Teaching Opinion

Response: The Best Ways To Engage Students In Learning

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 06, 2014 20 min read
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(This is the first post in a four-part series)

This week’s question is:

How would you define student engagement, and what are good strategies to promote it?

When students feel more motivated to learn -- in other words, when engagement is at a high level -- they perform better academically , improve classroom behavior, and gain a higher sense of self-esteem. Unfortunately, data -- and the direct experience of many of us teachers -- shows that lack of motivation affects many of our students, and appears to increase each year from middle school through high school. Students can demonstrate this lack of engagement by withholding effort and by “voting with their feet” through rising chronic absenteeism as they get older, and chronic absenteeism is among the highest predictors of dropping-out of school. To use terms first used by Albert O. Hirschman, it appears that the lack of student motivation is a major contributing cause to many choosing this option of “exit” (withdrawal from active engagement) over “voice” ( active participation ) in academic life.

How do we respond to this challenge?

Many guests and readers will be offering suggestions in this four-part series on student engagement. In addition, several previous posts in this column have addressed a similar theme, and you can find them in this compilation on Student Motivation. Lastly, readers might also be interested in another collection of resources titled The Best Posts & Articles On Student Engagement.

Responses in today’s column come from Julia Thompson, Myron Dueck, Bryan Harris, and Debbie Silver. In addition, you can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Bryan and Debbie about this topic on my BAM! Radio Show.

Speaking of my BAM! show, I have also just done a special one following-up my series here last month on teacher evaluation. You can listen to a short conversation I had with Ben Spielberg and Ted Appel (the principal of the school where I teach) about an innovative process of evaluating teachers on “teacher inputs” instead of “student outputs.”

Now, it’s time to hear from today’s guests:

Response From Julia Thompson

Julia Thompson is a teacher, consultant, and best-selling author of several books for teachers including The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide. Thompson maintains a Web site for educators and a blog, and can found on Twitter at @TeacherAdvice:

When students are engaged in learning, there is movement and laughter and sometimes lots of noise. They are up and out of their seats involved in activities that promote thought, creativity, and discovery. Students are busy, self-disciplined, and best of all, willing to take responsibility for their own learning because they understand that what they are doing is important.

We need to provide our students with activities that are innovative and challenging as well as purposeful if we want them to be engaged in learning. Although there are many different factors to consider when designing instruction meant to engage students of various ages, there are some easy-to-implement universal strategies that can be used to increase the engagement potential in instructional activities.

  • When students can set their own goals for assignments and then work to achieve those goals, then their work takes on a serious and meaningful purpose.

  • Help students stay on the right track by providing opportunities for frequent self-checks and plenty of other formative assessments to that they can monitor their own progress. Make it easy for students to be aware of how well they are doing, and you will make it easy for them to stay engaged in a learning activity.

  • Create activities and assignments that are challenging but attainable. Students should have to work and think to succeed, but the potential for success should always be clearly evident.

  • It seems obvious, but to engage students be sure to provide the materials, supplies, and other resources needed for successful completion of the work. For example, try to avoid the trap of assuming that students have access to the Internet or a public library when they are not in class.

  • Be positive with your students. Instead of just telling them what is wrong with their work, focus on what they are doing correctly. If you don’t believe that they will succeed, then the engagement potential in an assignment will vanish.

  • Offer as many choices and optional assignments as is reasonably possible. Students who have the ability to make sensible choices about their work will find it intrinsically engaging because their choices provide a sense of ownership.

  • Design lessons that call for students to interact with students in other classrooms across the globe, to creatively use technology and other media, and to solve authentic problems. The possibilities for engagement are endless when students can see that what they do in your class can be applied to real-life situations.

  • Don’t underestimate your students’ delight in having fun as they work. Appeal to their playful natures when you provide assignments that call for them to solve puzzles or problems, play games, watch humorous videos, or write answers on anything other than paper.

Response From Myron Dueck

Myron Dueck is the author of Grading Smarter Not Harder: Assessment Strategies That Motivate Kids and Help Them Learn (ASCD, 2014). He is currently a vice-principal and teacher in School District 67 in British Columbia, Canada and previously taught in Manitoba and on the South Island of New Zealand. Dueck has presented his student-friendly assessment procedures at conferences worldwide:

When someone truly desires to challenge, question, participate, overcome or even listen, it is quite likely that learning will occur.

