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Ways to Promote Student Engagement

(This is the first post in a three-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What does "student engagement" mean, and what can we do to promote it in our classrooms?


We talk about the importance of having students engaged, but what does that really look like?  What are they doing, and what kind of content do they actually need to be engaged with?

Today, Kathy Dyer, Sarah Said, Samantha Cortez, Cathy Beck, Danny Weeks, Dr. Beth Gotcher, Madeline Whitaker Good, and Elizabeth Stringer Keefe, Ph.D., help to answer those questions.  You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Kathy, Sarah, Samantha, and Cathy on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also be interested in The Best Posts & Articles on Student Engagement.

Response From Kathy Dyer

Kathy Dyer is manager of innovation and learning, professional learning at NWEA. Kathy has more than 25 years in education, many spent designing and facilitating learning opportunities for educators. Coaching teachers and school leadership on getting better at what they do is her passion. Follow Kathy on Twitter at @kdyer13 or read her blogs on Teach. Grow. Learn:

While student engagement is defined in different ways, the definitions all seem to center around the idea of empowering students as active partners in their learning and growth. We think of engagement as one element in a culture of learning, and it typically includes three aspects: choice, collaboration, and challenge. It is critical to ensure that learners have:

  • voice and choice, which includes not just who they work with or what they work on but also how they are assessed and even where they work
  • multiple opportunities to collaborate, which may involve assessment, co-creating success criteria and rubrics, or even peer feedback on work 
  • challenge that is appropriate, not too easy and not too hard, and that demonstrates respect for them as learners

We have the opportunity to actively engage learners by tapping into what students bring to learningmdash;their background knowledge and experience of learning, their expectations and openness to experiences, and as Phil Schlechty has said, their beliefs about the value and worth of investing in the learning. Ask this question: What could you do in class today that students wouldn't want to miss?

By making the learning visible for students, which starts by providing clear learning targets and transparent success criteria, we begin the process of designing engaging academic work. Learning happens when people have opportunities to produce high-quality work that matters to them. However, we can't, in good conscience, just teach dinosaurs all year to our 2nd graders or spend our professional learning time on bulletin board making. So, what can you do to motivate learners of all ages so they are engaged in learning?

Learners of all ages thrive in environments where their voice matters and they have choice in the learning process. Consider six different approaches to offering voice and choice when designing learning experiences in your classroom: what, who, where, when, how to learn, and how to demonstrate. It often makes sense to combine more than one approach and use a variety of strategies that each approach offers. Start small, with one or two strategies. Expand as both you and the students begin to experience quick wins. Finding ways to offer voice and choice for learners creates more engagement, which naturally leads to more self-directed learning. Whether you are teaching children or leading adults, offering voice and choice changes your role from disseminator of knowledge to that of a facilitator/coach.

In working with the Schlechty Center, we developed a quick way to look at Phil Schlechty's ideas about how students respond to school tasks—their levels of engagement. Consider you have 100 percent to allocate among these five levels based on the last group of learners you worked with. What would your percentages look like? What might you do to change the percentages?

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Typically, we think of engaged learners as paying attention, focusing, being committed (intrinsically motivated), persisting, and finding personal meaning in the learning. Getting and keeping learners engaged is the way we help them realize "profound learning"—the kind of learning that influences the learner's skills, habits, and worldviews.

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Response From Sarah Said

Sarah Said is the director of language and equity programs at an EL (Expeditionary Learning) education school in the Chicago suburbs.  In her role, she oversees support programs for multilingual learners, works with others to create a community that fosters success for students from the diverse communities her school serves, helps strengthen school to community outreach, and coordinates Title grants. In the past, she has been a director of ELL, dean, and curriculum coordinator.  In addition to her role in her building, she is a contributor for ELL Confianza and has written a variety of blog posts online. She is a member of the #ELLChat and #ELLchat_bkClub where she helps advocate for multilingual learners. Follow her on Twitter at @MrsSaid:

Student engagement means going beyond simply "compliance" where students are truly invested in their learning.  Too often, we may think it's enough to have students follow the rules of school and not make sure that they are really, truly engaged in learning.  One way I check for student engagement when coaching in classrooms is to ask students questions about what they are learning and how they feel about it.  Just checking to see that students appear to be engaged because they are following along is not enough.  From a psychological standpoint, one must have a sense of psychological safety, a sense of psychological meaningfulness, and a sense of psychological availability. 

First, safety means students feel safe physically, yet it also means that they know that educators care about their identity, that they respect them, that they hear them, and that they want them to succeed.  It means being able to take risks and be encouraged to grow toward proficiency, not just be measured by numbers or test scores. In the field of language acquisition, we refer to this as keeping that "affective filter" down.

