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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Ten Steps to Better Student Engagement

Project-learning teaching strategies can also improve your everyday classroom experience.
Tristan de Frondeville
Project Learning Consultant for PBL Associates

Tristan de Frondeville

Credit: Courtesy of PBL Associates

As a teacher, my goal was to go home at the end of each day with more energy than I had at the beginning of the day. Seriously.

Now, as I travel the country coaching teachers on how to successfully use project learning, my goal remains the same. And I try to teach educators the strategies they need to achieve this goal in their own classrooms.

A teacher in one of my workshops said, "When my students and I are in the flow, then I don't feel like I have to work as hard." I heartily agree. When 90 to 100 percent of my students are excitedly engaged in their tasks and asking deep and interesting questions, I experience joy, and joy is a lot less tiring than the frustration that comes with student apathy.

Project-based classrooms with an active-learning environment make such in-the-flow moments more common. Yet these same classrooms require many teacher and student skills to work well. As teachers, we can feel overwhelmed when we try something new and experience chaos instead of flow.

The good news is that the strategies for creating and managing high-quality project-learning environments are productive in any classroom, whether project learning is a central part of the curriculum or not. Here are ten ideas that you can start practicing in your classroom today to help you create more moments of flow.

Create an Emotionally Safe Classroom

Students who have been shamed or belittled by the teacher or another student will not effectively engage in challenging tasks. Consider having a rule such as "We do not put others downs, tell others to shut up, or laugh at people." Apply it to yourself as well as your students. This is the foundation of a supportive, collaborative learning environment. To learn and grow, one must take risks, but most people will not take risks in an emotionally unsafe environment.

Create an Intellectually Safe Classroom

Begin every activity with a task that 95 percent of the class can do without your help. Get your students used to the fact that when you say, "Please begin," they should pick up a pencil and start working successfully. This gets everyone on the bus. Then make sure your students know that these initial easy tasks will always be followed by increasingly challenging ones. Create rich and complex tasks so that various students have a chance to excel and take on the role of helping others.

Cultivate Your Engagement Meter

Be acutely aware of when your students are paying strong attention or are deeply engaged in their tasks. Master teachers create an active-learning environment in which students are on task in their thinking and speaking or are collaboratively working close to 100 percent of the time. Such teachers notice and measure not only when students are on task but also the quality of their engagement.

Although it may take years to develop the repertoire of skills and lessons that enable you to permanently create this active-learning environment, you can begin by discerning which activities truly engage your students. The more brutally honest you are with yourself, the faster you will get there.

Create Appropriate Intermediate Steps

The first question I ask educators when I coach them on project learning is how many of their students say, "We can't wait to do another project," versus "Oh, no! Not another project." Teachers tend to get the first response when they scaffold challenging tasks so that all students are successful.

For example, take the typical task of interviewing an adult outside the classroom. Some teachers assign the task on Monday and expect it to be done the following Monday, confident that by including the weekend, they are providing sufficient support. Other teachers realize that finding, cold calling, and interviewing an adult are challenging tasks for most young people, so they create intermediate steps -- such as brainstorming, searching online for phone numbers, crafting high-quality interview questions, and role-playing the interview -- that train all students for success.

Practice Journal or Blog Writing to Communicate with Students

Japanese teachers highly value the last five minutes of class as a time for summarizing, sharing, and reflecting. A nice way to change the pace of your class is to have students write regular reflections on the work they have done. Encourage and focus their writing with a prompt, such as "The Muddiest Point and the Clearest Point: What was most confusing about the work you did today, and what new thing was the most clear?" Use this approach to guide future lessons and activities. Consider writing responses to student journal entries in order to carry on a conversation with students about their work.