In the sections below I cover a few of the most important portals to conjuring human interest. Engagement can occur when any one of these portals exists in great abundance, or when smaller amounts of a number of them combine to tip the balance from apathy to interest:

Perceived Expertise - When I invited a former WWII submarine captain to my class he did not need to do anything but speak and my students were engaged. His status as a real-life Naval warrior was enough for students to be enthralled in his presentation. He explained how ships were identified, tracked and inevitablly sunk. Even if he knew how to operate presentation software or a projector, he wouldn’t have needed it. He was the ‘real-deal’, and my students knew it.

Relevancy/Need - Students will be engaged in activities that are perceived as necessary - and this feeling is not obtained by the teacher simply saying, ‘you need this’. Kevin McGifford, teaches a career prep class in British Columbia and he has built perceived need into his classroom activities. In one example, during the safety unit his students actually visit the local fire department and use real fire extinguishers to put out real fires. Something considered necessary is also relevant to the student - the learning matters in a real life context. The educator’s challenge in this arena is to keep a look-out for the ‘needs’ inherent in a modern community, and to thereby delve into place-consciousness. Once the content is tied to something that is relevant to the student - the engagement then takes care of itself.

Fun/Stimulation - Games, simulations or quests have a built-in engagement factor. Scott Harkenss teach senior sciences at Penticton Secondary and he introduced me to scavenger hunts. What might surprise the reader is the age of the students. Many of the most passionate scavengers are seniors! Harkness has embraced QR-code generators and his students are first required to complete traditional clue worksheets that provide hints as to where the team might find an assortment of QR codes hidden around the school. Once found, and scanned, these codes take the students to whatever web-sites that Harkness requires them to locate. It may sound complicated, but it is really quite simple, and in the end - simply engaging!

Choice/Autonomy - Blending student talents and interests with the content of a course is one of the avenues to engagement. I feature Major Project Planning Sheets in my book and these templates allow students to select any of the unit outcomes that will be the focus of their major project. After identifying the outcomes, the student indicates the media that will be used to address each one. The last column provides the student a place to indicate the details that will be featured through the medium. Students have interests that range from rap to pottery to painting. Providing an avenue for these students to embrace the content through a passion is a wonderful way to promote true engagement.

So how do we engage students? That question will likely vex educators until the end of time. With that said, I contend that engagement will continue to be the condition that occurs when learning becomes the unavoidable by-product of a desired activity or process.

Response From Bryan Harris

Dr. Bryan Harris serves as the Director of Professional Development for the Casa Grande Elementary School District in Arizona. He is the author of 3 highly-regarded books published by Routledge and is a popular speaker and workshop leader who specializes in helping teachers utilize effective student engagement and classroom management strategies. He can be reached at www.bryan-harris.com :

In my first book, Battling Boredom, I defined student engagement as, “a state of emotional and cognitive commitment or willingness (on the part of the students) to participate in a task or learning goal.” Two key terms are worth pointing out here - willingness and commitment. As teachers, we spend a lot of time creating lessons, designing assessments, and delivering content and it can be extremely frustrating when students don’t put forth the effort or motivation to be involved in the learning. The good news is that, as teachers, when we use effective engagement strategies we see all kinds of wonderful things happen in our classrooms. Among other things, student engagement positively impacts: motivation, short-term and long-term memory, social skills, and behavior.

Selecting the right engagement strategies for your students depends on several factors including age, maturity, the objective(s) of the lesson, and the overall classroom culture. However, despite the specific elements of each classroom, there are a couple of universal strategies that are very likely to get your students deeply engaged in the learning: The use of Powerful Images and the promotion of Academic Conversations.

Powerful Images

What: A Powerful Image is a picture that evokes an emotional response. Powerful Images differ from typical pictures because they evoke an immediate, sometimes strong reaction. Sometimes the response is “wow”, sometimes its “I can’t believe that” and sometimes students quietly reflect on the content of the image. Powerful Images help to focus student conversations by providing them with something external on which to focus their conversations and thinking. This is preferable, particularly for many struggling students, because it takes the stress away from the interpersonal interactions of a conversation and places the focus on something external. During conversations, reflections, and thinking, students are asked to reference what they see in the image. John Medina, in his book “Brain Rules,” outlines how powerful the brain’s visual processing system is. He explains the power of something researchers have known for years - the pictorial superiority effect (PSE). This research explains the old adage that a picture is worth 1000 words. If images and pictures are indeed that powerful, we should be using them in the classroom to reinforce concepts and engage students.

