Teaching

Motivation Matters: Educators Share Strategies to Engage Students

By Hayley Hardison — October 03, 2022 5 min read
A black female teacher cheerfully answers questions and provides assistance to her curious and diverse group of adolescent students as they work on an assignment in class.
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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.”

@AndrewVillaEDU

“Keep the kids in a constant state of anticipation and suspense. Be unpredictable and do away with routines.”

Ken Poppers

“Get up and move. Use stickys with questions on the wall and move from question to question.”

Marjie Podzielinski

“Station activities, movement from one activity to the next every 20 minutes.”

Ann Marie Melillo Cerreta

“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 👌📖"

Kristin Hubbell

“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.”

Magdalen Marmon

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!”

@heidikeegan10

“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.”

Scott Adreon

“Doing meaningful work that relates to their lives.”

Liz Jorgensen

“Keeping kids engaged is letting them in on the ‘why?’ Of the lesson. What’s this for? How does this help?”

Elyse Schopfer

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”

DrAleka Jackson-Jarrell

“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.”

Samantha Lee

“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 …"

Amanda Hackerott

“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!”

Samantha Sedlock

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”

@IMALearnaholic

“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.”

Whitney Walker Child

“Making students feel like they are worth educating. Teach to the ‘human’ not to the ‘machine’. Every student matters.”

Nina Rovis-Hermann

“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!”

Greta Amalie

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:

“My school has gotten serious about no cellphones in the classroom.”

Stephen Uhlhorn

“I’m adding repeated questions to my kindergarten teaching. E.g.

T: Where are your eyes?

Ss: On the speaker!

T: Where are your eyes?

Ss: On the speaker!

T: Where are your eyes?

Ss: On the speaker!

I was skeptical but they are engaged and know what to do! Plus, we’re building language skills and confidence in ELs.”

Kerry Tee

“I utilize the Cooperative learning Model in every class session. Individual students are assigned to Base Groups who are given an in class activity, whose findings and viewpoints are shared to the whole class. I also give a guiding question before the lecture begins and each student does a write up which they submit. Knowing the different cultural group dynamics assist me to bring in teaching resources which are relevant and significance. The latter aides in creating a conducive learning environment.”

Elizabeth Mbole

Check out Education Week’s stories, essays, and resources located at this page for more on student motivation and engagement.

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