Addressing Student Engagement: A Design Thinking Challenge

Clear Light Bulb, 2017,

This post was prepared in collaboration with Wendy Grymaloski

Introduction & Context

Kate and Wendy are both high school teachers in British Columbia (BC) who aim to provide a high-quality education to ensure the development of educated citizens (Province of British Columbia, 2020). Although we teach various grades and subjects in different school settings—one public, one private—much of our core duties, responsibilities, and beliefs are the same. We provide a learner-centred, flexible experience and create situations that foster all students’ success (Province of British Columbia, 2020). Up until spring 2020, we were teachers in a traditional face-to-face school environment. However, when COVID-19 struck, we had to quickly pivot to teaching in an online classroom. Although so far, we have been fortunate this school year to remain mostly face-to-face for our instruction, we continue to present and manage our courses digitally for several reasons:

  • Schools could be shut down again at any point, and teachers need to shift smoothly and quickly to remote learning.
  • Students may have extended or increased absences due to sickness or personal choice to stay home.
  • Establishing predictable routines and procedures help set students up for success; therefore, having experience in the online learning environment, should either of the above situations take place, is essential. 

Shortly before the pandemic, all schools in BC implemented a new K-12 redesigned and enhanced curriculum—a framework for doing, understanding, and knowing in a social constructivist context. In March 2020, when we were forced online, teachers were still in the learning phase of curriculum implementation, primarily regarding assessing students in this new context. Despite currently working face-to-face and digitally, we still believe that teaching strategies and instructional design should center around a social constructivist framework. Assessment in the digital learning environment needs to reflect that.

The prototype presented in this blog post is one assessment tool that may be used for student self-assessment of engagement in a digital learning environment. The tool was not only developed to tackle assessment within the new BC curriculum but was also developed to radically reimagine the design of digital learning environments and realize the potential of critical instructional design in practice. Picciano (2017) argues self-reflection is a great way to encourage discussion rather than straight lecturing, whether in a face-to-face or online environment. In addition, because learning in the new curriculum is constructed with peers and the teacher, assessment and feedback should be just as flexible online as it is face-to-face (Butt, 2010, Chapter 2).

Problem Statement

While the situation we described above presents many challenges, we identified student engagement as our top priority. Our joint problem statement became: Maintaining student engagement in the digital learning environment is a challenge. We asked ourselves three main questions:

  1. How can we help students become engaged learners in a digital learning environment?
  2. How can engagement be assessed?
  3. How can self-assessment help increase their engagement?


As our design solution, we decided to create a self-assessment rubric for students to assess their engagement in a digital learning environment. 

Focusing on factors like effort that students are more likely to control and remedy rather than knowledge of content and ability helps students overcome failure (Dörnyei, 2007). When instructing face-to-face, it is easy to gauge student engagement on an ongoing basis; however, in a digital learning environment, assessment of engagement needs to be more streamlined and transparent for both teachers and students.

We chose a rubric for simplicity, transparency, and effectiveness. In our case, the rubric would be provided to the student at the beginning of the course, outlining the target behaviors for engagement. Students could then reference the rubric to clarify what is expected of them, which is essential in any learning environment where access to the teacher is not always immediate. Clarity and understanding of expectations set out by rubrics have been proven to help improve student performance (Kearns, 2012). They have also been shown to decrease anxiety around assessment and negative self-regulation tactics in students (Panadero & Romero, 2014).

The choice to use a rubric as a self-assessment tool was also an intentional decision to increase accountability and engagement. Learning to self-monitor actions, thoughts, feelings in the learning process is crucial to student success and is a skill that needs to be practiced (Panadero & Romero, 2014). Formative self-assessment should be conducted more than once for students to check-in, reflect on their engagement, and revise their behaviour as necessary. This type of self-assessment is not an opportunity for students to formally grade themselves, as that decreases the effectiveness and increases the likelihood of students inflating self-evaluations (Andrade, Du, & Mycek, 2010). An added benefit in using formative self-assessment is using the self-assessment results as a springboard for teacher feedback.

Student Self Assessment Rubric

Student Self Assessment Rubric_Example

Other considerations

Self-assessments help develop critical thinking skills and support a constructivist approach to learning (Conrad & Openo, 2018). Although we have provided a framework of the rubric, involving students in constructing the criteria can help increase the rubric’s effectiveness. It can build the relationship between teacher and student and helps students understand the importance and relevance of the criteria, which then increases buy-in to the learning skills (Panadero & Romero, 2014). This rubric can easily be adapted with student input or made more specific to a course if necessary. It is not meant to capture all learning skills; it is to provide a snapshot of engagement in the online learning environment. Teachers could also easily adapt this to use for their own summative assessment.


Andrade, H. L., Wang, X., Du, Y., & Akawi, R. L. (2009). Rubric-referenced self-assessment and self-efficacy for writing. The Journal of Educational Research, 102(4), 287-302. 

Butt, G. (2010). Making assessment matter. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Conrad, D., & Openo, J. (2018). A few words on self-assessment. In T. Anderson (Ed.), Assessment strategies for online learning: Engagement and authenticity (pp. 152-158). AU Press, Athabasca University.

Dörnyei, Z. (2007). Creating a motivating classroom environment. In Cummins J., Davison C. (Eds.), International handbook of English language teaching (pp. 719-731). Springer.

Kearns, L. R. (2012). Student assessment in online learning: Challenges and effective practices. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 8(3), 198. 

Panadero, E., & Romero, M. (2014). To rubric or not to rubric? The effects of self-assessment on self-regulation, performance and self-efficacy. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 21(2), 133-148.

Picciano, A. G. (2017). Theories and frameworks for online education: Seeking an integrated model. Online Learning, 21(3), 166-190.

Province of British Columbia (2020). Curriculum Overview.

Attribution: Clear Light Bulb Photo by Pixabay from Pexels