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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement

A while back, I was asked, "What engages students?" Sure, I could respond, sharing anecdotes about what I believed to be engaging, but I thought it would be so much better to lob that question to my own eighth graders. The responses I received from all 220 of them seemed to fall under 10 categories, representing reoccurring themes that appeared again and again. So, from the mouths of babes, here are my students' answers to the question: "What engages students?"

1. Working with their peers

"Middle-school students are growing learners who require and want interaction with other people to fully attain their potential."

"Teens find it most interesting and exciting when there is a little bit of talking involved. Discussions help clear the tense atmosphere in a classroom and allow students to participate in their own learning."

2. Working with technology

"I believe that when students participate in "learning by doing" it helps them focus more. Technology helps them to do that. Students will always be extremely excited when using technology."

"We have entered a digital age of video, Facebook, Twitter, etc., and they [have] become more of a daily thing for teens and students. When we use tech, it engages me more and lets me understand the concept more clearly."

3. Connecting the real world to the work we do/project-based learning

"I believe that it all boils down to relationships. Not relationships from teacher to student or relationships from student to student, but rather relations between the text and the outside world. For example, I was in a history class last year and my teacher would always explain what happens in the Medieval World and the Renaissance. And after every lesson, every essay, every assignment, he asked us, "How does this event relate to current times?" It brought me to a greater thinking, a kind of thinking where I can relate the past to the present and how closely they are bonded together."

"If you relate the topic to the students' lives, then it makes the concept easier to grasp."

"Students are most interested when the curriculum applies to more than just the textbook. The book is there -- we can read a book. If we're given projects that expand into other subjects and make us think, it'll help us understand the information."

"What I think engages a student most is interactions with real-life dilemmas and an opportunity to learn how to solve them. Also, projects that are unique and one of a kind that other schools would never think of. Also something challenging and not easy, something to test your strengths as a student and stimulate your brain, so it becomes easier to deal with similar problems when you are grown up and have a job. Something so interesting that you could never ever forget."

"I like to explore beyond the range of what normal textbooks allow us to do through hands-on techniques such as project-based learning. Whenever I do a project, I always seem to remember the material better than if I just read the information straight out of a textbook."

"I, myself, find a deeper connection when I'm able to see what I'm learning about eye-to-eye. It's more memorable and interesting to see all the contours and details of it all. To be able to understand and connect with the moment is what will make students three times more enthusiastic about learning beyond the black and white of the Times New Roman text."

4. Clearly love what you do

"Engaging students can be a challenge, and if you're stuck in a monotone, rambling on and on, that doesn't help...instead of talking like a robot, teachers should speak to us like they're really passionate about teaching. Make sure to give yourself an attitude check. If a teacher acts like this is the last thing they want to be doing, the kids will respond with the same negative energy. If you act like you want to be there, then we will too."

"I also believe that enthusiasm in the classroom really makes a student engaged in classroom discussions. Because even if you have wonderful information, if you don't sound interested, you are not going to get your students' attention. I also believe that excitement and enthusiasm is contagious."

"It isn't necessarily the subject or grades that really engage students but the teacher. When teachers are truly willing to teach students, not only because it is their job, but because they want to educate them, students benefit. It's about passion. That extra effort to show how it will apply to our own future."

5. Get me out of my seat!

"When a student is active they learn in a deeper way than sitting. For example, in my history class, we had a debate on whether SOPA and PIPA were good ideas. My teacher had us stand on either ends of the room to state whether we agree or disagree with the proposition. By doing this, I was able to listen to what all my classmates had to say."

6. Bring in visuals

"I like to see pictures because it makes my understanding on a topic clearer. It gives me an image in my head to visualize."

"I am interested when there are lots of visuals to go with the lesson. Power Points are often nice, but they get boring if there are too many bullet points. Pictures and cartoons usually are the best way to get attention."

7. Student choice

"I think having freedom in assignments, project directions, and more choices would engage students...More variety = more space for creativity."

