Think, Students! THINK! Diving Deeper into Cognitive Engagement for Struggling Students.

What does it mean to cognitively engage? As teachers and administrators, we have a tendency to focus on behavioral engagement.  What are my students doing?  What are they not doing? Are they in their seats? Do they have pencils in hand?  Are they quiet?  Are their eyes forward?  Are they copying the notes?  While all of these things carry some weight of importance, the real question is…are they learning?

Students can be compliant all day long, but if they aren’t cognitively engaged, does it matter? When we talk about Long-Term ELs and Students of Poverty, these students are often master survivalists, “looking” the part, but lacking in learning.

We know that so many behavioral challenges can be taken care of if the students are engaged, but what does this mean?

Here are 3 things to consider when creating an environment that lends itself to cognitive engagement:

  • Student Centered Goals
  • Problem Solving Skills
  • Student Challenge

Student Centered Goals – We all need an end goal to build stamina and push through difficulty.  Think about it: would you start a project if you didn’t have an end product in mind?  Run a race if there wasn’t a finish line (imagine…endless running)?  Follow a new recipe if you didn’t have a meal in mind?  So why would we expect students to give us their best if they don’t have an end goal to work towards?

Grades will not motivate most of the students we are focusing on right now.  They need more! More reason. More relevancy.  More intrinsic motivation.

Every student (and teacher) should be able to answer the following questions:

  • What am I learning today?
  • Why am I learning it?
  • How will I know if I’ve learned it or not?

Problem Solving Skills – While a lot of these students have more skills in survival than we will ever have, when it comes to academic grit, we see the “shut down” happen.  Hood up, head down, ear buds in, avoidance behavior increases, off topic conversations start, and the very common “hand up and do nothing until the teacher gets to me” waste of time.  We know that learning takes place in the productive struggle…but what do we do when our kids won’t push through the “struggle”?

 We teach them!  We teach them strategies to push through.  We give them wait time to let them process questions and answers.  We facilitate academic conversations to help them process their thoughts with a peer. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Create a problem solving anchor chart and direct students there when their hands are up.

If I get stuck, I will…

Re-read directions

Figure out my task

Figure out my specific question

Use my resources (notes, anchor charts, graphic organizers)

Use my thinking strategies



  • Teach thinking strategies – Students are expected to be able to complete certain “thinking” skills – for example – using context clues to figure out new words, read a primary source document and determine meaning, answer real-world problems in math, read graphs or tables and make predictions…all of these skills need to be taught above just the content of the subject. Many students who struggle are not struggling with the actual content, they are struggling with processing skills to answer the higher level questions.  Teach acronyms for memory, graphic organizers for organizing thoughts, problem solving strategies for math, and vocabulary for reading graphs.  These are just a few suggestions, but the focus has to be on providing instruction and strategies for the processing skills.


  • Use questions stems and response frames to help students with the language needed to have higher level academic conversations (I recommend EL Saber’s DOK Question Stems and Response Frames – see below). Just like we often need to process new learning with a peer, so do our students. We can’t expect them to have the skills to have these conversations, though.

Student Challenge – Simply put, bored students are not cognitively engaged.  Period.  They may be compliant, but they are not learning. The brain is always seeking new learning, new things to discover, new things to figure out.  If students are spoon-fed information, simply copying notes, or expected to listen to a long lecture, learning will be very limited.  Instead, opportunities to explore, build, and problem solve with peers, the teacher, and independently will create the student challenge needed to keep students engaged.


Engagement is KEY to learning!  If our students aren’t cognitively engaged, we can’t blame them!


Suggested Resources: DOK Question Stems and Response Frames

Fisher, D., Frey, N. and Qualia, R. (2018) Engagement By Design. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

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