When student engagement is going downhill, we often find ourselves reaching for the prop box.
We pull out random videos, time-sucking resources, overly complex activities… anything to get and keep attention.
But even these can’t compete with our students’ pen tricks, doodling, and discussions of what happened at recess. And there’s a simple reason why:
Our students aren’t engaged by things. They’re engaged by us.
That’s why the best (and easiest) ways to increase student engagement come from you.
We’ve compiled 20 essential strategies that generate lasting engagement, without the flashy props and hours of post-school prep.
Connect learning to the real world
We’ve all heard it before: “When am I ever going to use this?” Answer this question and you’ll engage students with content that they know is relevant to life beyond school. Use anecdotes, case studies, and real-life examples from outside the classroom to root your teaching in “the real world”.
Engage with your students’ interests
Find out what already engages your students and build it into the learning process. Using mathematics as an example, you could have students chart their performance in a video game over the week. You might even get your budding social media influencers to calculate a projected number of Instagram followers.
Learning what excites your students does more than just engage them. You’ll build strong relationships and rapport, too.
Fill “dead time”
“Dead time” is any point in a lesson where students are left without something to do. You might be handing out a worksheet, getting a presentation set up, or waiting interminably for a YouTube video to load. These are brief windows that leave just enough time for students to tune out, after which time it can be very difficult to get them back.
Fill these blank spaces with low-order activities to hold students’ attention. These should be quick, easy, and require minimal follow-up. For example:
- Think Pair Share: students reflect on something, discuss with a partner, and then share with the rest of the class once everyone is ready
- Quickwrite: write down three questions or points that have been raised by the lesson so far
- What I know already: if you’re just about to dive into new content, ask students to identify three things they already know about the subject and jot them down as bullet points.
Use group work and collaboration
Collaborating with small groups gives students a welcome break from solo bookwork. They’ll benefit from each other’s perspectives and the ability to verbalize their ideas.
Use your judgment and knowledge of who works well together when organizing group work. Engineering the groups might avoid troublesome partnerships, while allowing students to work with friends might generate the buzz you need for more productive activity.
Encourage students to present and share work regularly
Giving students a regular opportunity to share their thoughts and demonstrate learning in front of their peers drives engagement in two ways:
- it makes students accountable
- it lets them hear from someone other than their teacher.
If your students quiver in fear at the thought of speaking in front of the class, combine presentations with group work. A few ideas:
- Have students present in groups after a group task.
- Let students share each other’s work within smaller groups before asking them to choose one piece to share with the rest of the class.
- Let students read or present their work while sitting down. It avoids the pressure of having to “stand and deliver”.
- Ask for one contribution from each group after discussion, with each group nominating a “spokesperson”.
Above all else, make presenting and sharing a regular part of class activity. Your class will become an equitable and engaging space that echoes with the voice of every student, not just your own!
Give your students a say
If you don’t know how to engage your students, let them tell you! Give your students a say in classroom activity by:
- providing a choice of different activities (e.g. group work or solo)
- seeking student input for assessment design (e.g. students can choose a final product, provided it meets the criteria)
- periodic check-ins to monitor the pace of delivery (e.g. “do we need to go over this a bit more slowly or are we feeling pretty confident?”).
Giving students a choice also fosters their sense of ownership over their learning. They’ll move from passive consumers to active learners with a stake in classroom activity.
Get your students moving
If your students struggle to sit still for an entire lesson, get them moving. All that pent-up energy can be channeled into a learning activity that puts them on their feet. Try the following.
- Have students come to the front and brainstorm together on the whiteboard.
- Have students rotate through different stations around the room over the course of an activity.
- Have students split into groups or arrange themselves in different areas of the room.
- Take a stand: have students move to a particular area of the room to indicate their thoughts on an issue (e.g. “everyone who thinks x, move to the right side of the room; if you think y, stand on the left”).
Movement works equally well to engage sluggish or weary students. A quick bit of physical activity will leave them more alert for the next phase of learning.
Read the room
If you’re steadily losing students to doodling, off-topic chatter, and the pervasive “need to tear and ball up little pieces of paper”, it’s time to shake things up.
Cut the activity short if it’s dragging, clarify instructions if there’s confusion, or switch to a more student-centered activity for greater engagement.