The second aspect of engagement is meaningfulness, which is essentially asking ourselves, "Does our curriculum reflect our students?  Is input comprehensible? Are learning tasks clear and supported? Is there something for students to 'hook' onto in the lesson? Where do they get to have ownership, feedback, and the right level of challenge?"  Asking ourselves these questions is key for ensuring that learning is meaningful, rigorous, and scaffolded, not just a series of hoops to jump through for both students and teachers.

Finally, availability is a big part of engagement.  This means that we want students to have confidence in their work, a strong sense of well-being, and a balance of school and life—just like we want as educators! 

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Response From Samantha Cortez

Samantha Cortez @SCortez7178 is a bilingual mathematics teacher from Pasadena ISD (TX) where she has five years of experience teaching young mathematicians in grades 1 and 3. Samantha is a contributing author to one of Dr. Nicki Newton's books, Mathematizing Your School:

Oftentimes as teachers, we get excited about teaching lessons to students, but sometimes we get so excited about the lesson that we don't provide students with the opportunity or enough time to engage with the concepts or have meaningful conversations about the concepts. When teaching, student engagement is critical. If the students are having conversations, answering questions, and engaging with the concept, then the students are more apt to be learning. When preparing my lessons, I always keep the end in mind and what I want my students to accomplish, as well as how I can keep my students engaged with the concepts. I have learned that students learn best when they are included in the learning and they are actively engaging with the skills being taught.

When students have to sit and listen to information, they start to lose focus and often stop listening. When facilitating my lessons, I incorporate "turn and talks" and have question stems or sentence starters posted on the board so that the students have a framework when answering questions. By having the students turn and talk, it creates a more student-centered learning environment. When a student who is struggling with a concept has an opportunity to turn and talk, he/she is able to listen to another classmate's thinking. These opportunities activate their thinking and can help the student better understand what is being taught or allow the student to determine an answer if called upon. Having students turn and talk leads to meaningful conversations because the students are engaging in mathematical discourse focused on the same concept.

When teaching a lesson during whole- or small-group instruction, it is also important to have students interact with the concept using movement, concrete objects, mathematical tools, and/or interactive activities. My students practice using mathematical tools, and we discuss the purpose of the tools in relation to the concepts being explored. For example, if we are working with base 10 blocks or coins, I provide my students with time to explore (or play!) with the tools so that when it is time to use the tools during instruction, they are ready to use the tools for their learning. These purposeful efforts allow for more learning time and help to minimize distractions.

Another idea to engage students in learning is to allow students be a part of the teaching. When creating anchor charts, I involve students in the creation of the anchor charts. I introduce the concept, and as we begin creating the anchor chart, I ask for their input and have the students create examples to put on the anchor chart so that they are more apt to reference the anchor chart and better remember the concepts. My students love this approach because they love to see their work displayed and they feel proud of their work as a team of mathematicians. Often a student struggling with the concept will persevere to create an example or ask other students for help so that their sticky note can also go on the anchor chart. We also use white boards, index cards, or games to engage students in their learning. Having student input when teaching keeps students engaged and willing to learn.

Student engagement means that the student is an active and focused participant in his or her own learning. There is no better feeling in the world than when I am able to see that engagement in a classroom, especially mine.

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Response From Cathy Beck & Danny Weeks

Dr. Catherine Beck is the superintendent in Cheatham County, Tenn., and the author of Easy and Effective Professional Development, and Leading Learning for ELL Students. Follow her on Twitter at @cathypetreebeck.

Dr. Danny Weeks is the superintendent in Dickson County, Tenn. Follow him on Twitter at @DLWeeks83:

Classroom engagement denotes more than "busyness," if you will. Looking and even being busy is more about compliance. Classroom engagement is being invested in the content or the task at hand. It can look like the following:

  • Listening with intent
  • Asking questions
  • Debating points on the topic
  • Active researching, reading, writing, "sketchnoting" in relation to the topic
  • Wrestling with a problem and trying to find a solution

Creating these opportunities for student engagement doesn't happen without careful planning.  Most teachers realize it obviously takes thorough planning to create projects, experiential events, hands-on activities, meaningful group work, and team activities.  However, they must also realize that developing engaging questions, creating opportunities for dialogue, developing topics for debate, and even meaningful writing prompts takes in-depth planning.   

Planning should direct student activity and student thought—both drivers of student engagement.  When students recognize a purpose for their involvement, their interest and investment in the learning also increases.  The purpose for involvement must be intentionally created by the teacher, focusing upon the end in mind.  As students become more vested on the front end, the more likely they are to connect and solidify their own learning.

For students to become invested in the learning or engaged, we have to create classrooms that are safe places to try new things. Teachers need to have built strong relationships, and students need to perceive them as approachable. The classroom needs to be student-centered with many activities for both student voice and student choice. There should be collaborative grouping opportunities with differentiated activities to inspire all learners. The mindset of the classroom should be one of growth with the key word being "yet." When you add all of these together, you get a classroom that students want to attend and their buy-in, or investment, translates to higher student engagement. 

