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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Activity Speaks Louder Than Words: Improving Student Engagement

Think about the level of cognitive engagement that occurs with each activity in this list:

  • Watching/listening
  • Notetaking
  • Notemaking
  • Discussing
  • Summarizing

The learning style of your students plays a key role with things like "watching/listening." For example, I realize as I get older that I am definitely a visual learner. I often can't remember a name until I see it in print. So, it would not benefit me as much to be in an environment where most learning occurs through listening.

Teacher-led instruction and discussion have a place in the classroom. But if students are only listening to their teacher present without having something that they must also be doing, how much cognitive demand or even memory retention is taking place?

Here's a personal example of how learning can benefit from this cognitive demand. After my wife and I see a movie, we have our debriefing, a conversation that's always interesting because each often sees things the other person didn't see. We analyze and evaluate what we saw right away. If one of us wasn't sure why something occurred, the other will often give clarification. After these conversations, we gain new insight into the movie we both just experienced. If I had watched the movie alone or had no discussion, I would have gained far less than I did from watching it with her.

Imagine the power of this exchange of ideas with students in your classroom. Yes, they can hear what is being told to them. But the real learning comes through interaction with their newly acquired knowledge.

The Down Side of Down Time

As teachers, we lead classrooms filled with learners of all styles. It is imperative that we use methods that will engage students at all times. When we don’t, the result is a student sitting there not learning -- in essence, doing nothing.

The rule of thumb is simple. As you plan your lesson, think: no down time. At all times, all students must be doing something significant toward the instructional goal, even during any full group discussions.

Here are some instances where down time happens:

  • The teacher is asking specific "popcorn" type questions of one student at a time in a whole-group setting -- what are the other students doing?
  • Students are at the board working a problem or writing an answer -- what are the other students doing?
  • The teacher is introducing a new topic, method or concept of which students may not have much prior knowledge -- are all students equally engaged?

Strategies for Engagement

How can you ensure that all students are engaged during whole-group discussions?

  • Evaluation: Have students assess before and after an individual response. Before the response, you might prompt them with "Who thinks they know the answer?" or "Alright, listen closely and see if you agree." After the response, you could ask, "Is that correct?" or "Do you agree?"
  • Questioning: Keep them thinking, inquiring and wondering.
  • Surveying: As opposed to asking one student, ask everyone the same question. This may require more of a multiple-choice method: "Which one do you believe is correct? Why?"
  • Individual white boards: Again, as opposed to asking one person, ask everyone to write and display an answer. This is a great way to ensure everyone is thinking about the topic; it's also great formative assessment.
  • Call and response: Having students repeat, chant, sing or choral read is a high-energy way to engage everyone.
  • Find a core: Build a lesson or presentation around a problem, issue or situation that's likely to engage all students.
  • Peer discussion: Rather than asking one student a question, have students discuss the problem, issue or situation while you monitor the accuracy of their discussion.
  • Building schema: How can real life be applied to this discussion? What connections can be made? Have students discuss this as a class or with a partner.
  • Guided lessons or scavenger hunts: Have students look for or find certain pieces of information in order to synthesize meaning at the end. This could be as simple as fill-in-the-blanks notes, guided questions throughout the lesson, or actual built-in clues that kids have to figure out to construct meaning.
  • Notemaking: Give students the opportunity to synthesize their thoughts in a meaningful way to build understanding. Use a graphic organizer to help them put thoughts together and build meaning as new information is presented. (This method requires a lot of upfront teaching and modeling.)
  • Divide and conquer: Assigning students to small groups or stations can help eliminate idle time, as any quick mini-lesson would be focused in a small-group setting while others are doing meaningful tasks.
  • Eliminate whole-group discussions: Before entering into such an experience, ask yourself if there's a better way for students to use an inductive or more inquiry-based experience to gain the same knowledge in a more meaningful way.

Making It Stick

It is imperative that students are interacting with new learning. If we really want new learning to "stick," students must be doing. Real learning is not a spectator sport.

The work of education is difficult, but we must try to keep students cognitively engaged. It begins with gaining and keeping their attention and interest. Once we have that attention and interest, what we do with it will make the difference with reaching our instructional goals.

Are there other ideas you use to keep your students engaged? Please share them in the comments space below.

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