Engagement theory in ability-based education

Engagement theory comes to mind when considering the removal of traditional grades in favour of ‘ability-based’ education. 

Engagement theory is based on the notion that students must be meaningfully engaged in learning activities through worthwhile tasks through the creation of collaborative teams that work on ambitious projects that are meaningful outside the classroom (Kearsley & Shneiderman, 1998).

Ability-based learning environments would seek to use this aspect of engagement in order to keep students interested and motivated to keep learning new material.  In engagement theory, activities involve active cognitive processes such as creating, problem-solving, reasoning, decision-making, and evaluation. In addition, students are intrinsically motivated to learn due to the meaningful nature of the learning environment and activities. (Kearsley, Schneiderman, 1998).

As we all know, it can be very difficult to keep students interested in learning, especially when left to their own devices.  We know that the nature of an ‘ability-based’ class would involve students working in groups with the teacher facilitating, but not always present.  When the alternative to watching a boring video lecture on ‘soil erosion’ is playing video games, most students will play video games, especially if the teacher is off somewhere else working with another group of students. 

However, if the material is relevant to their lives and the students feel they are producing something meaningful, they will be motivated to learn this way.  Engagement theory seeks to create real-world problems that students work collaboratively to solve and students are intrinsically motivated to learn due to the meaningful nature of the learning environment and activities. (Kearsley & Shneiderman, 1998).  Students work through project-based assignments, finding solutions to the real-world problem through collaboration, problem solving, individual exploration through online components, and they want to keep learning as they are properly motivated to do so.

In this way, engagement theory can be employed in a learning environment to encourage students working at similar levels to collaborate on meaningful, interesting and engaging activities.


Kearsley, G., Shneiderman, B. 1998. Engagement Theory: A Framework for Technology-Based Teaching and Learning. Educational Technology, 38(5), 20-23.



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