21st Century Learning: Application of Learning Theories for Student Engagement


“The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective, national failure. There are several things that might help explain why this is happening – ranging from our overzealous focus on standardize testing and curricula to our lack of experiential and project-based learning pathway for students – not to mention the lack of pathway for students who will not and do not want to go on to college” (Busteed,2013).

Gallup Poll

Figure 1. The school cliff: Students engagement drops over time

Student engagement with school and learning is a gold standard that every parent, teacher and school strives to achieve. If we were doing right by our student and our future, the numbers would be the absolute opposite. For each year a student progresses in school, they should be more engaged, not less.

In this paper, I will share my observations from kindergarten to college to see the level of engagement in the classroom, discuss the term student engagement and its connection to constructivist learning theory, and explore what is needed toward a more active and engaging format to increase learning in the digital age. And, as a proposal, I will propose flipped classroom to get students more engaged in their learning.

Student Engagement

“Everything I know about engagement I learned in kindergarten” (Johnson, 2013).

In a typical kindergarten classroom, we could see the following learning activities:

  • movement
  • interaction
  • group work
  • discussion
  • manipulative
  • active learning

Teacher moves about room from student to student to work on individual level. Teacher knows student by name and often knows some information about their life in general.
On the other side, in a typical college classroom, we could see the following learning activities:

  • student sits quietly at individual desks
  • listen to lecture
  • quietly takes notes
  • very little interaction, movement, or discussion
  • sparse use of active learning techniques

Lecturer seldom walks about from individual to individual to offer individual guidance. Lecturer may know students first or last name, but typically not both and seldom know any additional information about student.

From the simple observations above, we could see major difference between kindergarten and college classroom in terms of level of student engagement and interaction with the teacher/lecturer. The kindergarten classroom looks more “engaging” compared to the college classroom. So, what is student engagement?

What is student engagement?

The term “student engagement” has been used to depict students’ willingness to participate in academic activities, application of successful cognitive strategies, and persistence through difficult task (Chapman, 2003).

(Students) who are engaged show sustained behavioral involvement in learning activities accompanied by a positive emotional tone. They select task at the border of their competencies, initiate action when given the opportunity, and exert intense effort and concentration in the implementation of learning tasks; they show generally positive emotion during ongoing action, including enthusiasm, optimism, curiosity, and interest (Skinner & Belmont, 1993).

Another study identified five indicators for student engagement in college. They included the level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, enriching education experiences and supporting learning environment (Kenney, Dumont, & Kenney, 1995).

Student Engagement and Constructivism

Constructivism is a learning theory about how people learn. It says that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences. When we encounter something new, we have reconcile it with our previous ideas and experience, maybe changing what we believe, or maybe discarding the new information as irrelevant. In any case, we are active creators of our own knowledge by asking questions, exploring and assessing what we know (thirteen.org, 2004).

In the classroom, the constructivist view of learning usually means encouraging students to use active techniques (experiments, real-world problem solving) to create more knowledge and then to reflect on and talk about what they are doing and how their understanding is changing. The teacher makes sure he understands the students’ preexisting conception, and guides the activity to address them and then build on them.

Constructivism transforms the student from a passive recipient of information to an active participant in the learning process. Always guided by the teacher, students construct their knowledge actively rather than just mechanically ingesting knowledge from the teacher or the textbook. Students become more engage by applying their existing knowledge and real-world experience, learning to hypothesize, testing their theories, and ultimately drawing conclusion from their findings.

Dale’s Cone of Experience

During 1960’s Edgar Dale theorized that learners retain more information by what they “do” as opposed to what is “heard”, “read”, or “observed”. His research led to the development of the Cone of Experience. Today, this “learning by doing” has become known as “experiential learning” or “active learning”.

Cone of Experience

Figure 2. Dale’s Cone of Experience. Adapted from Audio-visual methods in teaching (p. 108) by E. Dale, 1969, New York: The Dryden Press.

According to Dale’s research, the least effective method at the top, involves learning from information presented through verbal symbols, i.e. listening to lectures. The most effective methods at the bottom, involves direct, direct purposeful learning experience, such as hands-on or field experience. Direct purposeful experience represents reality or closest things to real, everyday life (Anderson, 2004).

It reveals that “active learning” techniques result up to 90% retention. People learn best when they are actively engaged in the learning.

The Learning Pyramid

While Dale’s Cone of Experience emphasize on the learners, the Learning Pyramid explore how different teaching methods affect retention rates.

Learning Pyramid

Figure 3. The Learning Pyramid. Adapted from National Training Laboratories, Maine.

The first four (lecture, reading, audio-visual, and demonstration) are passive teaching methods. In contrast, in the bottom three (group discussion, practice and teach others) are participatory or active teaching methods. Arguably, the difference in retention between passive and participatory (active) methods is due to the extent of reflection and deep cognitive processing (Hall, 2002).

Active Learning

Deriving from Dale’s Cone of Experience and the Learning Pyramid, it is explicit that active learning is experiential, mindful and engaging learning. Active learning requires students to participate in class, as opposed to sitting and listening quietly.