"Giving students choices helps us use our strengths and gives us freedom to make a project the way we want it to. When we do something we like, we're more focused and enjoy school more."

"Another way is to make the curriculum flexible for students who are more/less advanced. There could be a list of project choices and student can pick from that according to their level."

8. Understand your clients -- the kids

"Encourage students to voice their opinions as you may never know what you can learn from your students."

"If the teacher shows us that they are confident in our abilities and has a welcoming and well-spirited personality towards us, we feel more capable of doing the things we couldn't do...What I'm trying to say is students are more engaged when they feel they are in a "partnership" with their teacher."

"Personally, I think that students don't really like to be treated as 'students.' Teachers can learn from us students. They need to ask for our input on how the students feel about a project, a test, etc. Most importantly, teachers need to ask themselves, "How would I feel if I were this student?" See from our point of view and embrace it."

"Students are engaged in learning when they are taught by teachers who really connect with their students and make the whole class feel like one big family. Teachers should understand how the mind of a child or teenager works and should be able to connect with their students because everyone should feel comfortable so that they are encouraged to raise their hands to ask questions or ask for help."

"Teachers should know that within every class they teach, the students are all different."

9. Mix it up!

"I don't like doing only one constant activity...a variety will keep me engaged in the topic. It's not just for work, but also for other things such as food. Eating the same foods constantly makes you not want to eat!"

"Fun experiments in science class...acting out little skits in history...if students are going to remember something, they need visuals, some auditory lessons, and some emotions."

"Also, you can't go wrong with some comedy. Everyone loves a laugh...another thing that engages me would be class or group games. In Language Arts I've played a game of "dodge ball. We throw words at each other, one at a time. If they could get the definition, the person who threw the word would be out...Students remember the ones they got wrong, and of course, the ones they already knew."

10. Be human

"Don't forget to have a little fun yourself."

I'd like to end this post with one more quote, this one from my student, Sharon: "The thing is, every student is engaged differently...but, that is okay. There is always a way to keep a student interested and lively, ready to embark on the journey of education. 'What is that way?' some teachers may ask eagerly. Now, read closely... Are you ready? That way is to ask them. Ask. Them. Get their input on how they learn. It's just as simple as that."

Go on. Try it. Ask.

(3)
Best Practices to Engage Students

Comments (55)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Meri Colleary's picture
Meri Colleary
Kindergarten teacher in Clearwater, Florida

I like how you asked your students their thoughts. I think this is the only way teachers can learn what is getting through and what isn't. Too many times we are being told in professional development meetings what students want and what students need but how many times are the kids actually considered and asked? Your points about "being human" and "being passionate" are definately relatable experiences even in my Kindergarten context. My students love it when I find humor in situations and let loose. I know they also feel my passion for math because they always beg for math time. I love math and love teaching it- it translates to my students scores come test time.
Getting them out of their seat should be a goal of every teacher. I just transfered my 14 yr. old son out of a Biology class where he wrote definitions out of the text book and took lecture notes everyday in class. He had an F! In his first week in his new Biology class, he came home so enthused that he had completed two interactive labs and is back to loving science again. He now has a B! Enough said....

Thomas Stanley's picture
Thomas Stanley
Educational Consultant-former teacher in high school

One other thing I would like to add is to work closely with others on your projects. We have done global projects and the students were very engaged in their activities. It takes a lot more work on your part but the ability to connect to other regions of the country and world seem to make a big difference in what you do. Using qualified experts to monitor student performance via technology adds to any project. Well done!

Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D.'s picture
Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist & Author of The Homework Trap
Blogger 2014

This is a wonderful article. I think it is terrific to engage students to contribute in determining what truly works. Now, let's look at what is not on the students' list: homework and parental involvement. We take these as such givens in the field of education, yet they may be over-rated, and for some students, quite destructive to the learning process. Don't get me wrong. Parents can made a huge difference in a child's education. I question involvement that gets forced through the homework system. www.thehomeworktrap.com.

