Opinion
Teaching Opinion

How to Win Students’ Attention This School Year—and Then Keep Them Motivated

Teachers, principals, and researchers share their best advice, tips, and guiding principles
By Mary Hendrie — August 21, 2023 4 min read
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As schools reopen their doors for a new year, educators have a fresh opportunity to engage and motivate a new class of students.

For some practical, hands-on solutions, look no further than Larry Ferlazzo, who asked his fellow classroom teachers this question: “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?”

Teachers came through with a lot of tricks and tips in the six-part series:

If those dozens of tips are overwhelming, psychologist Julie Leonard has just one, in the Ask a Psychologist opinion post “The One Thing Teachers Do That Hurts Student Motivation.”

Last year, coming on the heels of widespread school building closures during the worst days of the pandemic, Peter DeWitt sat down with leadership researcher Russ Quaglia, veteran school leader Ron Myers, and science teacher Jonté Lee (aka “#TheKitchenChemist”) to tackle the question of student engagement. Watch their discussion on demand for free.

Looking for more ways to engage students? Start by asking them. That’s the approach S. Kambar Khoshaba took when he transferred to a new school after eight years of leading a middle school. It took outside-the-box strategies to build rapport with his new students fast, he recounts in “Your School Leadership Needs More Student Voice,” but the payoff was worth the effort: “My new students were full of fantastic and creative ideas for how we could help them feel more engaged at school.”

One New Zealand school has taken an unconventional route to student engagement by asking the kids themselves to take their phones out, please. An app-based feedback tool has proved a powerful tool in measuring in-the-moment engagement, according to the school’s professional development lead earlier this year. “As we know,” Jana Benson explains, “great teaching isn’t only about engaging lessons that we create, but it’s about how we change up our instruction based on student needs during those lessons we work so hard to plan. We shouldn’t have to wait until after an assessment or we correct homework to see if students are engaged and learning.”

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Another valuable consideration for student engagement is to pay attention to the emotional baggage students may bring to a given subject. In “Math Trauma Is Real. Here’s How You Can Prevent It,” Spelman College mathematics professor Viveka Vaughn runs down the bad experiences that leave many students thinking, “This math stuff isn’t for me.”’

An honest emotional reckoning is also at the heart of St. Lawrence University education professor Jeff Frank’s advice for engaging students. In a 2022 Opinion essay, he argues that ignoring the very real academic and social hierarchies in school is tantamount to gaslighting students—particularly at the expense of the mental health and engagement of students on the lower ends of those hierarchies. Read his twofold solution to that dilemma in “Want to Value Every Student? Stop Pretending Schools Don’t Pick Winners and Losers.”

But it’s not just negative emotions that teachers have to navigate when engaging students; positive emotions are just as important. One emotion, in particular, is the key to drawing students into lessons they’ll still remember years later: awe. That’s the conclusion Jonathan Scolnick came to after reflecting on his two-decadeslong career as an educator.

“Why did this young man never forget that class?” he wondered after a chance encounter with a former student from the very first class he had taught. “My guess is that that moment contained threat, beauty, ability, vulnerability, virtue—the ingredients of awe. And moments of awe cling to us, rattle us—change us.”

An asset-based approach to teaching is also central to nonprofit leader Kareem Farah’s advice. “Focus less on disengagement and more on reengagement,” he urges educators in a recent Opinion essay exploring how to balance students’ complex academic and emotional needs. (And that’s just one of his four timely strategies.)

Another ingredient in student engagement—a sense of belonging—may be equally potent and equally tricky to nail down. Here’s what doesn’t work, warns Stanford University psychologist Greg Walton: just telling students, “You belong!” Instead, he digs into the research to offer three substantive suggestions for making that sense of belonging more than empty words.

Finally, stepping outside the Opinion section, don’t miss the “Student Motivation & Engagement: What Works and How to Put It Into Action” special report from Edweek staff writers earlier this year, which features original survey data and analysis on the timeless question.

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