Increase Student Engagement

Tips for increasing student engagement Photo credit: Christiano Betta via Flickr, CCL 2013

The next time you are up in front of your class, teaching your heart out, stop and take a 5 second scan.

Are your students really engaged? (And what does that mean anyway?)

The words “student engagement” are spoken frequently in education circles. Sometimes the meaning is broad: student engagement can be defined as a general interest in learning, a positive attitude about attending school, and a desire to succeed and get an education. Obviously, such attitudes are important and will positively impact a child’s performance.

However, I want to take a more narrow view of “engagement.” When I talk about student engagement, I am thinking of how a lesson is designed to specifically require students to stay attentive, interested, and active, regardless of their general sense of engagement with school. In other words, is my lesson designed to “force” all students to think and participate?

This is an area of my teaching that I have worked to refine and improve in recent years. Once you decide to make student engagement a priority in your lesson design, it’s really quite easy. First, learn what to avoid.

If your students spend much time doing the following, it’s likely to negatively impact their level of engagement:

Completing boring*, lower level assignments

*And I don’t think “boring” is subjective. Boring is boring, folks. You know it when you see it!

These words encourage student engagement:


Did you notice the difference between the two lists? The first group of words are passive (watching, listening, waiting for a turn…) The students aren’t really being asked to DO anything. In fact, a child might look “on task” but actually be “a million miles away” mentally.

The second list is active. Students are busy and engaged. Of course, I don’t advocate “busywork” for the sake of “keeping kids busy.” I am a firm believer in authentic tasks that are meaningful and worthy of a child’s time.

So what does this look like in my teaching? Does this mean I never give direct instruction and expect my students to sit and listen? Of course not! In my opinion, every successful lesson has a strong modeling/ direct instruction foundation. However, I keep it brief and am mindful of my students and their engagement. I strive to utilize as many active student response strategies as possible. I also make an effort to plan for the following elements in every lesson.

1- Guided Practice: Back when I was first being evaluated as a new teacher, the idea of “guided practice” was very important. Over the years, I didn’t hear as much about it and slowly began to leave it out. I usually went from teaching/ modeling right to independent work. (I think many of us do this!) However, as I learned more about Writing Workshop, I realized that guided practice was a key component. After a teacher taught a specific writing technique or skill, there was always a brief opportunity for students to “practice” that concept in the whole group setting before being released for independent work. Now I strive to build this component into each lesson.

2- Movement: As I have said before, I believe that movement is somewhat “magical” in terms of student engagement and learning. It can be as simple as having students stand instead of sit if they seem sleepy and zoned out. For example, you can “turn and talk” with a partner in a standing position just as easily as a seated one! I’m also a big believer in movement breaks (AKA brain breaks) that are designed to build energy and wake us up! However, the biggest bang for your buck comes when you integrate movement into your content areas.

3- Meaningful Work: Before I release students to do independent work, I make sure that the work is interesting and meaningful. In other words, I avoid the boring stuff. Here are some examples:

Instead of having kids read a story and answer pencil and paper comprehension questions, I might let children choose a story (within parameters related to reading level and content- such as fiction, non-fiction, etc.) and ask them to prepare a brief “book talk” they will share with their peers. I provide “talking points” that address a variety of comprehension strategies. The “real” work of talking about a book with peers increases the engagement level. I follow up and assess during small group instruction and individual conferences.

Instead of asking children to memorize historical dates and events for a pencil and paper test, I might ask them to create frozen “tableaux” scenes in small groups that capture the historical events through body shapes. They then perform the historical “scenes” for their classmates. The class will watch and record the events and dates they see presented. The lesson concludes with the group giving the correct “answers” so that everyone can check their work. Independent practice and assessment bundled up in one nice package!

Instead of filling in worksheets about coin values, money, and making change, I might provide the children with “class cash and coins” and set up a variety of engaging games to be played during math station time. I also am likely to set up a class “market” where students and parents donate or create “goods” to sell. Students earn “class cash” in a variety of ways and then buy and sell on “market days.” Students take turns being buyers and sellers who make change.

There are so many ways to turn a boring, low level assignment into a meaningful, higher level task. It just takes a little planning!

4- Fun Factor: I always ask myself this important question: how can I make this lesson (or unit) more fun? I am convinced that while love is the path to a child’s heart, fun is the path to a child’s memory.

Do you have any other good suggestions for increasing student engagement levels?



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