3 Strategies to Boost Student Engagement

3 Strategies to Boost Student Engagement

Survey results and anecdotes suggest that students have been less engaged in school since the pandemic.

Two teachers—Alejandro Diasgranados, an elementary teacher in the District of Columbia, and Ann Stiltner, a high school special education teacher in Hamden, Conn.—shared some practical strategies for how to motivate students and get them engaged in their learning during an EdWeek online forum earlier this month.

Here are three takeaways from the discussion. 

1) Give students voice and choice

Students are more engaged in their work when they feel a sense of ownership and agency in class, Stiltner said. At the beginning of the school year, she has students draft a class contract. They start by discussing the best classroom they’ve ever been in: What did that classroom look like? How was the teacher treated? How did the teacher treat the kids?

Then, students use those values to come up with how they want this classroom to look like, and what should happen if someone breaks the rules.

In English class, Stiltner gives students a vote on what book they’ll read as a class. And she gives students smaller choices throughout the day: If a student needs a writing utensil, for example, she’ll offer them a choice o a pen or pencil.

Diasgranados said that involving students in making decisions whenever possible—whether it’s what time they do daily tasks, where they sit, or what they’re going to write about—can be a mindset shift for teachers, but it’s worthwhile.

Giving students the opportunity to have a voice in their learning makes them feel valued and respected, he said.

2) Incorporate students’ interests into your class

Diasgranados pushed back against the idea that a student is “unmotivatable,” saying that it’s up to teachers to learn what does motivate students and then incorporate that into the curriculum.

For example, his 3rd grade students are “obsessed” with Sonic the Hedgehog, the video game and movie series. Diasgranados has been teaching a unit on fables and folk tales and has peppered references to Sonic throughout.

When teaching a lesson on character traits, he named the characters Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles. A few of his students who typically aren’t engaged in class were “shocked and surprised,” and then raised their hands throughout the lesson to describe each character.

“I think it takes some background practice and background research [for] teachers, with a lot of pre-work, to [try] and figure out, how can we make those connections between the things that the student is interested in, and where we’re trying to go” in the curriculum, Diasgranados said..”

“Once students see that there’s an adult who’s really reached out, and cared, and has watched the movie that they’ve been talking about or raving about, or listened to the artists that they’ve been talking about, … they now have someone to talk to about it,” he said.

Added Stiltner: “I think children of all ages don’t feel like adults are really listening, so if you have really listened, that gets their attention.”

3) Get parents on your team

Students’ guardians can be a powerful ally for teachers, Stiltner and Diasgranados said.

Diasgranados said he starts each school year by asking parents what kind of motivational strategies have worked with previous teachers and what works at home.

When parents and teachers are on the same page, they can use the same verbiage with the children. Parents can remind their child of the things they’re practicing at school, and teachers can remind students of the things they’re practicing at home, Diasgranados said.

To foster that collaborative relationship, Stiltner said she makes an effort to call each parent at the start of the school year with something positive about their child, so their first interaction isn’t about anything negative.

“It’s really important to … set that positive relationship with the parents so the parent knows you are there as an ally for their kid, you are there to believe in their kid, and you look to the parent as their first teacher,” she said.

Building a relationship with parents also puts the students more at ease, Diasgranados said.

“If I’m talking to their parents, [students are] not super frightened thinking that I’m saying something negative,” he said. “They know that we are all on a team together, trying to figure out what’s best for the student.”

Education Week

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