Student Well-Being

What’s the ‘Secret Sauce’ for Student Engagement? 3 Insights From Educators

By Madeline Will — April 03, 2023 3 min read
Third-grade students at the Douglass G Grafflin School in Chappaqua, New York, participate in an interactive learning session with the Nintendo Labo: Variety Kit for the Nintendo Switch system, led by Rebecca Rufo-Tepper, Co-Executive Director of the Institute of Play. On Oct. 23, Nintendo and the Institute of Play announced a partnership to bring Nintendo Labo kits into elementary classrooms nationwide. The program combines the innovative play of Nintendo Labo with the basic principles of science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics (STEAM) to inspire kids and help make learning fun.
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Teachers across the nation have been working hard to boost student motivation and engagement, which has plummeted since the start of the pandemic. What’s the secret sauce?

After all, research shows that students learn best when they feel motivated and engaged. As teachers work to help students catch up academically after COVID-19 school closures, student motivation is a key piece of the puzzle.

Three educators—Kim King, an elementary art teacher in Mansfield, Conn.; Kimberly Radostits, an 8th-12th grade Spanish teacher in Oregon, Ill.; and Torie Weiston-Serdan, a clinical assistant professor at Claremont Graduate University who studies youth mentoring—shared their advice on how to motivate students during an EdWeek online forum last month.

Here are three takeaways from the discussion. You can go deeper in the full video embedded below.

1. Listen to what students are asking for and honor their input

To truly motivate students, teachers need to first understand “what young people are asking of us in terms of what they need in their education, what they need to feel safe in their classroom, what they need to feel safe on campus, and what they need to feel engaged—what kind of alternative forms of learning we should be offering to sort of help them feel better about participating,” Weiston-Serdan said.

Young people are not used to being asked what they want by educators, she added, so it might take them some time to think about what they need. But centering student voice can help boost engagement, Weiston-Serdan said.

King agreed: Giving her students more control and choice over what they do in her art classes has motivated them to try harder, she said. As a teacher, “doing less talking [and] more listening” yielded great results.

2. Teacher-student relationships are key

Relationships are the cornerstone of student engagement, the educators said. (Research backs that up: Strong teacher-student relationships lead to improvements on measures like academic engagement, attendance, grades, and graduation rates.)

“We have those kids who are in our classrooms, and maybe Spanish isn’t their jam, but they’re going to go above and beyond because they have a relationship with the teacher who teaches that course,” said Radostits, who is one of the five finalists for the National Teacher of the Year award.

If students “feel seen, and they feel like your classroom is one where they have a sense of belonging, and they want to be in that space,” they are more likely to put in the effort, she added.

3. Small gestures can make a big difference

King said that when she taught high school, she opened up the art room for students who wanted to have lunch there. She developed strong, lasting relationships with her “lunch bunch,” and one student reached out to her years later to tell her how meaningful those lunches were.

Said Radostits: “It doesn’t always have to be the grand gestures—it can be some of the small, informal moments during classes, too.”

She will use sticky notes to convey messages of support or encouragement to students. For example, she might write, “Are you OK? Circle yes or no,” on a sticky note and quietly put it down on a student’s desk while circling the room.

Or Radostits might write a sticky note congratulating a student on their hard work or academic success. She’s noticed that some students will save those notes and keep them in their lockers.

“Those little moments have a big impact on kids,” Radostits said.

For more tips on boosting student engagement, watch the rest of the discussion:

King, Radostits, and Weiston-Serdan also spoke about the support teachers need to do this work, what makes a strong mentorship program, and what cultural responsiveness looks like in the classroom.


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