Research shows

Communication key to student engagement

Students are most invested in their schoolwork at the beginning of the school year, with their interest tending to fade as the year progresses. But new research shows that frequent communication by teachers with students and parents can help to lessen this slide in student engagement.

Researchers Matthew A. Kraft and Shaun M. Dougherty of the Harvard Graduate School of Education randomly assigned 140 students in 6th through 9th grades at a high-poverty, high-minority school in Boston to either a treatment or control group. Control-group students received no special intervention for this study, published in the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness. But, for the treatment group, English teachers called parents daily to discuss the students’ academic progress and classroom behavior, describe upcoming assignments and suggest how the students could maintain or improve their performance. Math teachers for the treatment group sent each student daily text messages discussing what the student had done well that day or what he or she could do to improve.

With this frequent communication, there was a 40 percent increase in the treatment group’s rate of homework completion, a 25 percent drop in instances in which teachers had to redirect students’ attention, and a 15 percent rise in students’ class participation. Control-group students, on the other hand, became measurably less engaged over time: Their homework completion rate dropped by more than 6.5 percentage points, teachers had to redirect their attention more frequently, and they participated less in class.

Survey responses from teachers and students in the treatment group revealed that the greater communication strengthened their relationships with each other and increased students’ sense of competence and willingness to ask for help and to exert effort.

Although teachers said they felt that the communication strategy would be more effective if they were allowed to selectively call students’ homes as specific issues arose, the researchers emphasize that communication should center on what students can do to improve rather than focusing on problems.

They add that earlier research has shown that when teachers call parents mainly about problems, students become resentful and disengaged.

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