Remember: it’s impossible to have every student engaged 100% of the time. The next best thing we can do is to notice disengagement and respond to it quickly.
Scaffold tasks with checkpoints
If you dump all your instructions on students at the start of a lesson before turning them loose with an activity, confusion and disengagement will likely follow.
That’s why it’s important to scaffold larger tasks by breaking them into achievable steps. Each of these can be separated by brief “checkpoints” of instruction reorienting students and reminding them of what needs to be done next. They also serve as a periodic call to attention when students are liable to go off track.
Emphasize discovery and inquiry
Sometimes the best thing you can do for engagement is to get out of your students’ way.
Let them discover learning for themselves without being spoon-fed. They’ll exercise critical and creative thinking, and pursue the lines of inquiry that interest them.
This doesn’t mean you should retreat behind the teacher’s desk. Observe your students, listen to them, and talk to them about what they’re thinking. Be their guide as opposed to their instructor.
Ask good questions
Ask good questions of your students and you’ll drive rich, engaging discussions that are open to everyone.
Good questions should be:
- open-ended: to avoid “yes/no” answers
- equitable: open to answers of varying depth and complexity
- legitimate: asked because you want to hear students’ thoughts and opinions, not because you’re fishing for a correct answer.
When students answer a question, engage with their response. Even if it’s incorrect or misinformed, recognize their effort and use it to refine the question further (e.g. “you’re on the right track, but could we also think about…”).
Allow for think time
It’s gratifying to see hands shoot up as soon as you ask a question, but letting your students think it over has two benefits. It leads to more considered responses that drive engaging discussions, and it also makes the conversation accessible to those who don’t have an instant answer.
After you ask a question, insist on a twenty-second pause and give students an opportunity to extend their standard responses further. For example, you might ask “See if you can explain how you came to your answer, too”. You’ll receive better answers and start to notice some new hands going up.
Shake things up
Predictability is safe, but it can get boring. Mix up your staple teaching strategies with new and novel activities from time to time. Talk to other teachers for ideas. In addition to engagement, you’ll also be giving your students an example of what it means to take a risk and try something new.
Experimenting with some new parts of the teacher toolkit also makes it easier to differentiate your instruction. A new activity or delivery method might be the trick to engaging that student who has been a tough nut to crack all year.
Give brain breaks
Periodically give students a breather with brain breaks. These are short activities that allow students to stretch their legs before returning to work feeling focused. You can find a list of 20 brain breaks at Mind Bloom.
Relationships and rapport are pillars of lasting engagement, and you can’t have either without being personable. This means getting to know your students and letting them get to know you.
While enthusiasm for the learning content might ebb and flow, your smile, laughter, and conversation will engage students every time they walk through your classroom door.
Encourage friendly competition
Use in-class games, quizzes, or gamified learning programs to engage students with friendly competition. For example, Live Mathletics allows students to test their mathematical skills against peers in their class or around the globe in real time.
“Friendly” is the keyword here. Make sure competitive activities are low stakes and put the emphasis on learning instead of winning.
Start lessons with introductory hooks
Engage students from the outset of your lesson with an introductory hook. This could be anything that piques interest, establishes relevance, or inspires curiosity in the subject of the lesson, for example:
- a personal anecdote connected to the subject
- a brain teaser or challenge question
- a historical example
- a multimedia source.
Keep your hooks short and segue them directly into an overview of the learning goal. It’s an effective opening that engages while setting students up for the main instructional component.
Weaving humor throughout your lesson lightens the mood and makes for a more fun experience. Laugh with your students, and don’t be afraid to let them laugh at you from time to time!
Use mixed media
Present learning content in a variety of mediums, including video, audio, and digital resources. Using such tech-rich resources is engaging for two reasons. It’s a welcome change from the stacks of paper our students are usually saddled with, and it establishes a direct and relevant connection with the digital world they inhabit.
Games are the most powerful source of engagement for students outside of class, and they’re equally effective at driving engagement in learning. Transform activities into games by including levels of difficulty, rewards, and competitive elements. You can read more about gamifying learning here.
You don’t have to invest hours in creating rules and drawing up game boards, either. Gamified learning programs can do the work for you. The learning programs in the 3P suite, for example, provide a host of student-friendly games for mathematics, literacy, and science. All you have to do is select the appropriate curriculum and grant your students access.