In most studies, young children’s learning engagement is measured via classroom observations or parental reports. We created laboratory tasks, and a coding scheme, to assess young children’s (preschool through first grade) learning engagement during a visual spatial task and a verbal task as described below:
Tangrams task. This task assessed children’s learning engagement during a visual/spatial task. An experimenter provided children with instructions on how to fit five 3-dimensional wooden shapes into 2-dimensional pictures of shapes on a laminated piece of paper (e.g., by turning or flipping blocks as needed) and how to combine blocks to make larger shapes (e.g., how to make a square from two triangles) in the absence of internal guiding lines. Children were then presented with puzzles of increasing difficulty to work on independently. Children were told to ask for help if needed, but minimal additional assistance was provided. Across prekindergarten, kindergarten, and first grade, the instruction phase of this task was altered slightly to match children’s developmental capabilities. The puzzles given to children to work on independently also changed and became more difficult across the three years. This task ended after 10 minutes or when the child completed the last puzzle.
Story-sequencing task. This task assessed children’s learning engagement during a verbal task. An experimenter first demonstrated how to put picture cards in order from beginning, middle, to end in order to make a complete story and then instructed the child to complete subsequent stories on his or her own. In preschool, stories increased in difficulty in the following order: one story composed of three cards, two stories composed of three cards each, and one story composed of four cards. In kindergarten, children were first presented with a story composed of four cards, then two stories composed of four cards, then a story composed of five cards. In first-grade, children were first given a set of five picture cards to put in order and then given a set of five cards with written statements that they needed to match to the pictures. Then, children were handed a set of five cards with no inherent sequence and told to put them in order based on a story the experimenter told the child verbally. Finally, children were handed a set of six picture cards and six corresponding word cards and told to put them both in order. The training phase was also shortened and made more interactive for the first-grade visit to reflect children’s developmental capabilities and knowledge. This task ended after 8 minutes or when the child completed the last story.
Coding scheme. Trained coders rated learning engagement on eight dimensions: attention to instructions (attention to examiner and materials during initial description of task), on-task behavior (maintained focus and manipulation of materials), enthusiasm/energy (quality of involvement with task), persistence (whether engagement is maintained when the task becomes difficult), monitoring progress/strategy use (awareness of progress and recognition of problems), metacognitive talk (verbalizations about the task and self-talk)1, positive affect (pleasure or enjoyment), and negative affect (frustration, anger, annoyance, sadness, and boredom). Codes were given on a 5-point scale with (1) indicating that the behavior described is not at all characteristic of the child’s behavior during the task, and (5) indicating that the child’s behavior is highly characteristic of the described behavior and consistent throughout the session.
1Metacognitive talk did not load on our learning engagement factor, and thus was not included in the scores we created. Thus, individuals may wish not to code this particular behavior.