Use these 4 teaching tips to increase student engagement in the classroom.
Every teacher wants an engaging learning environment: dynamic dialogue between learners, all eyes on you and your slides as you give your talk/lecture, furious note taking, head nods, even occasional claps and poetry snaps. And no matter what your pie-in -the-sky picture of engagement is, it’s sometimes hard to make this level of engagement happen!
There’s an educator reading this who already knows how to engage their learners but wants to do so more consistently and impactfully. There’s also someone reading this for whom engagement is not happening in your setting: your learners might be checked out, on their phones, performing poorly, or hesitant to talk to each other - and when they do, they’re not having the rich, critical conversations you expect them to have. This article is for you, regardless of which educator you identify most closely with.
This article includes the knowledge I’ve gained working alongside faculty developers in higher ed, my own consulting and facilitation work with educators, and of course, my experience teaching high school students. Below are the 4 teaching tips that will change your mindset and resuscitate your students’ motivation for learning:
1. You’re not “just a teacher”
The first step in getting your students to be fully engaged in the learning experiences you create for them is seeing yourself as more than just an educator. You are not just a teacher: you’re a motivational speaker; you’re a mentor; you’re a learning designer; you’re a facilitator, and you’re a learner.
Let Me Explain
We can’t talk about class participation and fancy assignment design without talking about the mindset that you have before you even step foot in the classroom. Most educators see themselves as just a teacher. They carry this singular title into the classroom, and whenever they’re prompted to do something other than teach content, their reflex is resistance.
Teachers must be fluid in their ability to transition in and out of the different roles that the classroom demands. If you teach content at a time where students will benefit most from your facilitation skills, you’re smothering the pursuit of your learning goals. It’s easy for teachers to jump in when things get quiet in the classroom, but allowing students time to process and contribute to the pace and direction of a conversation is an investment that pays dividends as the course progresses. This is why you are just as much a facilitator as you are a teacher.
If you expect students to jump into activities before creating desire and inspiration within your students to invest in the learning with you, by default, students will be driven by test scores and grades, or worse, not driven at all. This is why you are just as much a motivational speaker as you are an educator. When students are driven by test scores and grades, they’re more likely to experience stress and anxiety, putting a cap on their capacity to learn.
Now, it is very important to also draw boundaries for yourself as an educator and understand what you have control over vs what you don’t. You are not a superintendent or cleaning staff or a mental health counselor, and part of your success and wellness as a teacher is dependent on the contributions of these crucial members of the school. But at the same time, instead of saying things like “that’s not my job”, say things like, “students might need this to be the learners we want them to be. How can I pull resources into my class while sharpening my other teaching skills to reinforce the resources that students will receive?”
We must practice our nimbleness and shift between these different roles to meet the learning needs of our students. This is a dance. It might not start out graceful, but over time you'll master it and even teach your students how do to this dance, too.
Mentorship and facilitation skills are two areas where teachers often need the most support starting out. Choose one of these areas and seek out professional development in that area for the next 30 days - readings, free webinars, recorded talks and lectures, conversations with colleagues who are doing it. Write a list of 5 key questions you have going into your readings on mentorship and facilitation. After 30 days of focused learning (1 article and one discussion with a colleague per week, for example), revisit those questions. Did you answer them? Do you have more? How can you practice what you’ve learned? Follow the same process for the other area.
2. Let Your Student Behind the Curtain (Teacher Transparency)
Perfectionism hurts us as teachers. Not only are we often afraid to fail in front of our students, but we’re afraid to open a can of worms when we know that we can’t close the can with a tight seal. Learning is not linear, nor is it neat and pretty.
When you tell your students you’re trying out a new thing, or when you tell students you have something in the works (a guest speaker, equipment or tools for the classroom, etc.), students see that as you investing in their learning in an honest and non-transactional way. And as a result, they’re more likely to engage.
This transparency also opens up the door to ask students periodically, “how did that go?”, or “I tried that thing - did it work?”
Beware: the worst thing you can say to your students is: “I’m trying, so you need to participate." That’s not what I mean by transparency. I say things to my students like, “I have this really cool VR exhibition planned for week 8 that I hope comes through! I’m trying it for the first time and I think it’ll allow us to have hands-on experiences with VR and how it can improve education.”
And don’t expect anything in return. Keep students updated on your course plans without making a big deal of it. Students will respect the thoughtfulness you put into the course and will look forward to coming to class. And if it doesn’t happen, the students know you tried and might have suggestions for alternative engagements that achieve the same goals!
3. You should not be competing with students’ phones
There’s a lot of current discourse about whether phones ‘belong in classrooms” or how educators can “compete” with whatever digital information is pulling at students’ attention. However, just like in conversations around generative AI and ChatGPT, we really shouldn’t expect young people to stop using these tools. These tools are their future; our future, really. We must do the work of understanding how students are using them now, what students care about, and how we can create alignment between the things that they care about and the learning goals we set out.
The work of Dr. Christina Moore and other digital pedagogy scholars shows that when you willingly invite phones into the learning space, and when you model for students how they can use them for learning, the phones become a key to learning, not a barrier.
Before you teach your course, do research on how technology is used in the workplaces that students are interested in exploring (requires you to know your students; pre-course survey). See if there are scenario-based learning opportunities where students can use their phones and laptops to problem solve in a simulated professional environment.
4. It’s not the classroom or class size; it’s you
Don’t get me wrong, there are real physical barriers that harm students in the classroom: desks that are not size-inclusive, cumbersome paths to and within the classroom that are not wheelchair accessible, and other examples. But too often I hear teachers say, “my class is too big”, or “my desks won’t work for that.” Here’s a checklist that I encourage you to follow:
What are your learning goals?
What informs these goals? Why should students care about achieving these goals?
What skills, knowledge, and practice opportunities do students need to have in order to reach those goals?
What are ways to get students talking to and working with each other during this practice?
What physical and logistical challenges make this engagement difficult?
Can you use a different learning space for this class period (outdoors, different room, etc.)?
If not, can students use online platforms to engage before, during and after this engagement to strengthen their practice?
This is how your thought process could look for solving logistical challenges related to student engagement. I had an awful array of desk chairs in one of my classes. On the first day of class, I lined the chairs up in two long rows facing each other for students to do “speed conversations” about various topics - students loved it and it set a tone of community and relationship building that carried through the course.
One professor I worked with used Yellowdig for student discussions and conducting polls for his class of 145 students. He weaved funny, participatory stories about his career and how he wish he knew what he’s teaching students now back when he first started out. He asked students to turn to the person next to them for mini discussions. He had students do project-based assignments in groups outside of class. He used the physical classroom - a big lecture hall - to the fullest extent while being creative about the ways that students reached their learning goals.
How can you manipulate the space and resources that you have in a way that’s accessible: walls, the floor, furniture, screens, phones, laptops, digital platforms/applications, and hallways? What can you borrow from the school library or art room to have students practice and showcase their skills in ways that keep the learning fresh?
Mindset matters! Our schools can be tough places in which to learn, for students and ourselves as teachers. But we must realize the things that we can control, identify the sources of our anxiousness and fear, and be optimistic and confident in our students’ ability to fully engage in learning. More resources on student engagement coming soon!