Create a Culture of Explanation Instead of a Culture of the Right Answer

You know you have created a rich learning event when all students are engaged in arguing about the best approach to the assignment. When you use questions and problems that allow for multiple strategies to reach a successful outcome, you give students the opportunity to make choices and then compare their approaches. This strategy challenges them to operate at a higher level of thinking than when they can share only the "correct" answer. Avidly collect problems and tasks that have multiple paths to a solution. As a math teacher, I create problems that have a lot of numbers instead of the usual two. For example, I can present this problem:

5 + 13 + 24 - 8 + 47 - 12 + 59 - 31 - 5 + 9 - 46 - 23 + 32 - 60

Then I can say, "There are at least three fundamentally different strategies for doing the following problem. Can you find them all?"

Teach Self-Awareness About Knowledge

All subjects build on prior knowledge and increase in complexity at each successive level of mastery. Effective learning requires that certain skills and processes be available for quick recall. Many students let too much of their knowledge float in a sea of confusion and develop a habit of guessing, sometimes without even knowing that they are guessing.

Credit: Courtesy of Tristan de Frondeville

To help students break this habit, paste the graphic at right next to each question on your assessments. After the students answer a question, have them place an X on the line to represent how sure they are that their answer is correct. This approach encourages them to check their answer and reflect on their confidence level. It is informative when they get it wrong but marked "for sure" or when they do the opposite and mark "confused" yet get the answer right.

Use Questioning Strategies That Make All Students Think and Answer

Pay a visit to many classrooms and you'll see a familiar scene: The teacher asks questions and, always, the same reliable hands raise up. This pattern lends itself to student inattention. Every day, include some questions you require every student to answer. Find a question you know everyone can answer simply, and have the class respond all at once.

You can ask students to put a finger up when they're ready to answer, and once they all do, ask them to whisper the answer at the count of three. They can answer yes, no, or maybe with a thumbs-up, thumbs-down, or thumbs-sideways gesture. That also works for "I agree," "I disagree," or "I'm not sure."

Numerical answers under ten are easy to show with fingers, but don't limit yourself to math questions. For instance, if you're teaching time management, have students let you know what their progress is halfway through the class by putting up one or more fingers to show whether they are one-, two-, or three-quarters done with the assignment, or finished. Do these exercises at least two or three times per class.

Practice Using the Design Process to Increase the Quality of Work

Students in school get used to doing work at a consistent level of quality. Unfortunately, low-performing students get used to doing poor-quality work. To help them break the habit, use a draft-and-revision process.

Many professionals use such a design process to increase the quality of their work. Engineers build prototypes, respond to critical feedback, and refine their design before going into production. Artists make sketches of big works and revise their ideas before creating their final piece. Use the design process to drive your students to produce higher-quality work than they are used to doing when they create only a first effort. Include peer evaluation as part of the feedback they receive.

Market Your Projects

When your students ask, "Why do we need to know this?" you must be ready with the best answer possible. Great projects incorporate authentic tasks that will help students in their lives, jobs, or relationships. Engage students by developing an inventory of big ideas to help you make the connections between your assignments and important life skills, expertise, high-quality work, and craftsmanship. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills provides a good starter list.

Also, search out the powerful processes and ideas experts in your own subject use repeatedly. (In math, for instance, my list includes generalizing and parts and wholes.) Keep a journal of the big ideas you've discovered simply by teaching your subject. By continually referring to these big ideas, you will encourage students to think and act like subject-matter experts and develop skills they will use throughout their lives.

Tristan de Frondeville, a former teacher who has also coached educators and written curriculum, heads PBL Associates, a consulting company dedicated to project learning and school redesign.

Comments (81)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Tristan de Frondeville's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am not sure if you asked for more details on the self-awareness graphic, but here are some just in case.
I use the graphic on the side of each of my quiz and test problems. After every problem, the student can place an 'x' on the line somewhere in the three circles. If they feel confident about their answer, they place it in the 'for sure' circle. If they feel 100% sure of their answer, they place it on the tippy tip of the end of the line on the right. If they feel unsure about their answer, they place it in the confused circle.
When they tell me that they are sure they are right, and they are wrong, I find that is a different problem then when they tell me that they are confused, and correctly assessing themselves. I have heard many students say they felt that they did great on the assessment, and then they were surprised that they did poorly.
In math in particular, students find it hard to value the benefit of firmly being in the for sure circle about their knowledge. I find that they get used to having their knowledge in the 'maybe' circle of their brain. Mathematics needs to build on a firm foundation of benchmark number awareness and knowledge, so that you can compare your answer to new problems to known answers for similar problems. This is a 'checking procedure' that requires some firm footing so that unknown new answers can be compared to known old answers. By emphasizing this checking process, I begin to have students develop their confidence as mathematicians who can 'create their own rules and methods' and actually check that they work, or determine when they may not work.

