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Student engagement: 5 brain-based tips for re-engaging reluctant learners

By January 3, 2024February 29th, 2024No Comments

In our work with educators around the world we often hear a common lament about student engagement: More students than ever appear to be chronically disengaged from learning. Their bodies come to class, but their hearts and minds seem to be somewhere else.

Perhaps it’s lingering effects of online learning during the pandemic (which we know from our own research was terribly disengaging for many students). Or perhaps it’s the distractions of smartphones (which research also shows diminishes students’ ability to focus and learn). Whatever it is, something seems to have changed with many students. So, what can we do to win them back? Where might we begin?

The best place might be between their ears. After all, learning is a mental activity. Thus, if we want to re-engage students in learning, we need to start with getting their brains switched on to it.

Through our analysis of hundreds of research studies, we’ve gleaned many important insights from brain science and scientific studies in classrooms about what teachers can do to increase student engagement with learning. Here are five.

1.     Spark students’ curiosity

Brain research shows that when curiosity drives learning, we’re more apt to retain what we’ve learned. On top of that, satisfying our curiosity activates our brains’ dopamine reward centers, which explains why it’s so easy to fall into “rabbit holes” on the internet, chasing one interesting tidbit of information after another. This also means that tapping into students’ natural curiosity makes learning enjoyable and even addictive (in all the right ways) for them. Here are four ways, drawn from research, for framing units and lessons to hook student curiosity:

  • Mystery. Students, like adults, love a good mystery. So, instead of teaching a unit on the Mayans, teach the mystery. How did such an advanced, complex civilization disappear?
  • Puzzles. Human beings have an innate desire to solve puzzles—like Sudoku, Wordle, and Rubik’s cube. Math lends itself easily to puzzles, such as “How do we calculate the area of a shape like a circle with no sides to multiply?”
  • Suspense. There’s a reason TV shows have “cliffhangers” before the commercial break: because we’re all suckers for suspense. We want to see what happens next. Literature is, of course, full of suspense, such as seeing how a protagonist will respond to a challenge.
  • Conflict. Speaking of TV, there’s a reason some many news programs and reality shows feature people in conflict: not only do we want to see how the conflict resolves, we want to form our own opinions. So, it’s not surprising that classroom research found that students become more engaged in learning when they were presented with a controversy and encouraged to develop and defend their own opinions—a principle that suits any classroom, whether students are studying a period of history, an ecological challenge, or the most efficient way to solve a math problem.

2.     Have students set a WIIFM goal for their learning

All learning requires tremendous mental effort, something that our brains would rather not expend. As cognitive scientist Daniel Kahneman observes, our brains are inherently lazy and prefer to switch back to low-effort mode when possible. What prompts us to expend mental effort? Often, it’s receiving a hit of the so-called “reward molecule” dopamine. In addition to satisfying our curiosity, achieving goals (even small ones) triggers our brain’s dopamine reward centers. That’s why it feels good to check items off our to-do lists: doing so gives our brains a tiny hit of dopamine.

We can help students activate their dopamine reward centers by engaging them in setting and achieving learning goals. The key, of course, is ensuring they set the goal for themselves. After all, no one really wants to be told what their goal should be (which is why it’s good relationship advice not to give your loved ones a New Year’s resolution).

So, how do we get reluctant learners to set their own goals for learning? Decades of research on motivation shows that kids are more motivated to learn when they see what’s being asked of them as challenging yet attainable and, equally important, meaningful.

We like to borrow a concept from advertising agencies called the WIIFM—or What’s In It For Me. Just as people are more compelled to buy a product when they see what’s in for them (e.g., it will make your smile sparkle), students also need to see what’s in it for them if they learn something. How will they be able to apply this knowledge in their lives? Or use it to help others? Or take a vital next step toward a larger goal?

All too often, we skip over making the purpose of learning clear for students—or we resort to external rewards (e.g., it’ll be on the test!) to cajole reluctant students to learn something. We know from decades of research though that, at best, external rewards have diminishing returns. Ultimately, if students get too fixated on earning grades, they can develop what researcher Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset about learning (e.g., “I’m getting Cs because I’m not very smart”) versus a growth mindset (e.g., “I can learn this stuff if I really apply myself.”).

Here’s an easy way to build a WIIFM into learning goals. Simply add two words: SO THAT, like this: We will learn how to calculate the area of irregular polygons SO THAT we can calculate the area of real spaces in our world, such as interior rooms and gardens.

3.     Make learning visual for students

For the most part, our brains can only focus on one thing at a time. For example, we can’t look at two things simultaneously, which is why we absolutely shouldn’t text while driving. However, we can look and listen at the same time—a process cognitive scientists call dual coding. That’s why we can listen to the radio (or a podcast) and still safely drive our cars.

