Rethinking the Effects of Classroom Activity Structure on the Engagement of Low- Achieving Students

Jul. 28, 2009

Source: Teachers College Record, Volume 111 Number 7, 2009.


A common perspective found in the literature on classroom activity structures hypothesizes that a whole-class mode of instruction is linked with increased problems of achievement motivation for low-achieving students. If whole-class methods of instruction (e.g., recitation-style question-and-answer sessions) are rich in evaluation and foster social comparisons among students, low-achieving students may become disengaged in an effort to avoid negative evaluations. It is important to consider the evidence on activity structures and engagement carefully because this perspective represents a sweeping critique, concluding that the predominant mode of instruction in American schools is detrimental to achieving widespread educational success.

Research Question: Are whole-class modes of instruction linked with increased problems of achievement motivation and disengagement for low-achieving students?

Research Design: This study is a review of research on the association between student engagement and activity structure. The authors review both quantitative and qualitative studies investigating the link between activity structure and student engagement, with an emphasis on studies that identify an interaction between students’ level of achievement, activity structure, and engagement. In interpreting the evidence, the authors focus on studies of classroom discourse—particularly studies of dialogic and scaffolding instruction, which illustrate variability in the effects of whole-class instruction on student engagement.


Although many relationships between motivational climates and levels of engagement have been clearly documented, the authors find no conclusive evidence of a link between whole-class instruction and disengagement among low-achieving students. Research on classroom discourse illustrates that the activities that constitute whole-class instruction are not inherently problematic for low-achieving students and can, in fact, promote engagement.

Updated: Mar. 16, 2009