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Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement

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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.

Best Practices to Engage Students

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Anne Marie McGowan's picture

From the perspective of a current student with an Education degree, I completely agree with these 10 categories. I have been on both sides, student and teacher, as well as every other teacher out there And how could you not agree? This is how students learn best. It is how they want to learn and how they enjoy to learn. Learning should be fun and constructive, not one size fits all. Many different things engage students and they are all something every teacher should be able to do. Allow students to move around, work with peers, use visuals, laugh, explore, use technology, create, invent, relate things to their lives, be funny, etc. I think the most obvious one is to make connections to the real world with their learning. This seems a little ridiculous, why else would the student be learning it if it didn't apply to them in the "real" world?! Is there a fake world out there with fake things the students are learning about? Of course not, but we need to make sure students understand what they are learning in relation to their lives. Learning needs to be meaningful for them to actually learn anything at all. The most important memories are the ones that you remember the most because they impacted you in a big way. Every lesson should be an important memory. Do I remember every worksheet or homework assignment I ever did? No. Are there other ways I could have learned the same thing through a more meaningful or engaging way? Most likely. I also like your food reference. Students get tired of doing the same thing, and so do teachers. It is always good to mix things up every day to get fresh perspectives and ideas. I think this article would be a good one for teachers to post next to their desks so they can remind themselves daily of what they should be striving for in their classrooms. This info is straight from the horses' mouths- the students. What better way to improve student achievement then by giving the students exactly what they want? There's nothing wrong with that. In fact, thats what they deserve, and so do the teachers. It is a win-win for everyone.

Sue Boudreau's picture
Sue Boudreau
Seventh Grade science teacher from Orinda, California

Absolutely, ask them in all kinds of different ways often, especially when something bombs. Model reflection and being willing to learn and be flexible. BUT be careful if you don't feel you 'have the class' in partnership, these openings can create an opening for the class clown(s). So be clear what reasonable boundaries are and be overt about that, including the constraints such as state testing. I get amazingly thoughtful and INTERESTING comments in some of these discussions.

Other ways that also work: regular journal writes with open ended questions - 'What did you learn last week?', 'What was most memorable?' 'What would you like to see more of in this class?' Go for positive/constructive feedback.

I used to use an anonymous survey monkey at the end of the year and I got similar comments to above BUT I also got a few flames with kids dying to get out of 8th grade to high school. Kind of un-made the start of my summer and those were the comments I remember :-(.

Heather's summary is going to keep ME engaged with engaging my squirly 8th graders this morning. Off to buy sour candies to spice up the acids lab. That should hit all the um, bases. Happy spring all!

Chris B's picture
Chris B
Integrated outdoor Ed

Get them outside! Link labs with exploring the natural areas around you. We evolved in an outdoor setting. All of our filters are use to dealing with bird song, wind, etc. it's being inside that hampers growth. It's sterile, limiting, tedious, and too sedate.

Nina Smith's picture
Nina Smith
Mentor, Teaching Consultant

We can always count on open and honest communication between the teacher and students to give most accurate data about learning. After all, students are the ones doing the work (= learning), we teachers are there to help students learn. As seen in all the ten examples above, the transformative step from emphasizing teaching to emphasizing learning happens when the teacher uses cooperative tools in the classroom, and grants students sufficient amount of freedom within well designed structure, class management. I can also see the two other essential parts of formal learning being visible in the students' answers: the constructive processes, which allow students to build their worldview, but also the cognitive emphasis that makes learning an interesting journey. Thank you, Heather, for sharing your students' words with us and emphasizing the importance for authentic communication!

I have concentrated the engagement into one key, and labeled that to the teacher's desire to empower her/his students:

R. Daniel Davis's picture

3. Connecting the real world to the work we do/project-based learning
I always try to find a way to relate what we are talking about in science, math, or history to some aspect of my 5th graders lives. The student quote you used really reinforces the idea that students will truly understand a concept better if they can apply it to their own context in some way. It is a great feeling to ask a student a question about a particular standard and they tell you the answer, but then go on to explain their thinking and connection to the answer.
4. Clearly love what you do
Here you bring up another great point! If students can tell you are not into a topic, why should they be? Students are very perceptive to teachers and their demeanor. You have to own the topic and make them want to as well!

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

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.

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