For example, I am always sad when I see students do rows of subtraction problems and then never check their answers. I would prefer that they do HALF the number of problems and then practice addition (equating to a similar amount of work) and check their answers themselves. When their two answers disagree, they must enter the world of critical thinking to determine where there mistake lies and how they must rectify the situation. Again, increasing their confidence as 'independent learners.'

Tristan de Frondeville's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

With my own 10 year old twins, I find myself looking for any teaching experience I can that will inspire and cajole them to create and perform high quality work. In my opinion, it almost does not matter what is taught, as long as the beauty of the material is made evident, the joy of creating and/or performing it at an increasing level of competence and expertise is shared and transmitted, and the value that it brings to your life is implicit. Isn't that why kids learn to crawl, then walk, then run, then skip? To feel the autonomy and achievement that is implicit in the process. The process of teaching high quality asks the student to enter into an ever more complex inner dialogue as they wreste in their mind with the question of "What will make this better?" rather than "What will get this done?". The first question is at the core of critical thinking, the second question is a pale substitute. The first question carries with it an even more powerful question, "What will make me better?"

A. Gregory's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a lower grade teacher I am always trying to use different ways of having all my students being able to respond. I really liked the idea of expanding it into time management. The idea of holding up fingers to signal my students as to how far they are through the assignment is something I would like to implement in my own classroom.
I also found some of the ideas on journaling very helpful. I like the idea of having the students reflect on the work they have done. I have used lab journals before but this article has made me think of ways I could expanded on that concept.

Tristan de Frondeville's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There are some other ideas on making journals easier to assess in some lower comments that you might find useful as well. - Tristan

Tristan de Frondeville's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I promised some elementary teachers game and diagnostic tool that I created called 'The Ten Game'. I have presented it at the annual Math Conference in Asilomar, California, and I have posted the document describing the game and how to use it in the K-8 classroom here.

Aber's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When I was a student, with some teachers I was having the similar problem of apathy. I was not focused and I had no desire to get to the heart of the issue, I waited for the end of the lecture. I think this was emotionally connected with the fact that teachers did not want to attract my attention, they focused on a small group of students seated in the front row and listened very carefully.

Jonah Salsich's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The book "Reaching All by Creating Tribes Learning Communities" by Jeanne Gibbs is an excellent resource for dozens of short, engaging activities (like the tower building mentioned above) for small groups to collaborate on. These activities really get the students energized while also teaching them the essential skills for collaboration on larger projects. I teach third grade and do a couple of "large" cross curriculum projects a year, and these short tasks really help prepare the students.

The book as a whole is excellent for fostering collaboration and focuses heavily on Tristan's first 2 steps - promoting an emotionally and intellectually safe learning environment.

Cristy Pollak's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"We do not put others downs, tell others to shut up, or laugh at people."

I used this today (second day of school) to initiate a Fishbowl observation of a team of students building a tower of straws- the other 6th graders watched & observed and took notes on their process.

To wrap up we made a poster on GREAT TEAMWORK techniques- I couldn't be more pleased with comments like: everyone got to talk, people listened to each other, they got the job done, they respected each other, mistakes were OK they just tried again---

Then everyone built towers in teams and it was a wonderful lesson for me to watch them get along and see everyone engaged 100%!Now I know we are getting ready for some serious Project learning!

Vincent Arecchi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Has the faculty gone through and kind of training to build collaborative skills in preparation for Project learning?

Valerie N.C Santos's picture

Hello I am a freshman at the University of Guam and I am interested in learning how to make fun learning methods.

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