How: When planning a lesson, do a web image search using key terms from the objective. For example, if you are teaching about ideas related to the impact of Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe during WWII, do a web search for some key terms. You’ll be amazed at some of the images you’ll find. Be cautious, of course, because not all images (although they may be historically accurate) are appropriate for students. Then, using the images you find plan specific questions to ask of students related to the images and the objective.

Academic Conversations

What: Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford, in their outstanding book, “Academic Conversations - Classroom Talk that Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings,” define academic conversations as, "...sustained and purposeful conversations about school topics.” For our purposes here, we will define academic conversation as student talk that builds and deepens content knowledge, enhances skill development, and engages students in the life of the classroom. One hallmark of a deeply engaged individual is that they talk about what they are learning. Humans are social beings and some of our greatest insights and learning come from interacting with and exchanging ideas with those around us. However, let’s be honest for a minute. Traditionally, far too many schools and teachers have treated student talk as unnecessary. In some cases, we’ve even viewed student talk as the enemy of a productive and efficient classroom. But the truth is that few strategies engage students as deeply and positively impact memory and retention as a good ‘ol conversation.

In my book Creating a Classroom Culture that Supports the Common Core, I describe three building blocks for effective student conversations: Curiosity, Purpose, and Structure.

The goal of the first step, curiosity, is to ignite thinking on the part of the students. If we want students to talk about their learning, we need to give them something interesting to talk about. Far too often, we ask students to talk, summarize, or verbalize about something that they have very little interest in. If we want them to have effective conversations where they are deeply engaged, we need to give them something interesting to talk about.

While curiosity can spark interest in a topic, students also need to know the purpose for having a conversation. Curiosity alone doesn’t guarantee that students will have a meaningful conversation nor does it guarantee that students will focus their conversations on the objective(s) of the lesson. In other words, curiosity without purpose is incomplete. When establishing the purpose for a conversation, the simplest and most straightforward statements are best. For example, an effective purpose statement for a conversation might be, “Students, in just a moment you will be having a conversation with your table partners in order to share ideas that could be used during your writing assignment. I want you to each listen to each other and exchange ideas so that you have more ideas for your own writing.”

Structure, then, serves as the final building block for an effective conversation. Structure refers to the format, methods, and strategies students will use to participate in the conversation. In essence, the structure constitutes the rules of the game for the conversation. Without a specific structure, conversations often fall apart and fail to reach their potential. For example, in the statement above regarding purpose, you can imagine that not all students would equally engage in the conversation without some specific method or strategy that increases the likelihood of their participation. There are probably hundreds of strategies that could be used to promote conversation but below I’ve briefly described just a few of my favorites.

Sentence Starters - A sentence starter is an open-ended phrase, statement, or question that students use to guide the beginning (and in some cases the middle part) of a conversation. They are, literally, the words that students use to start the conversation. They work as a sort of jump start for student thinking and exchange of ideas. Examples include:

“One thing that I heard that was interesting was...”
“An example I remember is...”
“I thought ______ was the best example because...”

Think-Write-Pair-Share - All too often we ask students to have a conversation immediately after being exposed to a new idea. However, all students benefit from being given time to consider their ideas and thoughts and to make connections to other ideas they’ve learned. Think-Write-Pair-Share is effective because it provides students with the necessary time to think and write before they are expected to talk about their ideas. Because students take the time to write down thoughts it enhances the conversations. Their written ideas can also serve as a focal point.

Focal Points - A problem with many classroom conversations is that students are asked to talk about topics or ideas primarily from memory. That is, they are asked to summarize, share, or expand based solely on what they recall about a topic. Relying solely on memory (literally what is floating around in their head at any given moment) has obvious limitations. Instead, consider providing something for students to focus their attention on during a conversation. Focal points are literally the place where students look during a conversation. They can be written summaries (like a written part of a Think-Write-Pair-Share), an image on a screen (like a Powerful Image), a passage in a book, or a list of questions on the board.