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Response From Dr. Beth Gotcher

Dr. Beth Gotcher has taught in Maryville City schools in Tennessee for 12 years. She is currently a kindergarten teacher at John Sevier Elementary. Beth is in her second year as a Tennessee Teacher Fellow:

"Student engagement" is a term that teachers hear frequently throughout the year whether it be at a beginning-of-the-year professional development or in a conference with an administrator discussing a recent classroom observation.  So as educators, we hear the term, but at its essence what does it mean?  First and foremost it is important to recognize that student engagement does not look the same in every classroom.  In one classroom, students could be quietly working independently on a task while in another classroom, students could be up around the room, working and talking in groups.  In both situations, students could be engaged in learning.  

A key component of student engagement is individual involvement and accountability.  To be effective, engagement must happen for each individual student.  Students cannot be passive participants but actively involved in the learning process.  Students need to be participating, discussing, and questioning.  A classroom where the teacher does the majority of the talking is not an environment that promotes student engagement.  For group or partner activities, each person needs a role or responsibility.  We all have probably experienced group projects where one student did not engage but yet received the same grade as the group.  We don't want to replicate that in our classrooms.  

Student engagement promotes student learning!  In order to build student engagement, teachers may need to tweak their instructional strategies.  For example, if a teacher's primary mode of instruction is to ask a question and then call on an individual student who raises his or her hand, that is not student engagement.  If one student answers, then the rest of the students are not engaged in the learning.  A simple strategy of "turn and talk" with a shoulder partner allows and requires all students to be engaged in the learning. Students will quickly pick up on expectations in the classroom, and if they have the opportunity to not be engaged, it will happen. 

Another example includes a teacher calling a student up to the board to solve a math problem for the class.  In this situation, this one student is doing the thinking for the whole class.  Programs such as Nearpod allow all students to be engaged and respond to questioning and also provide teachers immediate insight into each individual student's understanding.  For classrooms that may not have this technology, white boards are effective as well.  When considering how to promote student engagement, teachers must consider their classroom assignments and what expectations accompany the assignment.  

Finally, teachers and administrators must be careful not to make student engagement synonymous with student learning.  Students can be 100 percent engaged in a task, but that task may lack rigor and/or alignment with grade-level standards.  A teacher may have an amazingly engaging lesson that students love, but if no learning is accompanying that lesson, then it is a disservice to the students.  That does not mean that a teacher cannot incorporate fun into the classroom!  Students can definitely have been learning and have fun at the same time!

Student engagement can create a classroom environment where students want to come to school, feel valued, and appreciated.  Each classroom is unique, and different strategies may work better than others to build student engagement.  Therefore, a teacher may have to use some trial and error to find engagement strategies that meet the needs of all students, but the results are definitely worth the effort!

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Response From Madeline Whitaker Good

Madeline Whitaker Good is a Ph.D. student studying at the University of Missouri in the Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis department. She is a former classroom teacher, having taught at both the elementary and secondary levels:

During my first year of teaching, I struggled with issues of comparison. A lot. I generally felt relatively confident as a teacher, but that confidence would dissipate into oblivion when I would see other teachers plan lessons that I perceived as much more interesting than anything I was doing. I even had to stop logging onto Twitter because I would feel crushed when other teachers were posting the highlight reel of their classrooms. Insecurity would overtake my logical understanding that I was a good and thoughtful teacher. It simply made me feel inadequate. After a while, I realized that I was not insecure about everything that I saw other teachers do. It really only pertained to one thing: student engagement. I had this intractable belief that "student engagement" meant that I must design, perform, and facilitate a masterpiece every single day. It meant that students were constantly doing group work, rotating through stations, diving into personalized tasks, or soaring through project-based-learning units. 

It took until my fourth year of teaching to realize that "student engagement" was not a one-dimensional concept that I once understood it as. It does not mean that your students are attending "The Greatest Show on Earth" every single day. Some days maybe, but other days they could be engaged through note taking, independent problem solving, or even *gasp* simply listening to a thought-provoking lecture. "Student engagement," to me, means that students are intellectually immersed in a purposeful task. Does that mean they are always talking when engaged? No. Does that mean they are always moving when engaged? No. Does that mean they are always working in groups when they are engaged? No. Sometimes that is how students are engaged, but other times it isn't. 

Instead of defining "student engagement" as something that you are hoping to see or hear, think of it as the best way you can help students meaningfully grapple with/dive into the content. Think of it as making sure your students have a task (that is hopefully meaningful!) that they will be working through every part of your class period or day. Sometimes that will look like small-group stations. Other times it will be independent work. Sometimes the most meaningful way students can engage with the material is with technology. Other times a pencil and paper will be more powerful. 

