8 Quick Strategies to Boost Student Engagement
wThe concept of student engagement has been a matter of discussion for decades. All of us remember sitting in classrooms with a teacher at the front, providing information, using a blackboard (more recently a whiteboard) to give some examples, and then asking us to practice what had just been taught with worksheets and homework. High achieving students always complied. Middle-of-the road students complied some or most of the time. And the low-achieving students complied minimally, if at all. Everyone got their grade, and the teacher moved on.
Then along came this whole concept of student engagement, based on a large body of research.
What is Student Engagement After All?
Educators came to the conclusion that if they want students to master skills and concepts and to retain that learning, they must be actively engaged in their learning. Lecturing a group of passive desk-sitters will hardly bring any tangible results. This foray into student engagement began as early as 1968, but schools were a bit slow to embrace it. Most where just not certain exactly what is student engagement and how they could incorporate it into their curriculum demands.
We’ve come a long way since then, but still teachers at all grade levels struggle with strategies to get maximum student engagement, so that learning actually “sticks.” And students today are different too. They have grown up with their devices and used to getting information through virtual technology. As well, they want to be constantly entertained to receive instant gratification boosts. Even the most brightly illustrated textbooks and worksheets are boring and non-motivational. Teachers can lament the “jaded” nature of what engages kids today, but that doesn’t change the facts.
What has to change are the delivery models that teachers use in the classroom. If you are struggling with how to increase student engagement in your classroom, here are eight quick strategies that you can put into use tomorrow.
1. Start a Lesson With a Story
An elementary math teacher was starting a unit on percentages. She wanted to provide a simple real-world story of their use. And so, she related a story of going out to eat with her two-year old. Throughout the meal, the toddler, who was tired and not cooperative, spilled a glass of water, threw some food on the floor and just generally made a mess at the table.
The waitress was patient, kind, and friendly through it all. At the end of the meal, she had the choice of tipping 10, 15, or 20%. She showed the kids how to figure 10% of the bill by just moving a decimal point to the left of the bill, to double that to get 20% and then to figure 15% by taking half of 10% and adding it to the original 10%. She asked the kids how much she should have tipped and why.
The teacher then divided the class into groups of three and passed out a sheet with several restaurant scenarios, asking the students to decide upon a tip amount, figure that amount, and then provide the justification for the amount they had chosen. Each group was asked to present their findings on one of the scenarios.
This is just one quick example of an experiential learning strategy that can be easily incorporated into any lesson.
2. Honor the Different Learning Styles in Your Classroom
Suppose you are a history teacher and have reached the point in U.S. history leading up to and including the Great Depression. There are several facets to this unit:
- causes and crisis points e.g., stock market crash, runs on banks, business collapses, etc.
- life for the unemployed during the Depression
- Roosevelt and his programs
- the end with the start of World War II.
This is a perfect unit to provide for a variety of learning styles and preferences. The key is to provide project options from which students may choose, once they have the basic information.
Dump the lecture and the textbook. Find a movie or two that will provide the necessary background. Then, offer project options based on a particular facet of the Depression that interests each student.
You can make suggestions for individual and/or group work. Individuals can prepare reports and/or presentations. Social students can work on group projects. The actors in the room can create a series of radio broadcasts. And still others might interview someone who lived through the depression and video their stories or even prepare a play. This way every student in the class will be able to find a form of activity that suits them most.
3. Incorporate Technology Whenever Possible
Teachers have been using computer-assisted instruction for decades now. And certainly, there is a constant stream of better and better software and features which turn learning into engaging experiences, especially games and competitions.
But newer technologies are already on the horizon – like AR and VR experiences. Students can take tours in real time. They can create environments and place themselves in them.
How about students being able to place themselves inside a cell or the human body and experience first hand how systems operate? A number of educational technology companies are already producing AR and VR instructional units in all content fields. Checkout MERGE, ZapWorks, Tour Builder by Google, Metaverse, and VR Quest for a start.
4. Use Problem-Based Learning
The ecosystems in our oceans are being destroyed by garbage. How bad is it? In a flipped classroom situation, students are tasked with conducting the research on the problem and reporting their findings. Once those findings are identified and discussed, students are then put into small groups to propose reasonable and workable solutions which are then reported to the larger group.
5. Employ Simulations
Any time students can play roles, they develop an emotional involvement with their learning. Adding this element to learning both enhances the experience itself and makes it unforgettable. And, after all, this is the goal of learning, no? That students remember over the long haul, not just short-term for a quiz or test.
One middle school English teacher, is teaching different types of sentence structures. This can be a truly boring learning experience of “telling,” giving examples, and then forcing practice through workbook or worksheet exercises. So instead of doing this she called groups of students to the front of the classroom, gave them each a part of speech for a sentence and, together, they had to come up with a correct sentence by placing themselves in proper order.
6. Try The Minute Paper
Suppose you have shown a video on the Holocaust, including real footage of Hitler’s Third Reich. At the end of that video, pose two questions to your students to which they must write down the answers.
- What was the most important thing you learned from the video?
- What question or questions do you still have about what you saw?
You can even make this their “exit ticket” from class to ensure that everyone writes something down. You can use these minute papers as starting points for further discussion the next class session. But even more important, students will have to do some thinking about what they remembered and be able to put that into their own words. And they will also need to think about what they still may want or need to know about the topic.
7. Host Debates
Is Pluto a planet or not? Is cloning or embryonic stem cell research ethical? Were the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified? Should the US legalize assisted suicide?
There are points worthy of debate in virtually every content field, and students must engage in a great deal of independent learning activities in order to prepare compelling arguments. First of all they need to gather data from reputable sources. Then they need to compile that information in an organized fashion. There is critical thinking and creativity involved in preparing a presentation. There is the anticipation of what the other side may argue and crafting counter arguments.
8. Don’t Forget the Recognition
Two things we often forget – recognizing students both for their attendance (if they are not present, they cannot be engaged) and for their participation. We appreciate such recognitions ourselves. Remember, student motivation is more than internal praise and pats on the back. They are impressionable just as we are, and respond to external reward. Providing certificates of attendance and those for participation and achievement can serve as motivators for future engagement.
These eight strategies for student engagement are by no means comprehensive, but they certainly represent a marked difference from the traditional “telling and showing” on the part of teacher-directed instructional delivery that today’s student finds boring and irrelevant.
The more active and independent students can become in their own learning experiences, the more they will be ready for the adult lives that lie ahead. Not only will they retain more of the skills and concepts that we want them to master, but they will learn how to learn – this is perhaps the greatest gift we can give them.
Photo by Mikael Kristenson