Response From Debbie Silver

Dr. Debbie Silver is the author of the best selling books, Drumming to the Beat of Different Marchers: Finding the Rhythm for Differentiated Instruction and Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed . She co-wrote the new book, Deliberate Optimism: Reclaiming the Joy in Teaching. You can read more about her at www.debbiesilver.com and follow here on Twitter at @DrDebbieSilver:

It is time we stop talking about how to motivate kids and be more specific about what it is we are actually trying to do with learners. We need to acknowledge that motivation is an intrinsic force that comes from within the learner. The role of educators is to inspire, to challenge, and to engage students in meaningful learning that will activate within them an internal desire to master certain concepts and skills. Ideally we ignite in them a passion for learning that extends far beyond a single test, our classrooms, or even a particular time period. Our goal is to foster self-motivation within each student. In order to achieve this end we must ensure that they are given relevant material, a justification for learning, a degree of autonomy in their choices, and a reasonable chance at success.

For teachers who want to master the art of student engagement, these proposals are key: 1) offer relevant material grounded in student interests; 2) provide learners with a rationale and choices; and, 3) challenge every student to work just beyond his/her reach.

1. Offer relevant material grounded in student interests.

Effective teaching takes two things: a) an understanding of who our students are (their prior experiences, their strengths, their challenges, their aspirations, and their levels of competency) and, b) being well-versed in the subject matter we teach. Knowing students allows teachers to more aptly match instructional strategies and topics to those that are most appealing to learners. Deep subject matter competency gives us the capacity to relate essential concepts to the particular interests of our learners. Offering students instructional strategies and tasks that are important to them is a powerful way to enhance student engagement.

2. Provide the learner with a rationale and choices.

Telling learners they need to acquire certain knowledge and/or skills “because I said so,” or “because it’s going to be on the test” does little to inspire deep interest or commitment on the part of students. Learners of all ages are eager for autonomy and need to feel they have a voice in their learning. Teachers can encourage kids to work through even tedious steps if they provide good reasons to keep trying and/or offer students at least some choice in the process.

Often times simply acknowledging that what we are asking students to do is not going to be fun or easy or immediately gratifying will help maintain momentum:

“Yes, I know this part is hard (or boring or whatever). I never liked doing conjugations either. However, let me show you how this eventually makes everything else a lot easier.”

Giving students options is another way to ensure perseverance and effort:

“Okay, I understand you don’t like memorizing the multiplication tables. I think I’ve demonstrated how acquiring that proficiency will serve you well, so let’s look at a way that’s more appealing to you. Do you want to practice with this computer program, work with a partner using flashcards, or put on headphones and do the multiplication dance? Let’s see if we can work out a plan that works best for you.”

3. Challenge every student to work just beyond her/his reach.

The optimal zone for student engagement is one in which they are working towards something they cannot easily do but is within their reach if they put forth effort. Perhaps the hardest part of keeping students inspired is figuring out where they already are and setting tasks just beyond that. Since students are working at different rates of competency, it is challenging to set individual or small group goals that maximize learning opportunities for everyone. However, research on self-motivation is clear about the importance of monitoring progress so that students feel they are making gains and that their accomplishments come from hard-earned success:

“You know what? I think you’re getting confused by trying to do too many steps at once. Let’s move you back to the one-step problems until you feel a little more confident. Why don’t you work on some one-step problems for a while, and let me know when you’re ready to move back to these.”

“You are already finished? Let me take a look at that. It looks like I gave you something you already knew how to do. I’m so sorry I wasted your time. Here, try this next activity. I think you’ll find it a little more challenging and a lot more fun. I’ll be back to check on your progress.”

Each of the 3 proposals requires teachers to concentrate attention on what works best for our students. I believe that many kids are starved for appropriate adult responsiveness, and one of the most productive ways educators can engage learners is to give them our undivided time and focus in the classroom. Student engagement requires a masterful blend of preparation, planning, and instructional flexibility. When we witness students becoming self-motivated in the classroom and later evidencing a lifelong love for knowledge, we know that we have successfully engaged them as learners.

Thanks to Julie, Myron, Bryan and Debbie for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be including readers’ comments in Part Four

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.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.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first three years of blog, you can see a categorized list below. You won’t see posts from school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking on the monthly archives link on this blog’s sidebar:

Student Motivation

Implementing The Common Core

Teaching Reading and Writing

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching Social Studies

Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Teaching English Language Learners

Using Tech In The Classroom

Education Policy Issues

Teacher & Administrator Leadership

Instructional Strategies


Teaching Math & Science

Brain-Based Learning

School Relationships

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

Watch for Part Two in a few days....

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