Date of Award

Spring 5-13-2016

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Middle and Secondary Education

First Advisor

Chara Bohan, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Beverly Armento, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Dana Fox, Ph.D.

Fourth Advisor

Janice Fournillier, Ph.D.

Fifth Advisor

Caroline Sullivan, Ph.D.


Student engagement in academic work is critical for learning and scholastic achievement. Fortunately, an abundance of empirical evidence and engagement theories recommend what educational contexts are most likely to engage students in learning. Yet the epidemic of adolescent disengagement in schools suggests there is a gap, even a chasm, between student engagement research and practice. This study addresses this critical void in the literature; to understand how education theory can inform practice to improve the quality of student engagement in learning.

I approached my research question, “How do secondary social studies teachers promote and sustain student engagement in academic work?” through the lens of self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 2002). Self-determination theory suggests that teachers’ support of students’ psychological needs for autonomy (e.g. by minimizing coercion, maximizing student voices and choices, providing meaningful rationales for learning), competence (e.g. by providing challenging work along with structures and feedback to promote self-efficacy), and relatedness (e.g. by developing warm and caring relationships in the classroom) facilitates and promotes student engagement. Using a multiple case study design, rich and varied data collection processes, and directed qualitative content analysis, I explored how social studies teachers may support (or thwart) their students’ needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness.

The students in this study confirmed their needs for autonomy, to engage in “real discussions” with their peers and make decisions about important problems. They shared that they engage in learning when activities are meaningful, real world and worth their effort. I found that social studies teachers support autonomy by developing students’ emotional, personal, social, conceptual and authentic connections to the content. In addition, I confirmed that warm and trusting classroom relationships, coupled with challenging, organized and structured learning experiences that promote student efficacy, support students’ needs for relatedness and competency in the classroom. Accordingly, engaging students in academic work necessitates that teachers meet all three of these basic needs. By exploring engagement through the experiences of teachers and students in real classroom settings, I provide social studies educators with a rich and user-friendly understanding of how student engagement can be developed and sustained.