The Importance of Student Engagement and Strategies to Foster It
This unusual and somewhat tumultuous year has revealed some important lessons about our education system. As school closed and classrooms moved into dining rooms and bedrooms, one of those lessons is that student engagement is critical for academic success. If students are not engaged in the material being taught, it is difficult to assure any lasting understanding of content or skills. Therefore, one way to improve student outcomes is to improve student engagement.
While understanding this correlation is easy, finding solutions requires a commitment to adapt and grow along with students. First, it’s important to understand what student engagement is and why it’s important. Then teachers can begin to implement strategies to improve engagement.
What exactly is student engagement?
Student engagement is a loose term that encompasses many factors related to a student’s desire to learn. It is about students’ understanding of the relevance of the material, curiosity about the topic, clarity around expectations, and a feeling of safety to explore the topic.
There are some topics that are more naturally engaging than others based on individual interests and preferences. But teachers should strive to help students feel enthusiastic about even more mundane material, because when students are engaged, they are more likely to master the material, develop a love of learning, and build confidence. According to Gallup research, “Engaged students are 2.5 times more likely to say that they get excellent grades and do well in school, and they are 4.5 times more likely to be hopeful about the future than their actively disengaged peers.” As a result, teachers should develop several strategies they can employ to help improve student engagement among all students, regardless of topic or skill.
What are student engagement strategies?
Many of these strategies are not only recommended by other teachers, but also students. Don’t neglect to include them in the conversation. Occasionally ask students what kinds of activities or topics they enjoy. Then, try to incorporate some of their ideas in addition to these proven tactics.
Use a variety of teaching methods
Most teachers have one method they are most comfortable using. It’s only natural to use this method often (especially if kids seem to respond well) whether it’s group work, worksheets, or games. However, varying teaching methods is an excellent way to boost lagging engagement.
Use a variety of activities and assessments that appeal to all kinds of learners including visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Spend some time doing individual work, some time doing group work and plenty of time getting kids up and out of their seats and interacting with one another.
Make connections to real world
One of the most dreaded comments a teacher can hear is, “Why do I need to learn this?” Avoid this lament by always being explicit about the relevance of the material. If students can see why learning is important, they are more likely to be engaged.
One way to demonstrate this relevance is with connections to the real world. In social studies or language arts courses, this often comes easily. Even with older, classic literature, the themes and conflicts can be connected to their worlds. Similarly, all historical eras have had some impact on kids’ worlds today. In courses like math and science, remind students that these subjects are the building blocks to understanding how our world works.
Another way to demonstrate relevance is with highly engaging, project-based learning. In these assignments, students are often tasked with developing solutions to real world problems. This can also include reimagining alternative solutions to problems or issues that have been “resolved.” Project-based learning can also include fictional (but realistic) situations that students explore.
Give students choices
Providing opportunities for student choice is another great way to foster high engagement. When students have a choice about either what they want to study or how they want to approach the topic, they will be more invested in their learning. Student choice helps to personalize learning as students can focus on topics or skills that are important to them.
When you allow students to take some control of their learning, you are also learning valuable information about what is of interest to them and their strengths. Use this information to create future assignments and lessons.
Use technology wisely
Technology can be an invaluable tool in the classroom. It’s a medium students are adept at using that can truly elevate how they learn. Video clips are an engaging way to bring new topics to life. Collaboration tools are perfect for group projects that support interactive learning. And creative apps that allow students to manipulate visuals or create interesting content are also valuable.
It’s best to try different programs or apps before introducing them to your class. Have a clear understanding of what outcomes you want the technology to support, but don’t be afraid to explore different features together.
Create a welcoming and safe environment
When students are engaged, not only are they actively involved in learning, but they are also comfortable trying new ideas or skills and making mistakes. This confidence in learning is easier to achieve if the teacher establishes a safe and welcoming environment for all students to explore.
Be sure students understand what is expected of them, both in terms of learning outcomes and behavior. Set clear rules and consequences for breaking rules. Model the kind of behavior and attitude you expect from your students. Show them what taking risks looks like and why it is so valuable. If you are not afraid to be wrong and make mistakes, they won’t be either.
What does effective student engagement look like?
Effective student engagement will look different on different days. Some days, it might look like everyone quietly getting lost in a book. On other days, it might look like a buzzing workshop with kids up out of their seats, laughing and talking. At other times, it might look like the teacher explaining a topic while the kids listen at their desks.
It’s almost easier to describe what student engagement does NOT look like. Students meandering around the room, distracting others. Students sleeping behind an open book or daydreaming in their seats. Students in conversation about their weekend plans or latest gossip.
Fostering positive and dynamic student engagement takes effort and a constant willingness to change directions if necessary. It involves actively “reading the room” to understand if your technique or lesson is interesting. Sometimes, you may be able to switch things up mid-class. Other times, it may be best to regroup after class and prepare something different for the next day.
It’s important to remember that kids are kids. No teacher can captivate them every time they step into the room. The reality is that student engagement is constantly evolving and shifting. So, the best way to consistently create high levels of engagement is to come into each class with enthusiasm and openness to the possibilities. The passion and interests of teachers are truly contagious. Students feed off their teacher’s energy and respond to those who are knowledgeable and excited to learn right along with their students.