Christa M. Tinari's picture
Christa M. Tinari
Social-Emotional Learning Specialist

I relate to this post. I train and coach teachers, and there have been many times when teachers have wondered about what their students like, dislike, understand, don't understand, etc. and my common suggestion is "let's ask the students!" I have never found students to be shy about sharing their thoughts on their own educational process and experiences, when we give them a safe way to express themselves. An anonymous survey monkey instrument can be very useful for this purpose. I have also found that when teachers are asked about what engages THEM in learning, they name many of the same factors as named by Ms. Wolpert-Gawron's students.Too many professional development providers demoralize and frustrate teachers when they just lecture, focus only on theory, and don't apply the best learning and teaching strategies that we advocate using with students. Teacher training must respect the knowledge educators already possess, and must help educators devise solutions to real challenges in their classrooms. Connecting new learning to the real-world realities of educators' jobs, mixing it up, moving around, using visuals and examples, providing choices, working in groups, and having some fun all help, too. www.peacepraxis.com

Tim's picture
Tim
Educator and political activist designing learning opportunities for the ge

It's all about number 8 for me, in class or in PD. Everything changes when you see students as clients rather than charges, and your other 9 ideas flow from that. Nice post!

Julia Gabor's picture
Julia Gabor
Director, Strategic Resourcing and Programs at Tiger Woods Foundation

This is great! I felt like I was reading my own writing! I just completed a thesis on Teacher Effectiveness and Student Engagement. I actually examined/researched seven strategies for teachers to utilize in the classroom to ultimately build relationships and keep the learning engaging. Here they are: building relevance in the classroom; the use of hands-on activities; personally 'checking in' with each student; creating a clear vision for future success for students; sharing personal stories; self-regulation; transformational leadership; and humor. There is plenty of research that supports these strategies. Unfortunately, the push back from teachers who struggle with implementing these teaching tips-- is around time and testing. Thanks to Ms. Wolpert-Gawron for highlighting these methods in her blog! It's just another part of our tool box we can share with our kids!

Beth Hill's picture

Awesome post! I love how you incorporated students' points of view. I think it is very important to understand as much as you can about your students in order to really reach them in the classroom. I also believe that the more you show interest in your students ideas and incorporate them into classroom activities, the more respect the students will have for you and more motivation from the students to be successful.

Curt Brooks's picture
Curt Brooks
4th grade science/social studies teacher from Raleigh, NC

In today's educational society, things can be a little hectic. From state mandates, school regulations and policies, and curriculum changes, teachers and students are under a lot of pressure to perform. Therefore, truly understanding the way students like to be engaged is very important. I teach 4th grade science and social studies and my students love lessons and activities that are interactive and challenging to the core. Many of my lesson are computer-based which usually means research, PowerPoints, webquest, and even wikis. Most importantly, you must make your lessons and activities relevant or provide real-world connection for the students. When my students are highly engaged it is reflected in their performance and grades. Another important element of successful engagement, at the highest level, is that it also curtails improper behavior. We all know that disruptions can take away from instructional time and this time can never be re-captured. All in all, we can see the importance of student engagement and the impact it can have in the classroom.

Curt Brooks's picture
Curt Brooks
4th grade science/social studies teacher from Raleigh, NC

Earlier this week, I posted to this blog to provide further thought and to maybe get some feedback or comments. Well, none as of yet but I most re-iterate that student engagement is the key to any teacher's success. Now, what I do not want to do is to make you think this is an easy concept; it definitely takes time and practice. You must truly get to know your students, their strengths and weaknessess, their behaviors, your classroom dynamics, and most importantly their likes and dislikes. Also, I must admit there are times when some of my lessons and activities work better than others. I think if you are truly mindful of differentiation of instructions in your lessons and activities it can enhance student engagement and limit those momens.

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