Understanding student engagement

Improving enrolments and grades in the high school Physics classroom


  • Stephen Pinel Unity College, Caloundra West QLD 4551, Australia


Engagement, Authentic Learning, Learning Theories



Unity College is an ecumenical P-12 school, managed by Brisbane Catholic Education, drawing on the faith practices of the Catholic and Uniting Churches, based in Caloundra, Queensland.  While it is a fee-paying private school, the fees are relatively low, and is non-selective in terms of the academic ability of students.  It offers a broad curriculum offering that is similar to the local state high schools in the same catchment area.


Falling enrolments in secondary school mathematics and science is frequently identified as a concern in Australia.  In Queensland, typically less than 4% of the statewide Year 12 cohort complete Senior Physics (Queensland Tertiary Admissions Centre [QTAC], 2021).  Against this backdrop, Unity College, over the last 8 years, has increased the percentage of its senior cohort undertaking Senior Physics from less than 7% to consistently enrolling more than 20% in the last 3 years, with no students failing Physics since the introduction of the new Queensland Certificate of Education (QCE) syllabus in 2019.  Over this same period, enrolments at Unity College in other science and mathematics subjects of equivalent rigour have fallen or remained steady.

A key element in the success has been applying an understanding of student engagement, as described in a model of engagement by Philip Schlechty (2011).  In Schlechty’s work, engagement is described as a spectrum with 5 distinct levels, measured against two dimensions of Attention and Commitment. 

Student engagement measured in this way is not a characteristic of a student, but can vary from day to day depending on their environmental factors. In addition to identifying student engagement in this way, a framework of learning theories, teaching techniques (Schuh & Barab, 2008) and supportive processes focused on authenticity in learning (Lombardi, 2007) has been identified that can help to shift a student from one level of engagement to the next.  The positive results of this framework in terms of student engagement can be seen in the increase in enrolments and student success in what is seen as a difficult and challenging subject.


Lombardi, M. M. (2007). Authentic Learning for the 21st Century: An Overview. In D. G. Oblinger (Ed.), EDUCASE Learning Initiative.

Queensland Tertiary Admissions Centre (2021). QTAC ATAR Report 2021. Retrieved August 19th, 2022, https://www.qtac.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/QTAC-ATAR-Report-2021.pdf

Schlechty, P. (2011). Schlechty Centre on Engagement. Retrieved September 20, 2015, from Schlechty Centre: http://www.schlechtycenter.org/system/tool_attachment/4046/original/sc_pdf_engagement.pdf?1272415798

Schuh, K. L., & Barab, S. A. (2008). Philosophical Perspectives. In J. M. Spector, M. D. Merrill, J. v. Merrienboer, & M. P. Driscoll (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology. Routlege.