Strategies promoting active learning be defined as instructional activities involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). There are many strategies that increase student engagement in classroom including, but not limited to:

  • group work,
  • differentiated learning,
  • hands-on activities,
  • think-pair-share,
  • inquiry/discovery learning,
  • learning stations,
  • collaborative learning, and
  • problem-based learning

But certain specific obstacles are associated with the use of active learning including limited class time. Admittedly, the use of active learning strategies reduces the amount of available lecture time that can be devoted to content coverage. Faculty who regularly use active learning strategies need to find other ways to ensure that students learned assigned course content (Bonwell & Eison, 1991).

Paradigm Shift

The dynamic interplay between existing learning frameworks: people, pedagogy, learning spaces and technology is challenging the traditional lecture. As the pace of technological change intensifies, affording new opportunities for engaging learners, pedagogical practice in higher education is not comparatively evolving. A paradigm shift emerging from the correlation of changes amongst these elements, offering new opportunities for improving the quality of learning experience (Evans & Matthew, 2012).

Blended Learning

According to the Pennsylvania State University (2009) a blended learning approach combines face to face classroom methods with computer-mediated activities to form an integrated instructional approach. In the past, digital materials have served in a supplementary role, helping to support face to face instruction. Learning activities that otherwise would have taken place during classroom time can be moved online.

The goal of a blended approach is to join the best aspects of both face to face and online instruction. Classroom time can be used to engage students in advanced interactive experiences. Meanwhile, the online portion of the course can provide students with multimedia-rich content at any time of day, anywhere the student has internet access, from computer labs, the coffee shop, or the students’ homes. This allows for an increase in scheduling flexibility for students.

Flipping the Classroom

As its name suggest, “flipping” describe the inversion of expectations in the traditional college lecture. It takes many forms, including interactive engagement, just-in-time teaching, and peer instruction (Berret, 2012).

But the techniques all share the same underlying imperatives: student cannot passively receive material in class, which is one reason some reason some students dislike flipping. Instead they gather the information largely outside of class, by reading, watching recorded lectures, or listening podcasts.

And when they are in class, students do what is typically thought to be homework, solving problems with their teacher or peers, and applying what they learn to new contexts. They continue this process on their own outside class.

The immediacy of teaching in this way enables students’ misconceptions to be corrected well before they emerge on a midterm or final exam. The result, according to a growing body of research, is more learning.

Moving lecture out

Literally, moving lectures out of the classroom has appealed to a broader range of people across the globe. As a result, use of lecture tools to flip classrooms has seen phenomenal success and growth over the past few years. Some of the lecture tools being used include podcasts, screen casts, lecture capture and video. Lecture tools enable students to see and take note on lecturer’s slide, watch video lessons and practice quizzes digitally. The best thing with converting lectures into digital assets is that students can access learning materials at their convenient time. This allows the students to study as they engage in other value-adding activities and also have ample time for discussion (Miller, 2013)

Lecture tools have also enabled lecturers to interact more with the students. They allow for an active learning process. Lecturers usually provide content to the students before the physical classroom lesson so that they can interact with the content. This prepares the students beforehand which make learning more meaningful and enjoyable. The lecturer can allocate more time to answer the various questions in details as well as give time for discussions since the student have interacted with the materials already. Using this platform it is easy for a lecturer to identify students who are struggling with various areas of learning and accord them the necessary assistance so that they can improve. Lecture tools in essence help to increase student attentiveness and engagement in class as well as equip them with problem-solving skills.

Benefits of flipping

One of the greatest benefits of flipping is that overall interaction increases: teacher to student and student to student. Since the role of the teacher has changed from presenter of content to learning coach, teachers spend their time talking to students. Teachers are answering questions, working with small groups, and guiding the learning of each student individually (Bergmann & Sams, 2012).

Some might ask how a culture of learning is developed. The key is for the student to identify learning as their goal, instead of striving for the completion of assignments. Teachers have to purposely try to make their classes places where students carry out meaningful activities instead of completing busy work. The goal is for the students to be the best learner possible, and truly understand the content in the class. When the students grasp the concept that the teacher is on their side, they respond by doing their best.

The Experiential Flipped Classroom Model

This section proposes a model of flipped classroom learning using the experiential learning cycle introduced by Dr. Jackie Gerstein in 2012. It incorporates the use of video and other online content in flipped classroom and also includes methods, strategies, and activities for the face-to-face and/or online classroom.

Flipped Classroom

Figure 4. The Flipped Classroom Experiential Model.

Experiential Engagement: The Experience

The cycle often begins with an experiential exercise. This is an authentic, often hands-on, learning activity that fully engages the student. They become hooked through and motivated by personal connection to the experience, and a desire to create meaning for and about that experience (constructivism).

