Learning for a Reason: 4 Levels of Engagement

Learning, PreK-12

Dr. Barab is Professor of Education at ASU where he also serves as the Director of the Center for Games and Impact.

He researches and designs “learning environments to assist people in developing their sense of purpose as individuals, as members of their communities, and as knowledgeable citizens of the world.” Central to his work is understanding the value of transformational play, “Students who play transformationally become agents-of-change who use real-world knowledge, skills, and concepts to make sense of a situation and then make choices that actually transform the play space and themselves; creating a place in which what you know is directly related to what you are able to do and, ultimately, who you become.” His current work extends the design boundaries from virtual game worlds to real world ecosystems with the goal of helping all learners thrive in a complex, rapidly changing, digitally connected world.

Sasha responded to Tom’s post on engagement with an overview of four types of learner engagement.

Dr. Sasha Barab

One factor important to engagement within a lesson is what I refer to as “positioning” or “type.” Often, classroom instruction tends to position students’ engagement with content to an act of remembering and repeating, rather than designing and applying. For example, statistics concepts ranging from “solving the mean” to using more complex formulas is often taught in elementary and middle school as a series of procedures that students must be able to execute, but not necessarily apply.

As such, students often become proficient at calculating the median or mean of a distribution, but are rarely are asked to decide which measure they should use to best make sense of a data set, or consider the implications of these different choices on their conclusions. In my work with my collaborator Melissa Gresalfi, we have differentiated among four types of engagement, with the significance being in that the type potentially changes the nature and meaning of the experience for the learner:

  • Procedural engagement. Using procedures accurately, but without a deeper understanding of why one is performing such procedures.
  • Conceptual engagement. Understanding why the concept or tool works the way it does, but with little appreciation for how to apply it in the world.
  • Consequential engagement. Connecting solutions with implications, and recognizing the value of disciplinary tools to achieve particular consequences in the world.
  • Critical engagement. Questioning whether the disciplinary tools being employed are appropriate for the particular solution in terms of the particular problem being addressed.

While procedural engagement involves knowing how to use procedures accurately, and conceptual engagement involves a deep understanding of a concept, consequential engagement involves actually being able to use the concepts as disciplinary tools to accomplish meaningful goals in the world—and critical engagement is about critiquing whether the conceptual tool is even appropriate. While procedural engagement can be useful for solving math problems, for example, the problem is that students can simply follow instructions, undermining ownership, learning, and even pride in what they achieved.

Conceptual engagement has been shown to be effective for some students, but is less effective for students that need to see why the content matters. When a teacher organizes a unit around a big idea without consequential engagement it often runs the risk of simply being a theoretical exercise, with the bias here being that students will likely be more invested when the project is framed in a manner that supports consequential engagement.

The power of consequential engagement is that students will likely experience why the content matters, and even develop a sense of pride that that they used their knowledge and skills to achieve meaningful ends. This notion of shifting learners from procedural engagement to consequential engagement is consistent with the belief that the latter is more likely to cultivate transformative outcomes, where the learner is likely to see the concepts being learned as tools in their life for achieving desired ends.

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Dr. Sasha Barab is Professor of Education at ASU and Director of the Center for Games and Impact. Follow Sasha on Twitter, @sbarab.


Ms. Crawford /

In light of all that is available to students, engagement is the key to being able to connect with our students. Teachers must become the facilitators in the teaching & learning process; allowing students to learn from each other and their mistakes. You’ve noted relevant insight in the levels of engagement, thank you!