Walk into any teacher’s room, and you’ll see a plethora of ideas to help keep students engaged in their learning. But the problem I’ve always run into is finding an idea that works for me. Some teachers create class goals and monitor progress. Others give candy. And some spend hours creating a catchy song to perform in order to catch their students’ attention! On the flip side, there are teachers who use fear-based strategies to ensure students are paying attention. “Do this or you’ll get in trouble!”
I don’t really fit into any of these camps — I don’t believe in giving rewards for learning, and I certainly don’t believe in creating a culture of fear to improve engagement. So, where does that leave me?
It’s simple, really. At the heart of all student engagement, especially at the middle and high school levels, is the idea of student ownership of and connection to the content. If students can formulate their own opinion on something and it’s connected to their life, then they’ll be engaged. Students want to feel heard, and they want to know where they fit in the world. If you can tap into those needs, then you’ll have engagement, no matter what the topic — no jars of marbles, candy, or crazy dancing needed.
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5 practical strategies to promote student engagement
1. Remove unnecessary barriers
Students can only be engaged in material that they can access and understand. This is especially true for your language learners and students with special needs. Many times, these students struggle to stay engaged simply because they do not understand the material or the lesson. So if you want to engage your students, the first thing you must do is know your students and their abilities and meet them there.
You could have a lesson that’s really interesting and engaging, but if you picked out readings that are too difficult for your students, models that are too complex, or material that’s too jam-packed, it simply becomes overwhelming. And once a student is overwhelmed, they’re not going to engage with the content.
The key is to deliver what the student needs when the student needs it. The feeling of success and accomplishment is a huge motivator for students of all ages. It’s better to start easy and move to more challenging than to start with super challenging and move to easy. By creating lots of small successes early on, you’ll ensure that your students are always moving forward and that they can stay engaged in your lesson more easily and independently.
2. Give students a voice and a choice
Teachers need to remember that the most important resource in their classroom is the students themselves. In many classrooms, students are taught to sit quietly and take in the lesson from the teacher. Unfortunately, this is a passive and boring way to learn. To make your classroom more engaging, be sure to give students ample opportunities to share their thoughts, ideas, and opinions on whatever topic you’re learning about.
Discussing student voice always makes me think of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where the teacher (Ben Stein) is delivering a lesson on economics. He solicits student feedback but only with rhetorical, closed-ended questions. As he continues on in the lesson, answering his own questions (after saying “Anybody…? Anybody…?” a few times), the students stare at him with glassy eyes and mouths agape with boredom.
This is a great example of a classroom that lacks any student voice. For student voice to be exercised, there needs to be dialogue with each other and with the teacher, and even an internal dialogue regarding the content. Having a voice allows students to feel heard and to take ownership over parts of the lesson. Rather than merely being receptacles of knowledge, students should have an active role in making your class what it is.
The other piece to this is choice. Depending on the class, students could choose topics to study, the medium to express learning, or even how the assignment will be graded. Similar to giving students a voice, having elements of choice will increase their ownership over the content, and thus students will be more engaged.
3. Engage first, then connect to content
I’ve seen many teachers get very excited about a topic or a specific unit, only to introduce it on the first day and have it flop. As teachers, we need to remember that students are not always into the same things that we are. The key to a successful unit or lesson is to engage the students first — hook them — and then make the connection to content later on.
In my own classroom, the engaging piece often didn’t even really directly relate to the topic. Rather, it was a similar concept to which I could anchor further lessons down the road. For example, I do a lesson on children raised by animals in the wild to introduce genetics and the idea of nature vs. nurture. Is this directly linked to studying genes and DNA? No. However, the kids just love it and are hooked from day one, and that’s what matters on the first few days of a new topic.
Remember: You cannot force a student to learn — they must choose to learn. This choice is made easier when a student is curious about a topic or has a connection to it early on. This creates an environment of curiosity where one question leads to another and another. This chasing of knowledge down a rabbit hole (the good kind, at least) is the essence of engagement.
4. Provide authentic, specific, and frequent feedback
It’s hard for students to stay engaged if they don’t know where they stand and if they’re “getting it” or not. As a teacher, when you provide feedback, you’re either redirecting a student who has lost their way or propelling a student who’s on the right track. When making corrections, it’s important to do so early on in the learning process so that your students are able to fix any mistakes without having to completely scrap whatever they’ve “understood” so far.
Students love to know that they’re making progress or are doing a good job. However, your students can also smell a fake compliment from a mile away. Simply saying “Good job,” ”Nice work,” or “Give it another shot” isn’t helpful and can lead to you losing student engagement. Instead, try to be specific — what did the student do well? Name it! What does the student need to correct or understand before moving forward? Be specific.
5. Create many opportunities for hands-on learning
Finally, the more time a student can spend doing a task themselves rather than hearing or watching a teacher do it, the more engaged they’ll be. If I showed you a video about how to start a fire, that would be all right for a start — but the process of learning this skill would be much more engaging if I handed you wood, paper, and some matches and said, “Take what you have and make the best fire that you can!”
Apart from them just being intrinsically more engaging, hands-on tasks have a tactile nature that demands trial and error and critical thinking skills that just aren’t present when students are receiving a lecture or notes. That’s not to say that there isn’t a time and place for formal learning, but make sure that any lecture materials are used strategically to help with a hands-on activity later on. This will ensure that students can stay more engaged during the times when they’re note-taking because they’ll know that it’ll lead to a better experience down the road.
Student engagement can’t be forced
But it sure can be fostered. Cheap tricks, prizes, or gimmicks only serve as distractions to the end goal. To really increase student engagement, you must know your students and find out what makes them tick. And remember that there’s no substitute for experience. So go out and try some of these ideas, and feel free to make them your own — no two teachers are the same.