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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
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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

Karen Jones's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Sandy,
I can't imagine teaching chemistry to high school students! I, like you, see the value of the self-awarness technique and how valuable it could be to any age student. Not only would it be valuable to the student, but to the instructor as well. It would definitely take the guess work out of many "why" questions.
See ya,

Adam Rambin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The "Teaching Self-Awareness About Knowledge" section is something that I would like to start using. I think it would be very helpful to both teachers and students. It would be nice to have the graphic to put on pencil and paper tests (not that we should be using pencil and paper tests too often with project-based learning). :)

Adam Rambin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that project-based classrooms can do amazing things for students and teachers. Having extra energy at the end of the day is a plus as well. I am glad that creating a safe classroom emotionally and intellectually were the first two ideas presented as they create the foundation of any classroom. It all revolves around respect. The classroom should be a place where students can thoughtfully and creatively discuss ideas, processes, and possible solutions.

There are some things that we have to teach that are not interesting. This creates moments for both students and teachers that are draining. One factor that was touched upon in the article is student choice. Allowing students to choose which projects they complete and also what activities or assignments make up the project will boost their enthusiasm for learning. Give the students an essential objective and allow them to chart the course as well as the final product. Some students would love to make a video or a slideshow while others may want to complete a portfolio or even take a paper and pencil test. They must have the intermediate steps mentioned in the article to provide a framework within which they can operate. That is the tricky part - having the time to create the projects and frameworks that allow students freedom to choose.

One project-based learning strategy that I am very interested in but haven't tried yet is expeditionary learning. Has anyone used expedition learning? What resources exist to help teachers use expeditions? Here is a link to the Outward Bound Expeditionary learning for more info: http://www.elschools.org/

Adam Rambin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would like to hear more about the "Flow" ideas. It is interesting to think of student engagement as a stream of energy that can be harnessed to do great work. But the student interest and engagement must be there. Thanks for sharing.

Mark Nichol's picture
Mark Nichol
Editor / Writer

Staff comment:

Thanks for your note, and for mentioning Outward Bound's expeditionary-learning initiative, which we've covered in several articles and a video. For those unfamiliar with the program, take a look at its own Web site, but please also check out this Edutopia.org blog post, which introduces the program, and these pieces about how school districts and schools are applying the principles of the program:

"River Journeys and Life Without Bathing: Immersive Education"
"The Little School That Did: Reinvigorating Education in East Oakland"
"Laptops on Expedition: Embracing Expeditionary Learning"
Kids Represent Their Work Through Tech

Mark Nichol
Edutopia staff

Pat Castleberry's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been an elementary gifted education teacher for many years and project-based learning as been a part of our curriculum for a some time. It was enligtening to learn about the various steps to get students more engaged; some of which I'm currently using and some I plan to use more. The second grade gifted students are currently working on inventions and the ultimate goal is for each student to create an invention to solve a problem of his/her choice, and be presented at the school science fair in May. The students have worked their way up from thinking up and making new designs for pencils to more difficult problems solved in small collaborative groups. The students are keeping invention journals and even though very briefly - maybe one or two sentences - are recording their thoughts or feelings about their accomplishments. