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4 best practices for student engagement

Keeping students interested and engaged in a lesson is always a challenge, especially for new teachers. It’s even more difficult nowadays because we’re competing with smartphones for students’ attention. Every student has in their pocket a device that can magically relieve boredom at a moment’s notice. In terms of fun and entertainment, students live in a world of instant gratification, they get what they want when they want it.

I remember the first time I thought I was being “innovative” and engaging by allowing my students to watch a full-length movie. Before the credits ended, I had a student complaining that this movie was boring — I couldn’t believe it! When I was their age, movie days were the best. But those days are gone.

So how do we compete for students’ attention in a world of tweets and readily available entertainment, a world where no kid is ever troubled by boredom? It isn’t as hopeless as it seems, as long as you have a toolbox full of ideas and strategies for engaging your students.

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Best ways to engage students

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Photo credit: Jonas Jacobsson

1. Make content relevant

This is really where student engagement starts. You need to have content that is relevant or that connects to students’ lives. If the students can understand how the lesson will help them or how it fits into their world, they will be more intrinsically motivated than if they were to simply do out-of-context busywork. Plus, you won’t have to bang your head against the wall answering “Why do we need to learn this?” for the hundredth time.

One way to do this is to activate background knowledge. This could be content that you’ve already covered in class or a general experience that most students have likely had. Of course, the latter option requires that you really understand your students.

I like to ask students to brainstorm on a simple piece of paper. I’ll usually pose a prompt like “Write about a time when you’ve felt _________,” or “Make a list of events that relate to _________.” It really can be that simple, but it’s critical that you explain how the content you’re teaching is relevant. Otherwise, students will just assume that it’s unimportant. This can lead to disengagement and frustration (for both them and you).

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Photo credit: Stephen Niemeier

2. Gamify your lessons

Gamification is certainly one of the newest buzzwords in education, but its popularity is well deserved. Many students (and even adults!) are gamers and enjoy it as a creative outlet and a relaxing escape from their day-to-day work. But even if they aren’t, there are still elements of games that create tremendous motivation, encouraging students to progress, overcome challenges, or learn more about a topic through repeated exposure to it. Platforms such as Classcraft have allowed teachers to create highly engaging lessons based in a gamified world, allowing students to see learning in a more positive light.

So, why do games work? There are a number of reasons. If you’ve ever played a video game, you’re likely familiar with the exhilaration of finally beating a boss or a level that you’ve been struggling with for hours (or possibly days!). When we pair educational content with games, we can have students naturally repeat a “level” until they can “beat” it. Naturally, in order to beat the level they need to learn the content!

woman giving a choice between an apple and a pear
Photo credit: Public Domain Picture

3. Allow opportunities for student choice

Similar to making content relevant, giving students a choice is an easy way to boost engagement. Nobody likes constantly taking orders — you’re certainly in charge as the teacher, but your students should have some reasonable say in their own education. When a student chooses how they want to learn about a topic or demonstrate their competency, the topic becomes far more engaging.

There are a few avenues you can pursue when giving students a choice in their learning.

First, you can allow students to choose what content they will learn about. This is useful when doing a research-based project. Rather than assigning the same exact topic to each student, you can give students a list of topics to choose from. This can even benefit you when you’re grading their assignments — would you rather grade the same presentation on the cell cycle or see some variety?

Another option is to allow students to choose how they want to demonstrate what they’ve learned. You could allow students to create an art project, write a paper, make a board game, or use any number of ways to show what they’ve learned.

When students have a say in their learning, they’ll feel like they have some degree of ownership over the process. And that easily translates into engagement — you can’t have a say if you’re not keeping up with what’s going on! 

Person picking up a book from a book shelf in a library
Photo credit: Element5 Digital

4. Create authentic learning opportunities

There’s nothing worse for a student than working your tail off only to please a teacher. It is much more engaging if a student’s hard work is going toward an actual authentic experience. In the STEM world, this would involve a problem-based learning (PBL) experience. A teacher presents a real-world problem — preferably one that hasn’t been solved — and asks the students to attempt to solve it. This encourages creativity and analytical thinking. This learning process is usually messy but nonetheless meaningful. It’s also super engaging because the students feel like their learning can actually make an impact on the world. At the end of the project, the students should present their solution to the class.

Service learning is another opportunity for authentic learning, especially when trying to develop emotional intelligence skills like empathy among your students. A trip to a food bank, animal shelter, or home for the elderly can do wonders for connecting and engaging students in a topic. Of course, this option won’t be realistic for every subject — but when it is, it’s an instant hit. 

Creating authentic learning opportunities is sometimes difficult. But if you can sprinkle in at least two or three a year, your students will be more engaged and excited to come to class. 

Let’s put it all together

If I had to summarize everything I know about improving student engagement, I’d say that it all boils down to carefully planning your lessons and content in advance. Doing this allows you to seamlessly integrate the four ideas above to fit each specific lesson. Which strategy you choose will depend on your desired outcome and even the makeup of your different classes. By giving students relevant content, some choice in their learning, creating a game, and just allowing for authentic learning opportunities, you can significantly boost student engagement (and achievement!). 

In the end, remember that teaching is always a work in progress. Don’t give up on engaging your students just because one method failed; it may take many attempts to get a class engaged. Unfortunately, there’s also no silver bullet for student engagement — what works with one class may not with another. Don’t be afraid to experiment and find something that works for you!

Photo credit: Stanley Morales / pexels.com

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