teacher in front of his classroom working with a classroom interactive tool

5 key ingredients for engaged students

Every teacher has dealt with the middle-of-the-year slump, the distractions of upcoming breaks, and just a general lack of enthusiasm from students. The good news is that just by employing a few of the following tips, you can make your classroom an engaging place that your students will enjoy!

5 fun ways to engage students in the classroom

1. Be unexpected

When I consider some of my most effective lessons, I find they’ve generally involved things that students didn’t expect me to cover. Uncertainty jolts them awake, and they want to stay engaged in the class so that they don’t miss anything.

I can think of one example in particular from a class two years ago. I was asking a pretty basic question about the ideal of beauty in the ancient world. Various students raised their hands, and I called on them. High-level answers like “order” and “symmetry” rang out.

I wasn’t looking for anything sophisticated, so I told them what I had in mind: fat. And I proceeded to explain how weight in the ancient world was a symbol of wealth and beauty, particularly among women, because only royals could afford to dine liberally. I then contrasted this with modern views of beauty, and we had a great class discussion about wealth, status, and beauty in the ancient world.

One of the reasons why this discussion was so productive is because the students were not expecting my answer. They expected me to be a high-thinking humanities teacher, but when I started talking about wealth, status, and beauty in simple and relatable terms, the students were actually interested in what I had to say. Surprise your students like that, and they’ll surprise you!

teacher painting a flower on the face of a girl

2. Be entertaining

Humor is a powerful tool when used effectively — because a couple minutes of laughter can turn an otherwise dry lecture into something at least moderately entertaining. Sure, you might lose two minutes of class time and only have 43 minutes to teach, but isn’t 43 minutes of engagement much better than 45 minutes of boredom?

Tell students interesting stories, use relatable modern-day examples, or come up with funny names for characters that you’re reading about. My favorite professor in college was a pro at humor. He could make any story come to life because he told it in such a captivating and entertaining way.

I can still remember a class from over six years ago when this professor was talking about life in the 1700s and peasant riots. One of the anecdotes goes like this: A wealthy landowner asked his servants to wrap him in a thick rug and carry him out of the house so he wouldn’t be assaulted by peasants. Everything was going great, until the landowner accidentally wet himself because he was so nervous. The peasants saw the huge stain in the rug — suffice it to say things didn’t go too well for the landlord from there.

I still smile every time I think about that story. As a student, I found it so entertaining, and it made history class much more lively. And even if you can’t think of anything particularly funny for your class, you can always do what my mom does when she faces the blank stare of a classroom: quote the famous “Are you not entertained?” line from Gladiator!

3. Appeal to different learning styles

Girl in her classroom playing

Every student learns differently. Some are auditory learners and do great with lectures. Others are kinesthetic learners and prefer to get up and move around. Yet others are visual learners who like pictures. In any case, make sure that you are engaging all of your students!

If a student isn’t engaged, it might be because of the way you’re teaching doesn’t suit their learning preferences. By providing plenty of different opportunities and creative ways to learn the material and participate in class, you can successfully reach all of your unique students!

I personally like to mix things up by sometimes allowing students to color a picture of Hector fighting Achilles as I read the Iliad out loud, or having a student come up to draw a picture on the board of a Mesopotamian god that we’re talking about. This helps the material stick better in the minds of visual and kinesthetic learners.

I also like to provide students with maps (that I have them study and give as map quizzes). Then, they at least have something to say when I ask, “So, Gilgamesh is a Mesopotamian king from Ur. Where is that close to on the map?” My students always get so excited to answer questions like this and often will want to add additional information to what a peer has said.

4. Ask thought-provoking questions

If you teach middle or high school students, you know that teenagers love to give opinions! They want to know that you care about their thoughts and that you want them to be involved in the learning process.

I personally like to ask as many questions as I can and include a wide variety of them, making sure that I’m not just asking students to regurgitate facts. Students who feel nervous about providing an answer because they don’t want to be wrong will offer an opinion if you ask, “Well, in the ancient world, the Spartans separated the boys and girls in education. What do you think?” All of the sudden, you’ll find a lot more hands raised because students definitely have thoughts on such an open-ended question.

If you’re not in the habit of asking lots of questions, consider including a few more in your lecture notes. Questions allow students to make the learning their own. They’re not just consuming information; they are actively engaged in learning and internalizing the material.

5. Make it a competition

Everyone likes games. Turning review time into a competition can be a great way to help your students be more engaged with the material. You have plenty of options for turning your review questions into a game show: Jeopardy, boys versus girls, students versus teacher, and so forth.

I’ve personally found that my students have enjoyed the students-versus-teacher games the most. One of the most memorable class periods I’ve had as a teacher happened when I was trying to have my students reflect on all the material we had learned about the ancient world throughout the year.

One of my students, Alex, was by far the best I’ve had in a history class. He was in ninth grade, but he knew more about ancient and medieval history than most college students. He definitely gave me a run for my money and was always asking very insightful questions.

Well, the students wanted to host an Alex versus Miss Basinger showdown, so this is what I came up with: The other nine students in the class would write five questions about anything in the ancient world (even if we didn’t cover the material). Alex and I would have tabletop buzzers to answer the questions. Whoever buzzed first had a chance to answer the question. The other person would have a shot if the answer was incorrect, and we would count points on the board until the end of class.

The students were so involved in the game. I had never seen them that interested in class before! During the entire 45-minute period, Alex and I were within a couple points of each other. The last minutes of the class found us with one question left and tied. Fortunately for me, although it really bummed the students, I answered correctly!

Make their learning environment engaging and challenging

Not every school day is going to be riveting, but you can still make most days enjoyable for your students just by incorporating some of these five tips!

My final recommendation for you is to make the material challenging, especially if you’re teaching high schoolers — they mostly get bored when the material is too easy and doesn’t require them to pay much attention. Encourage your students to take on difficult material, and show them that they can actually have fun in the process.

Most importantly, be an interesting and relatable person, and you’ll be the captivating teacher that everyone talks about!

Photo credit: JKakarotocherylt23; steveriot1/Pixabay.com

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