehlage, & Lamborn, 1992), to the concept that engagement is a cognitive function used during certain academic tasks (Corno & Mandinach, 1983; Helme & Clark, 2001; Pintrich & De Groot, 1990). More recently, student engagement has been built around the optimistic goal of developing students’ abilities to ‘learn how to learn’ or to become lifelong learners in a knowledge-based society (Gilbert, 2007, p. 1). Therefore, it is clear there is no ‘one’ universal agreement among researchers as to what a definition of student engagement might be. Researchers have instead explained different forms of engagement and how they work for different students under different conditions (Kuh, 2009).
For example, Kuh (2009) defines student engagement as “the time and effort students devote to activities that are empirically linked to desired outcomes of college and what institutions do to induce students to participate in these activities” (p. 683). Coates (2007) describes engagement as a “broad construct intended to encompass salient academic as well as certain non-academic aspects of the student experience” (p. 22), comprising: Active and collaborative learning; participation in challenging academic activities; formative communication with academic staff; involvement in enriching educational experiences; and feeling legitimated and supported by university learning communities. Hu and Kuh (2001) define engagement as “the quality of effort students themselves devote to educationally purposeful activities that contribute directly to desired outcomes” (p. 3). Comparably, Harper and Quaye, (2008) suggest engagement is more than involvement or participation and requires feelings, sense-making, and activity — as acting without feeling engaged is merely involvement or ‘compliance’ and feeling engaged without acting is ‘dissociation’.
Glanville and Wildhagen (2007) acknowledge there is a debate over the recognition of engagement being a single or multi-dimensional concept state. These authors conclude that “engagement should be measured as a multidimensional concept” (p. 1019) that is divided into behavioural and psychological segments. In recognising this ‘multi-dimensional’ concept, Fredricks et al. (2004) drawing on Bloom (1956), identify three dimensions of student engagement that can be synthesised to gain a deeper and more meaningful grasp on student engagement: Cognitive, emotional, and behavioural.
In looking at these categories, in turn, cognitive engagement includes two components; psychological and cognitive. The psychological component emphasises students’ investment in learning, motivation to learn and self-regulated learning as it relates to thoughtfulness and a willingness to put in the effort to comprehend complex ideas and to master difficult skills (Blumenfeld, Kempler, & Krajcik, 2006).The cognitive component involves self-regulated learning, meta-cognition, application of learning strategies, and being strategic in thinking and studying. Cognitively engaged students invest in their learning, seek to go beyond the requirements and enjoy being challenged (Fredricks et al., 2004). In the adult literacy context, examples of cognitive engagement might include: The effort in understanding course material; completing assignments; critically analysing information; applying concepts to real-world examples; and deepening insights through research and interaction (Harper & Quaye, 2008).
Emotional engagement comprises students’ attitudes, interests, and values – mostly in relation to positive or negative interactions with faculty, staff, students, academics, or the institution. Students who engage emotionally experience affective reactions such as interest, excitement and enjoyment, or a sense of belonging (Fredricks et al., 2004). Emotional engagement also refers to a student’s reactions to others, connections with the school community, and how students feel about their educational experience (O’Donnell, Reeve, ; Smith, 2011).
Behavioural engagement involves complying with behavioural norms such as attendance, involvement and participation, student behaviours related to concentration, attention, persistence, effort, asking questions, and contributing to class discussions (Fredricks et al., 2004; Hattie ; Anderman, 2013). These students are typically not disruptive, nor do they demonstrate negative behaviour (Fredricks et al., 2004). In adult literacy, examples of behavioural engagement may include respecting others, listening to instructors and peers, engaging in discussions, and participating in group work or teams (Harper ; Quaye, 2008).
Fredricks et al., (2004) explain that each of these three dimensions can have a ‘positive’ and a ‘negative’ pole, each one representing a form of engagement – with the two extremities separated by a space of non-engagement, demonstrated by withdrawal, or apathy. This means that students can engage either positively or negatively along one or more of the dimensions or engage positively or negatively along one or more dimension while not engaging along another or ‘others’ (Fredricks et al., 2004).