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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

How to Get, and Keep, Your Students Engaged

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 29, 2023 14 min read
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We teachers can never get enough ways to help create the classroom conditions for students to motivate themselves.

This post kicks off a series sharing lots of ideas, and today’s contributors also participated in a ten-minute podcast we did together.

‘Build Great Relationships’

Chandra Shaw has more than 24 years of experience in education, as a teacher, reading specialist, instructional coach, and now a literacy consultant at one of her state’s regional service centers. Chandra is a TEDx speaker and amateur YouTuber:

One of the best strategies to create classroom conditions where students are more likely to motivate themselves is to build great relationships with students by making learning relevant, making them feel comfortable, showing how much you care about their learning, and teaching them what they need to know.

One way I did this was to start off the year by asking students to imagine this being the best school year they’ve ever had. I’d ask them to write down and discuss what I would need to do in order for it to be the most successful and best year for them. They’d work in groups and create a list. As they worked, I’d walk around and read through some of the things they’d written, affirming pretty much anything they’d put down by saying, “Oh yeah, I can definitely do that.” Once they’d shared their lists with the entire class, we’d make the class’ top 10 list from the things that had appeared the most on the groups’ lists.

Each year, the students’ lists would undoubtedly include things like, “You need to be nice, provide treats, not show favorites, play games, allow student use of phones in class, and teach them what they need to know to be successful.” OK. That last one is what I’d often suggest as I walked around listening to their groups, and they usually agreed it was important and added it to their lists. At any rate, once the class list was done, and I’d assured them that I would absolutely do everything they’d listed in order to make this year the best year ever, I’d then share MY list of what I needed from them!

Throughout the year, I’d point to the list and ask if I was holding up my end of the bargain. And if they weren’t holding up their end of my list, I’d point that out as well. By returning to our lists again and again, it showed that WE were in this together and all trying to make this the best year. It really seemed to motivate the students when they saw how consistent I was with doing what they needed to succeed.


Asking Questions

Irina McGrath, Ph.D., is an assistant principal at Newcomer Academy in the Jefferson County public schools in Louisville, Ky. She is a co-creator of the ELL2.0 Google site and is a co-director of the Louisville Writing Project (LWP) and a University of Louisville and Indiana University Southeast adjunct professor:

Over the years, I have discovered that certain strategies are more effective than others at getting and keeping students - especially English Language Learners - motivated to learn . One such strategy is simply giving students the opportunity to ask questions and search for answers on their own. Studies have shown the power of asking questions, and some cognitive scientists believe that they are so important that we cannot learn properly until the right one has been asked: If memory does not ask the question, it will not know where to index the answer” (Bain, 2004). By encouraging students to pose their own questions about what they are learning, teachers will be able to help fuel students’ curiosity and promote further engagement in the classroom.

A great way to stimulate question asking is the Read Aloud Response Cards strategy, which teaches students to pay attention to the metacognitive process happening in their heads while listening to a passage being read out loud. The activity involves colored cards indicating tasks for the students to perform based on the card they receive: Those with yellow cards generate questions, green document their connections, red create a summary of the passage, and purple draw images either on paper or in their minds while listening to the passage. When the passage is completed, the students are sorted based on card color and work together to discuss and compare the results of their task, and eventually representatives from each group speak to the rest of the groups about their discoveries and questions during the activity. Ultimately, once posing questions becomes a routine and students realize that they are welcomed and encouraged, ELs’ curiosity will start fueling their learning and desire to discover something interesting and new.

Another strategy that promotes conditions for students to motivate themselves is choice. Students get excited when they are provided with options for books to read, topics to study, assessments of learning, and final product. Every student is a unique learner, and by offering them a choice, we offer an opportunity to build on their interests and talents and take on a new topic in a way that brings joy to learning and gets students excited. For example, if we think about the end of the lesson reflection, there are different ways English-learners can accomplish that when they are provided with choice. Students can either list three or more things they learned that day or create three true statements and one lie about content covered in class. They can also use Vocaroo, Padlet, or any other app/platform to record a note to themselves with advice on how they might approach the lesson’s task differently. Students can even create a two-minute video or a sketch to help classmates understand the lesson’s content better.

Overall, students are more likely to be motivated to learn if given a sense of autonomy and self-derived excitement for a topic. The best ways I have found to help them have confidence and interest is to allow them to pose questions and to give them choices in their projects.


‘Opportunities for Choice’

Meg Riordan, Ph.D., is the chief learning officer at the Possible Zone, a youth-entrepreneurship and work-based learning program with a mission to advance economic equity. She has been in the field of education for almost 30 years as a middle, high school, and college teacher; researcher; leadership coach; school designer; and director for a network of schools:

While many factors influence students’ motivation and engagement, it is central to ignite connection via relationships, share and uphold expectations, uncover and tap into students’ strengths, create relevant learning experiences, and design for choice. Such strategies can unlock students’ motivation for learning that lasts a lifetime.

