Review: Engagement and positive youth development: Creating optimal learning environments

Shernoff, D. J. (2012). Engagement and positive youth development: Creating optimal learning environments. In K. R. Harris, S. Graham, T. Urdan, S. Graham, J. M. Royer, & M. Zeidner (Eds.), APA educational psychology handbook, Vol 2: Individual differences and cultural and contextual factors. (pp. 195–220). Washington: American Psychological Association.

Abstract: In this chapter, I review prevailing literature on the reasons for chronic disengagement, the significance of student engagement, and how it has been studied. I then discuss engagement as conceptualized by theory on flow experiences. Engagement is suggested to be a lens through which to see the extent to which two important educational aims are facilitated: learning and psychological well-being. Next, I report research findings on perceptual and contextual factors influencing engagement and a related conceptual model. Recent research on the immediate impact of instructional practices in public high school classes, including the use of immersive technologies, is then presented. Several alternative models to mainstream public education, with associated research on their effectiveness in engaging youth, are also considered. These alternatives include alternative public schools and organized after-school programs for youth engagement. A conceptualization of optimal learning environments is also presented, and implications for educational philosophy, policy, and practice are discussed. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2017 APA, all rights reserved)


Student engagement refers to students' involvement with schooling, academics, or learning.

Disengagement refers to boredom, disassociation, detachment, or alienation regarding school. 

Csikszentmihalyi, 2009 - Flow is a state state of heightened engagement. 

I honed in on the sections that dealt with educational video games. The author discusses several studies where students completed course work using an instructional game versus a more traditional (non-game) approach and found that students who completed the course with game(s) were more engaged and reported greater "flow", increased intrinsic interest and creativity. Students preferred work that felt more like a game. 

Education since the industrial revolution transitioned to an inflexible, singular, dominant system of schooling. Before that, school was controlled by the community. Work was not formally graded as it is today, instruction fostered mixed-ability students, and parents were more in the picture. Nothing more encapsulates the United States movement toward a singular view than Common Core standards. This approach makes it more difficult for teachers to navigate away from the traditional way of teaching because it supplements a singular view of schools so nicely. A teacher who wanders from the traditional way may encounter challenges from not only the students who have been experiencing a traditional classroom, but from administrators, parents, and peers. 

Flow Theory has been used as a theoretical base for examining engagement in games and several scales (GameFlow; EGameFlow) have been developed for evaluating educational video game enjoyment. The scales consist of eight dimensions:

  1. Immersion
  2. Social Interaction
  3. Challenge
  4. Goal Clarity
  5. Feedback
  6. Concentration
  7. Control
  8. Knowledge Improvement 

Whereas EGameFlow is a survey meant to be completed by the player, GameFlow is meant to be more of a review tool; it is not a survey. For instance, to measure Immersion, you would examine the following:

  • players should become less aware of their surroundings
  • players should become less self-aware and less worried about everyday life or self
  • players should experience an altered sense of time
  • players should feel emotionally involved in the game
  • players should feel viscerally involved in the game

Bottom Line: Learning environment that implement games can help student engagement when those games score high on the GameFlow scale or EGameFlow scale. Teachers should definitely play through any game they wish to use not only to ensure learning outcomes and gameplay are closely tied together, but also that are engaging because if they are, there is a multitude of other benefits.