As it turns out, we even learn better when we see something while simultaneously listening to it being explained. A long lecture with no illustrations, diagrams, or graphics is dreadfully boring—a la Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Anyone? Anyone?). But a lecture with photos of artwork, ancient ruins, or scientific drawings can be riveting.

The bottom line is that we are all visual learners. Our brains find it easier to “drink in” information when we use two “straws” (a visual one and a verbal one). And if we attempt to force too much information through just one straw (especially the verbal straw) our brains quickly become exhausted.

Scientific research in classrooms with diverse learners makes this point. Students achieve significantly higher levels of learning when learning is made visual through graphics, illustrations, concrete examples, step-by-step modeling, and worked-out examples or exemplars of what they’re being asked to learn. By tapping into the brain’s natural “superpower” of dual coding, we make learning easier for students as well as more engaging. Conversely, if we force students to take in new learning solely through a verbal “straw,” we quickly exhaust their brains (and bore them to death).

4.     Build in “brain breaks” for students to process their learning

Learning requires us to focus on new information, processing it in our short-term working memory. In simple terms, short-term working memory is the process of actively thinking about new information and combining it with related information we’ve previously encountered and memorized. Our short-term working memory has some limitations, though. One of them is right there in its name: It’s short-term. Typically, as cognitive scientist John Medina notes in his book Brain Rules, our working memories tend to become exhausted and “time out” after about 5-20 minutes of focused exertion. At that point, our brains need a break.

Sometimes that break can be a shift in tone—for example, inserting a funny anecdote into an episode of learning or giving students an opportunity to stand up and stretch (or for younger students to “shake the sillies out.”). Yet if we really want students to learn something new, one of the best things we can do during a “brain break” is give them an opportunity to pause and process what they’ve been learning—often with others in pairs or small groups. For example, after a 10-minute mini-lecture (one that engages students in visual learning), students might discuss the big ideas of what they’ve learned or attempt to apply a new skill. In short, brains breaks don’t necessarily need to be a complete break from learning, but rather, an opportunity for students to engage in a different form of learning—one that supports what cognitive scientists call consolidation, when we begin to arrange new information in our minds into categories, patterns, and mental scripts.

It might be easy for teachers (or administrators) to assume that the more time teachers spend teaching, the more kids will learn—so why not cram a full 50 minutes of teaching into a 50-minute class period? If we don’t build brain breaks into learning, though, our students’ brains will take them anyway. At best, they may stop paying attention. At worst, they may act out. In short, if we ignore this iron-clad limitation of short-term working memory, we may still be teaching, but our students won’t be learning.

5.     Anchor student learning in quality questions

What’s at the heart of curiosity? You’re seeing it now. It’s a question. As noted earlier, getting to the bottom of our questions releases dopamine in our brains. Good questions do something else. They make us think about our learning. And as cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham notes, students only remember what they think about.

That’s because the process of thinking about our learning also supports the process of consolidation. When we’re given opportunities to think about our learning, we begin to connect the dots in our minds, turning a jumble of ideas into a smaller set of patterns, categories, and causal connections.

The point here isn’t to endlessly pepper your students with questions. Rather, it’s to pre-plan a handful of thought-provoking questions and provide students with plenty of wait time after each question. (Classroom research shows, in fact, that as the quantity of questions increases, the quality of those questions tends to decrease). If you’re fresh out of questions to ask your students, here’s a good one to ask, which our Australian colleague, Glen Pearsall, calls the Golden Question: What makes you say that?

The real value of this question (and other quality questions) is that it brings student voice into the classroom, making learning more meaningful and relevant for them. Asking quality questions and listening to students’ responses lets your students know that you care about them as individuals. And decades of research shows that students are more motivated to learn when they know their teacher care about them—in keeping with the old adage that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, there are no simple fixes or easy “hacks” for re-engaging reluctant learners. Students are all unique and bring their own perspectives and needs to our classrooms. So, it’s likely that some of these strategies may work better for some students than others. But collectively, the more consistently and effectively we can apply these brain-based strategies for student engagement, the more we can begin to create classrooms that reflect what our students’ brains are designed to do and actually love to do: learn.


Related Resources:
• Free whitepaper: Unleashing the Power of Best First Instruction
• Blog: Going slow to go fast, with best first instruction
• Podcast: What’s New with The New Classroom Instruction That Works? 

Bryan Goodwin, president and CEO of McREL, thrives on translating insights from education research into practical strategies and professional learning for effective teaching and school leadership. He is the author or co-author of several McREL books, including The New Classroom Instruction That Works, Learning That SticksBuilding a Curious School, and Instructional Models. Before joining McREL in 1998, Bryan was a college instructor, a high school teacher, and a business journalist.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.