One of the perks of my job is working with dedicated teachers in schools across the nation. Lately, I’ve been asking questions and collecting data from teachers at all levels on their instructional needs and concerns. An overwhelming number of educators have shared with me both their good thinking about, and their challenges with, keeping students more engaged in their learning. Specifically, I’ve heard teachers say, “I need ways to help motivate students who have lost faith in themselves,” and, “How can I help students want to come to school and stay engaged in what is going on in class?”
In thinking about strategies and approaches for student engagement, two talented middle school teachers come to my mind. The first is Dave, a high-energy science teacher who dresses in costumes, uses a mixture of voices, and, on occasion and to the amazement of all, performs what he calls death-defying feats. You’ll hear his students in the hallway say, “I can’t wait to get to Mr. K’s class.” The second is Linda, a mild-mannered teacher with an infectious laugh and soft Southern accent who never performs death-defying feats yet keeps students on the edge of their seats as they master the requirements of her class. What is it, I ask myself, that allows these teachers with very dissimilar styles to capture and hold students’ attention and engage them in important, rigorous learning on a daily basis?
After peeling back the layers of their disparate approaches, I arrived at what I call the Six Important Tenets of Student Engagement. These practices permeate the learning environments in Dave’s and Linda’s classrooms, forming the tapestry of behaviors exhibited by both and mirroring what is espoused by research on student engagement.
When teachers view their students as valuable and capable works in progress, they grab and sustain the attention of their students. Michelangelo saw David within a piece of granite. Teachers can do the same when they exhibit and share their beliefs about the importance of every student and their desire to make a positive difference in students’ lives, helping them develop as learners, thinkers, and doers, as Bryan Goodwin notes in The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day.
Asking students to participate actively in collaborative conversations where they make sense of and rehearse their learning—and listen to others do the same—engages students in the learning process and allows them to monitor their learning and hear how others learn. Using discourse as a high-priority learning tool engages students in listening, learning, and sharing.
Carol Dweck’s research and publications on mindsets and motivation argue the importance of providing information and stories about effort as a key to success. Further, engaging students by building hopefulness through the power of using the phrase, “not yet,” as a motivator encourages teachers to respond to defeated student statements by saying, “You just aren’t there yet. You are capable and I will partner with you so you see success.” Building hopefulness occurs when students internalize the idea that effort is certainly key to achievement, especially when linked to trying new strategies and, when stumped, pursuing help from others.
This is not to say: Create an environment where the teacher is robotic and the routines are monotonous. Instead, establish a supportive learning environment where students compete against themselves, and not each other, as they move toward success. Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement, 2nd Ed. (CITW) suggests that teachers draw learners into a space where students not only know what is expected of them but also what they can expect from the teacher, while still allowing for and appreciating individual differences.
School, like a ship, is a place where students are part of the crew, not just the passengers. CITW suggests that when teachers provide learning objectives and allow students opportunities to reflect on the objectives, students make connections between what they’re learning and what is stated in the objectives, keeping them subtly and continually engaged.
CITW recommends giving students opportunities to reflect on their practice through descriptive feedback, paired with guidance about next steps or revisions to their work, which helps them to understand what they are doing correctly and should continue to do. Feedback builds students’ awareness of weaknesses in their practice and helps them leverage their strengths. While teachers can effectively provide feedback to students on their performance in many ways, the value of ongoing and descriptive feedback provided in a personalized manner should never be underestimated as a strong tool for sustaining engagement.
Consulting director Dr. Bj Stone is a co-author of the second editions of Classroom Instruction that Works (2012) and A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works (2012). A former middle and high school science teacher and central office administrator, she now leads McREL PD sessions for K–12 teachers and administrators in the areas of research-based instructional strategies, vocabulary instruction, curriculum development, and assessment design.