It is important to note that I don't want my argument to be misused and abused to defend those who do not even try to design an engaging learning environment. There are many situations where teachers simply aren't engaging enough. Period. In those cases, integrating tasks that get students moving around or working in groups can be a true game-changer for classroom culture and student learning. As I mentioned previously, sometimes that is how students are best engaged! The problem occurs when an extreme of student engagement is pushed so much that teachers find themselves using tasks and lessons that may look good, but they don't actually help students learn any content or even address the standards that students are required to master. 

I will end my thoughts with this: Don't be concerned with "engagement" that looks good in a photo. Instead, focus on "engagement" that will be most effective for your students. If students are learning while interacting with the content in a meaningful way, you don't need to worry about it being "picture worthy."

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Response From Elizabeth Stringer Keefe, Ph.D

Elizabeth Stringer Keefe, Ph.D. (@ProfKeefe) is an associate professor/director of graduate teacher education at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. Her research focuses on teacher education, special education teacher preparation, and education policy.  She is co-author of Remixing the Curriculum: The Teacher's Guide to Assistive and Digital Technology (Rowman & Littlefield) and Reclaiming Accountability in Teacher Education (Teacher's College Press):

Picture the scene: students in rows at desks, busily completing worksheets. The classroom is so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Is this student engagement?

Resoundingly no if this is a primary method of instruction—by now, most of us agree that overuse of worksheets is problematic for a variety of reasons: They're task-oriented, teach only rote skills, are empty of educational value, are solitary, are "busywork." More than this—they can shift students' view of learning from positive to negative if used too often. I saw this firsthand during one of my sons' 3rd grade year, where worksheets were a persistent classroom presence and came home in droves. He dreaded school that year and complained about going almost every single day.  Why? He wasn't engaged.

But say those worksheets that students are busily completing are recording sheets to draw or narrate their observations following watching a live chick hatching? Or perhaps students are generating their own questions for self-assessment following working in groups that have researched different sea life? Or possibly developing a graphic organizer or planning sheet to help them map out their own short story after taking turns reading A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) aloud? All of these things shift the level of engagement by involving the students in active ways, requiring some form of self-expression and student voice, and facilitating learning with others as part of the larger learning experience.

When students are interested in and motivated by their own learning, we rarely have to ask if they are engaged. We can observe their investment, their curiosity, and importantly—their tenacity. When students are engaged, they are more willing to take risks as learners and work through frustration with challenging tasks.

There's no static recipe for developing student engagement, but recruiting students' interest is a great place to start. Here are three suggestions to try out:

Try project-based learning. Acquiring knowledge through an extended investigation of an "authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge"? Yes, please! For example, a colleague who teaches high school recently described a project he co-taught to address a science, tech, arts, engineering, and mathematics (STEAM) standard but which crossed the history curriculum as well.  Students built their own trebuchets, a medieval weapon from the Middle Ages, to teach about interactive components, energy, hydraulics, physics, and history. Using easily obtained materials like wood, pencils, popsicle sticks, rubber bands, syringes, plastic tubing, water, and glue, students became entranced with their own engineering design project, effectively bringing the curriculum to life.

Engage the arts.  Not all students may embrace the arts, but there's a place in an arts-based approach for every student. For example, rich learning can occur naturally from learning, singing, and analyzing the 19th-century songs of the Underground Railway, which were used to signal escape routes, providing directions or maps cues and self-expression during a time of brutal restriction. Importantly, there is evidence that arts integration (i.e., linking the arts to the academic curriculum) can help to improve student achievement and has relevance to the provisions of ESSA.

Give students a voice. Creating a classroom space where students have real opportunities to help co-construct their learning, make meaningful choices, express personal opinions that carry influence in the classroom, and enjoy shared decisionmaking will lead to authentic student engagement. These are the ideals of democratic education, an approach which celebrates students as active participants in their learning. Teaching students with these ideals assumes education is the premise for a strong democracy—that a main purpose of education is to help prepare citizens who will contribute to and help perpetuate a democratic society. In a democratic classroom, teachers design inclusive, equitable, and authentic academic experiences that incorporate student voices and interests, positioning the classroom as a shared democratic space where diversity and individuality can be learned and better understood. Engaging students using democratic ideals can also reframe deficit-based discourse about diverse learners by positioning all students as equals and shift classrooms toward a more socially just orientation of education.

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Thanks to Kathy, Sarah, Samantha, Cathy, Danny, Beth, Madeline, and Elizabeth for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. 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 or RSS Reader. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first seven years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. The list doesn't include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

This Year's Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

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Best Ways to Begin the School Year

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

Look for Part Two in a few days.

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