Prior to the pandemic, a student survey of over 3,000 schools found that motivation and engagement declines as students progress in school; while 5th graders reported their engagement level at almost 75 percent, by 10th grade, students’ engagement hovered at 33 percent. Read that again: 33 percent. Despite this stark statistic, there is hope: two items drive motivation and engagement: 1) when students “strongly agreed” that school was “asset- and strengths-based” and 2) when they affirmed that they had “at least one teacher who made them excited about the future,” they were 30 times more likely to be engaged compared with those who disagreed. Search Institute research corroborates that students are motivated and goal-oriented when they feel a sense of belonging, safety, and acceptance.

Since the pandemic, additional forces amplified students’ lack of motivation: virtual instruction, social distance from peers, economic hardships, and racial reckonings, to name a few. Given these conditions, what strategies can educators employ to create classrooms where students motivate themselves and sustain engagement? I explore ways to motivate, engage, and support learners.

1. Build relationships and seek out students’ strengths

Research shows that young people who experience strong developmental relationships demonstrate increased academic motivation, social-emotional growth and learning, and a sense of responsibility. Developmental relationships are “close connections through which young people discover who they are, cultivate abilities to shape their own lives, and learn how to engage with and contribute to the world around them.” In the classroom, this might take the shape in the following ways:

  • Design opportunities for students to show who they are: Kick off the school year with a project in which students take selfies or create profile silhouettes of themselves and share words, symbols, and pictures of things that they value; teachers can connect with and build from students’ assets. Throughout the year, educators can provide opportunities for two-minute interviews in which students speak on a topic they’re passionate about (e.g: the worst pizza in town or why Serena Williams is the best athlete ever); knowing who our students are and seeing their strengths is a powerful driver to build relationships and spark motivation.
  • Provide clear expectations, ask what students expect from you, and strive to uphold and meet expectations: When educators are clear about expectations and invite students to share their needs, the relationship becomes bidirectional and is more likely to offer space to express care and challenge growth, both key aspects of developmental relationships. School designs like EL Education promote co-creation of norms and ongoing opportunities for students and educators to revisit and reflect on owning and meeting shared expectations; this cultivates an environment where voices and actions are valued.

2. Create relevant learning and opportunities for choice

Students experience motivation and engagement when educators help them get excited about the future. To see oneself in the future, it’s important to activate students’ self-concept and create opportunities to develop self-efficacy and agency. Consider these ideas:

  • Create authentic projects for real audiences: Research shows that when students actively pose questions and problem-solve real issues, conduct fieldwork, talk with experts, and produce meaningful work with impact beyond the classroom, not only does engagement soar but so does achievement. While educators may feel constrained by standards, consider small and larger steps to integrate relevant projects. This might include integrating interviews into a unit or, go big, like The Possible Zone, which engages young people in consultancies with local industry partners to solve authentic challenges and present solutions. Schools like High Tech High offer models of projects for inspiration.
  • Embed options throughout students’ learning experiences: Student choice and autonomy develop agency, building decisionmaking skills for careers and lives. In the classroom, this might include entry points such as choosing where to sit, “how” to learn (e.g.: reading, listening to podcasts, interviewing an expert), or choice of topics (e.g.: demonstrating research and synthesizing skills via a topic determined by student interest). When designing—or co-designing—learning environments with students, educators should ask: Where can I offer productive choices? When determining where to sit, for example, a teacher might suggest, “Choose a seat where you’ll be most engaged,” or “Sit where you’re comfortable.” Students can revisit choices and reflect on their predictions.

Classroom Culture

Andrew Sharos is a teacher, administrator, speaker, and author in Chicago. He wrote the Amazon-best-selling book All 4s and 5s, which has become the road map to instructional methods and culture building for gifted and talented teachers. He also co-authored Finding Lifelines, a book for new teachers and their mentors:

Motivation for students really comes back to classroom culture. We hope to create a classroom culture that is so fun, engaging, and magnetic that students actually WANT to be in school. Teachers who engage students are ones who create a unique and different experience for the students every day.

In terms of concrete strategies, I like to have students learn outside the classroom in the halls, courtyard, on the grass, or in the auditorium. The walls of a classroom have limitations, and mixing it up in different spaces keeps the students on their toes.

I enjoy having a theme every day, like Weekend Monday, Positive Tuesday, Thankfulness Wednesday, Joke Thursday, and Cookie Friday. It might waste a few minutes at the beginning of every class, but it is time well wasted if the students are more engaged after we engage in some playful dialogue at the beginning of class. These are hallmarks of the class and moments students enjoy.

When students are not engaged, the teacher has to find ONE thing that connects the student and the teacher. The teacher could, and maybe even should be the reason why the student wants to come to school. This can only be made possible when there is a relationship built on love and trust.

Sometimes, this takes time. One student of mine was impossibly difficult to connect with, or so I thought. I recited a movie line from “Ace Ventura” one day, and she was the only person in the class who “got it.” From that moment on, we connected. We have to keep chipping away at the less motivated. The students don’t have to love the content and skills we are teaching, they just have to feel connected to us to be motivated to learn.


This is the first post in a multipart series.

The question of the week is:

What strategies have you used to create classroom conditions where students were more likely to motivate themselves, including those who didn’t initially seem very engaged?

Chandra Shaw, Irina McGrath, Meg Riordan, and Andrew Sharos kicked off this series today.

Chandra, Irina, Meg, and Andrew were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Thanks to Chandra, Irina, Meg, and Andrew for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@educationweek.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all EdWeek articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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