Meet Me in the Gym is a collective of researchers and practitioners, intent on making research accessible for the classroom.

They're here, now what?

They're here, now what?

Many of those in the physical education profession, myself included,  would consider physical education to be one of the more important subjects of a child’s school day. Physical education, or PE, can provide the essential skills necessary for healthy living.

At least that is the hope.

During elementary years, PE provides opportunities for students to build fundamental motor skills and learn to work as a part of larger groups. In the middle school years, PE should introduce adolescents to a variety of activities, both team and individual pursuits. Finally, in high school, PE should be reinforcing all of the aforementioned, while giving teens and young adults the strategies for leading independent, physically active lives. Across all of primary and secondary school, PE affords children a “break” from the classroom to be active and move their bodies—their is evidence that movement and activity, at possibly PE, can lead to improved classroom outcomes (1).

But were not going to talk about that today.

Perhaps, another time.

We are going to discuss the above, though. What we teach in PE and why it matters? 

The above described sequence of learning from elementary through high school is, arguably, the ideal. PE, like other subjects, should teach students the skills (to mastery) that they would need to lead an active life after school is finished. Yet, it is highly likely that it is not. It is highly likely that PE is focusing heavily (particularly at older ages, but it’s also present at young ages) on sport-related skills, team sports, and [competitive] game play. 

Maybe, the prevalent focus on team sports is because that is how many of us were taught.

Maybe, it’s because many of us (PE teachers) played, and excelled, at team sports.

Maybe, it’s because team sports can be fun.

Maybe, it’s because many teachers are also coaches of team sports in the schools/districts that they work.

Maybe, it’s because our society places an overemphasis on team sports and neglects the benefit of just being active for the joy of it. 

Perhaps, this is an aside. Perhaps, this is my own idealism and bias. Yet, many recent news articles and op-eds (see here or here or here) on the poor practices of physical educators across the country highlight the profession’s inadequacies. 

These news articles are heartbreaking. Yet, we have evidence to suggest what to do.

In a 2010 article (2), Bevans, Fitzpatrick, Sanchez, & Forrest analyzed the determinants (i.e., things that greatly impact other things) of the physical education classroom on student engagement. Bevans et al. looked at the individual and instructional levels to understand what might have an impact on student engagement.

At the individual level, the authors measured motor competence and body image of over 2,000 students in grades 5-8. Both of these measures are perceptions (i.e., what the individual reports as what they believes to be true) and are measured through a self-report survey—meaning that these values may not match a person’s actual ability. However, much of the evidence and multiple behavioral theories suggest that the perception of our ability to do something is equally, if not more important, than our actual ability.

In addition to the individual measures, the authors observed 31 different physical educators over 124 sessions, measuring the instructional time and student engagement. This was done using the System for Observing Fitness Instruction Time (SOFIT). SOFIT is a rigorous observational tool that captures percentages of time. 

Bevens et al. used multiple different types of anlayses to test the hypothesized interaction of each of these variables at the individual, instruction, and integrated levels. They found, at the individual level, that both body image and motor competence had a significant impact on engagement. Suggesting that students who perceived their motor ability to be lower and had a lower perception of their own body image were engaged at lower rates than their peers. Further, the author’s noted that, “perceived competence was a powerful predictor of student engagement in PE (p. 408).” Anecdotally, many of us would agree with that assertion. If a student does not think they are able to do something, unless the environment is set up in a way to support that student’s success, they are likely to not even try.

At the instructional level, they found, “the greatest proportion of PE class time was devoted to game play (42.3%), followed by class management (23.1%), [sic] fitness (22.0%), ... inactive instruction (3.7%) and skill practice (6.7%) (p. 408).” Further, game play was “inversely to time spent on other activities (p. 408),” meaning that the more time spent on game play the less time was spent on other areas, such as fitness or skill practice. 

Despite its prevalence, the amount of time devoted to game play was negatively related to perceived competence in PE, body image, and student engagement in PE.
— Bevans et al., 2010, p. 408

The extra devotion to game play, with the likely intention of increasing enjoyment and engagement, did not produce those outcomes. In reality, the more game play a class participated in, the more likely students were to have lower perceived competence, body image, and engagement. Contrarily, skill practice was positively associated with engagement. Meaning, that the more skill practice students engaged in, the higher the likelihood was of those students being engaged in the class.

When looking at the interaction of both levels of investigation on engagement, Bevans et al. found that the relationship of perceived competence and engagement depends “on the proportion of class time devoted to both inactive instruction and skill practice (p. 411)”.

When looking at Figure 2 and 3 from the article, it’s clear to see that students with low perceived competence of their ability are greatly affected by the type of instruction; students with high perceived competence were relatively unaffected. This highlights the importance in considering what is being taught and for how long. Students with high perceived competence are going to be engaged possibly in any task that is presented to them; yet, much of the instruction is planned to ensure these students are engaged, with potentially little given to the students most effected by those decisions. The students with low perception are, arguably, the students that need the most attention and support. They are the students that we need to reach, to provide success, so that they continue to be physically active as they age.

It is recommended that teachers adopt a mastery-oriented motivational climate in which students are encouraged to define success in terms of effort and personal gain, rather their performance relative to that of other students.
— Bevans et al., 2010, p. 412

By creating opportunities for mastery experiences and focusing on skill development, students are provided with the foundational skills to be active. The “overreliance on game play can have negative effects on student engagement in PE, perhaps through the creation of a performance-oriented learning environment in which students focus on interpersonal competition and view success more in terms of winning and less in terms of improving one’s personal best (p. 413).” By heavily focusing on gameplay, physical educators are creating situations where the students that need the most assistance checkout and disengage. Further, by changing the expectations, and focusing on skill practice—according to Bevan et al.—a teacher can narrow the gap of engagement between students of high and low perceived competence.

Now, this is not an argument for disregarding gameplay. It can be an important opportunity to not only work on the necessary skills of being active, but the interpersonal skills, such as teamwork and communication. However, without adaptation or modification, a standard game of soccer in a physical education class quickly reinforces competitive behavior and disengagement from students on opposite sides of the field as the ball. By using modified games, small team sizes, minimal “sitting-out”, and de-emphasizing winning, gameplay can be a positive environment to practice skills in a more authentic environment. PE doesn’t have to be the place where “Rec league versions” of round robin games are played with the rules from the national association of whatever sport—leave that for Rec league. PE should be the spot where students work on those skills to then be able to play in rec leagues if they’d like to, but they can also use those skills to play with friends non-competitively. Either way, people are being active and that’s the important thing.

As we look to improve the reputation of PE, providing situations where people find encouragement and enjoyment, they will be more engaged. Take a look at your current instruction. If everyday is full of games, maybe consider spending a little more time on skill practice. The kids who are not excited to see you will, likely, be thankful for the opportunity to practice.

  1. Donnelly, J. E., Hillman, C. H., Castelli, D., Etnier, J. L., Lee, S., Tomporowski, P., et al. (2016). Physical activity, fitness, cognitive function, and academic achievement in children. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 48(6), 1197–1222.

  2. Bevans, K., Fitzpatrick, L.-A., Sanchez, B., & Forrest, C. B. (2010). Individual and instructional determinants of student engagement in physical education. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 29, 399–416.

Let's start with a greeting.

Let's start with a greeting.