These are teacher generated and facilitated. They work best during classroom time. These are those “what to do with the time that used to be filled with lectures” class activities. The options for experiential engagement are limitless. Again, the goal is to offer an engaging and authentic learning activity that introduces learners to the course topic that creates a desire for them to want to learn more. Options include:

  • Problem solving activities
  • Experiments
  • Games
  • Simulations
  • Community projects

Content Exploration: The What

During this phase, learners are exposed to and learn concepts touched upon during Experiential Engagement. They explore what the experts have to say about the topic. Information is presented via video lecture, content-rich websites and simulations, and/or online text/readings. In the case of the flipped classroom as it is being currently discussed, this is the time in the learning cycle when the learners view content-rich videos.

This is where and when videos are used to help students learn the abstract concepts related to the topic being covered. The role of the teacher, during this phase, is to offer the learners choices of video and related online content.

Meaning Making: The So What

Learners reflect on their understanding of what was discovered during the previous phases. It is a phase of deep reflection on what was experienced during the first phase and what was learned via the experts during the second phase. Learners develop skills for reflective practice through discussing, reviewing, analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing key learning through their experiential activities and exploration of expert commentaries.

Demonstration and Application: The Now What

During this phase, learners get to demonstrate what they learned and apply the material in a way that makes sense to them.
This goes beyond reflection and personal understanding in that learners have to create something that is individualized and extends beyond the lesson with applicability to the learners’ everyday lives. Opportunities should be provided for students to, at the very least, make concrete plans how they will use the course content in other aspects of their lives.


Flipping the classroom is only one way, but not the only way. It is about a willingness to change some aspects of your teaching – to make gradual shift toward engagement and active learning. Flipping get students engaged and active to where they think you are going to ask them something – they more down and are better prepared and engaged; they remember more!

The flipped classroom offers a great use of technology. As it is being discussed, it is part of a larger picture of teaching and learning. The flipped classroom videos have a place in the models and cycles of learning proposed by educational psychologists and instructional designers. Providing educators with a full framework of how the flipped classroom can be used in their educational settings will increase its validity for educators and their administrators.

“Once you engage the students’ minds, there’s an eagerness to learn, to be right, to master” Erik Mazur, Harvard Professor.


Anderson, H. (2003). Dale’s cone of experience. Retrieved from http://www.etsu.edu/uged/etsu1000/documents/Dales_Cone_of_Experience.pdf accessed on 2013-04-19.

Berret, D. (2012). How ‘flipping’ the classroom can improve the traditional lecture. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/How-Flipping-the-Classroom/130857/ accessed on 2013-04-19.

Bonwell, C. & Eison, J. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. ERIC Digest. Retrieved from http://www.ericdigests.org/1992-4/active.htm accessed on 2013-04-19

Busteed, B. (2013, January 7).The school cliff: Student engagement drop with each school year. [Blog] The Gallup Blog. Retrieved from http://thegallupblog.gallup.com/2013/01/the-school-cliff-student-engagement.html accessed on 2013-04-19.

Chapman, E. (2003). Alternative approaches to assessing student engagement rates. Practical, Assessment, Research & Evaluation 8(13). Retrieved from http://PAREonline.net/getvn.asp?v=8&n=13 accessed on 2013-04-19.

Dale, E. (1969). Audio-visual methods in learning (3rd ed.). New York: The Dryden Press.

Evans, R. & Matthew, A. (2012). Should we still lecture? Reconsidering pedagogical approaches to promote student engagement, challenging the traditional lecture. Retrieved from http://eprints.qut.edu.au/49063/ accessed on 2013-04-19.

Gerstein, J. (2011, June 13). The flipped classroom model: The full picture for higher education. [Blog] User-Generated Education. Retrieved from http://usergeneratededucation.wordpress.com/2012/05/15/flipped-classroom-the-full-picture-for-higher-education/ accessed on 2013-04-19

Hall, J. (2012). Teaching methods and retention. Retrieved from http://www.simulations.co.uk/pyramid.htm accessed on 2013-04-19.

Johnson, D. (2013, January 22). Everything I know about engagement I learned in kindergarten. [Blog] The Blue Skunk Blog. Retrieved from http://doug-johnson.squarespace.com/blue-skunk-blog/2013/1/22/everything-i-know-about-engagement-i-learned-in-kindergarten.html accessed on 2013-04-19.

Kenney, D., Dumont, R., & Kenney, G. (2005). Mission and place: Strengthening learning and community trough campus design. American Council on Education/Praeger Series on Higher Education.

Miller, D. (2013). How to flip your classroom using lecture tools. Retrieved from http://edudemic.com/2013/03/flip-your-classroom-lecture-tools/ accessed on 2013-04-19.

Pennsylvania State University (2009). What is blended learning? Retrieved from http://weblearning.psu.edu/blended-learning-initiative/what_is_blended_learning accessed on 2013-04-08.

Skinner, E. & Belmont, M. (1993). Motivation in the classroom: Reciprocal effects of teacher behavior and student engagement across the school year. Journal of Educational Psychology 85(4).

Thirteen.org (2004). Constructivism as a paradigm for teaching and learning. Retrieved from http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/constructivism/index.html accessed on 2013-04-19

One thought on “21st Century Learning: Application of Learning Theories for Student Engagement

  1. Pingback: Good Practice Guide and Use Case Studies of Mobile Learning (#mlearning) | Classroom Aid

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