Cawthon, S., Dawson, K., & Ihom, S. (2011). Activating student engagement through drama-based instruction. Journal for Learning through the Arts, 7(1).


This mixed methods study examines the outcomes of Drama for Schools (DFS)—a professional development program that trains teachers to integrate drama techniques into their instruction—on participating middle school teachers and their students. The DFS program is designed to help teachers make their lessons more meaningful by engaging them in “authentic instruction”—a method of teaching that incorporates students’ prior knowledge, uses critical thinking skills, and then supports students in applying their knowledge to the real world. The researchers found that the DFS program increased student engagement as reported by the teachers, and in turn, increased teachers’ self-efficacy.

Key Findings:

The researchers found a statistically significant increase in student engagement reported by teachers using the Drama for Schools (DFS) techniques. Teachers reported that when they taught a lesson using DFS techniques more of their students were engaged (91%) than were engaged when they taught the same lesson without DFS techniques (61%).

Teachers who reported higher levels of authentic instruction taking place in their classrooms also reported higher levels of student engagement; this suggests that when the teachers felt the lessons were more engaging and interesting for the students, their feelings of self-efficacy increased, and consequently, the whole learning environment became more positive for both teachers and students.

Significance of the Findings:

The researchers cite “critical pedagogy” as the basis for the design of the DFS program; this approach creates a model for learning that is shared between teachers and students and is dialogic rather than didactic. When drama is integrated into the regular curriculum, the students have an opportunity to voice their ideas and show their learning in a creative way. The teachers who use this integrated method begin to feel they are engaged in a process of learning and creating with their students. As the learning continues, the students reflexively develop their own methods of making meaning through active engagement in classroom activities, and both teachers and students are able to experience success in a way that fosters excitement in learning.


The researchers set out to analyze the Drama for Schools (DFS) program by examining three specific objectives: level of student engagement, teacher rating of lesson plans, and teachers’ perceptions of student participation. They created a mixed methods study in which they gathered qualitative and quantitative data from 19 secondary teachers who participated during the third year of a partnership between DFS and a middle school in the Victoria Independent School District in southeast Texas. As part of their monthly professional development meetings, the teachers brought their own lesson plans to be revised with DFS staff for classroom use. With guidance from the researchers, the teachers rated these lessons on levels of student engagement and authentic instruction prior to incorporating any of the DFS techniques, and then again, following implementation of the lesson post-DFS intervention. They rated student engagement on a 6-point scale that asked teachers to estimate what percentage of the class was actively engaged, and authentic instruction was measured on a 9-point Likert Scale that contained seven items corresponding with the principles behind the concept of authentic instruction and piloted during the Fall 2007 semester. The survey asked teachers to rate items such as students’ attention levels, the teacher’s enjoyment, and effectiveness of the lesson. Teachers also had an option to report that the lesson was new, meaning it had not been taught without the DFS techniques and therefore there was no basis for “non-DFS integrated” comparison.

Student engagement data were analyzed with a pre-post test which was administered to the teachers before and after each lesson; this allowed the researchers to detect any significant gains in what the teachers were reporting throughout the course of the study.

In addition, teachers answered open-ended questions reflecting on student engagement and participation in both their original and DFS augmented lessons. The researchers qualitatively analyzed 130 statements by the teachers in terms of “depth” as related to the teachers’ articulations of a lesson, and “content,” which focused on what the teachers observed during the course of a lesson. The researchers then compared these qualitative data with the quantitative data they gathered on levels of student engagement and authentic instruction as a means of triangulation.

Limitations of the Research:

The researchers acknowledge three specific limitations in this study: challenges with validity and external reliability of the authentic instruction rating scale, missing data due to fluctuations in teacher participation during the duration of the study, and the inability to account for a variety of variables that may impact study outcomes due to the limited time frame and scope of the program in which the study took place

Questions to Guide New Research:

What might the outcomes for authentic instruction and student engagement be as examined over an extended, multi-year DFS partnership? How does teachers’ use of DFS techniques affect student learning outcomes? Finally, ongoing research into the DFS program might examine the connections between student engagement, learning outcomes, and transfer of knowledge into other classroom activities.