For decades, educators have wondered how to best recapture students’ traveling eyes or prevent their heads from slumping onto their desks.
Student engagement is a perennial challenge in the classroom, but some educators worry that the pandemic’s shift to remote learning intensified the fight for students’ attention and academic participation.
We asked educators on social media to share their most prized strategies to keep students engaged. Here’s what they said.
Change the pace
Educators stressed the importance of switching up activities to get students’ blood pumping—and their mental gears turning.
“I keep activities short. No more than 15-20min max before students rotate on to something different.”
“Keep the kids in a constant state of anticipation and suspense. Be unpredictable and do away with routines.”
“Get up and move. Use stickys with questions on the wall and move from question to question.”
“Station activities, movement from one activity to the next every 20 minutes.”
“We discuss the learning objective at the beginning of class with real world purpose behind the why. Humor. Voices when reading aloud. Transitions every 5-7 minutes. Readers theatre. Interactive guided writing. Specific compliments for contributions (participation) to draw in another class member to build upon or challenge that class members reasoning. Stations/centers during group work. Lots of movement in my classroom doing thangs 👌📖"
“Lots of choice. Writing an informative essay? Choose you own topic. Showing what you learned in history? Choose whether to make a drawing, a map, a poem. Working on math skills? Write your own word problems. Especially with older kids (I teach 6th grade) more choice means more engagement.”
Explore the ‘why’
Respondents on social media encouraged educators to connect what’s happening inside of the classroom with what’s happening outside of it, too.
“Relevancy with a bit of intrigue.. keep them curious!”
“Stay relevant! Stay in touch with what’s going on around you and create relevant lessons that challenge students to think about problems/situations that impact them and their friends/family.”
“Doing meaningful work that relates to their lives.”
“Keeping kids engaged is letting them in on the ‘why?’ Of the lesson. What’s this for? How does this help?”
Approach with authenticity
Authenticity lays the groundwork for student engagement, educators said. That means being willing to be vulnerable, such as by sharing personal interests and learning experiences. From our social-media readers:
“Being myself. Charismatic cool and funny. I throw in personal stories and question them regularly”
“I tell stories—hear me out. I’m an English and History teacher so stories are what it’s all about. I have a relatively privileged background and I think that many times brown students expect that brown teachers share their experiences. I have many things in common with my kids but I have also traveled and seen the US and a few international destinations. I have attended an hbcu and an Ivey League university. I love learning and by sharing my joy about learning how the Moors ran Europe, showing students what African empires looked like and their achievements, speaking Spanish to convey meaning to ESL students (I butcher it but I try really hard and it models that we are all learning, even me). These things make me vulnerable because they are personal but they show my students that I have struggled, not fit in, had to be kind and understanding of hygiene in different cultures—-all of these things are the same things that they are dealing with daily so they feel seen and are invested in everything that happens in my class.”
“Theatrics! And making it as relevant as possible to real life. Learning the kidney? Guess how this [stuff] works, it’s freaking magical. I have a special way lol and should start acting my age (close to 40, but never want to be a stuffy instructor). Make it fun, catch em off guard, be a real person …"
“Be your authentic self, always. Build real relationships with them from day one so they know you’re truly interested in who they are and what their passions are. Let down your guard and throw away your script, operate from the heart!”
Know your students
In a 2019 Education Week video, teacher Katie Hull Sypnieski explains the importance of student-teacher relationships and offers a few strategies to strengthen them, too. “Mountains of research highlight the importance of a positive student-teacher relationship,” she says.
Here are some insights from our social media readers.
“To build upon their most recent success. #ridethewave”
“Read Engagement by Design by Fisher and Frey. It changed everything I do for engagement. It’s not all about the theatrics. Having a sound lesson plan where students know what they are learning, how they are learning it, and what it looks like when they have learned it is more important than any ‘fun’ activity. While the activities are important, it’s not the first part of it. Having strong relationships with students, having the ‘just right’ challenge, and clarity on the learning will create engagement.”
“Making students feel like they are worth educating. Teach to the ‘human’ not to the ‘machine’. Every student matters.”
“Whispering! Making funny voices and faces during read-alouds or random lessons. Incorporating their interests into lessons. Movement breaks. And lots of praise to all of them (especially the ones who rarely get it elsewhere) even if it’s something small, like ‘I noticed you are prepared today with a sharpened pencil! Way to go!’ Every student deserves to feel seen!”
Other ideas for engaging students
We’ve only scratched the surface here, and many other commenters offered additional responses. Here are some to think about: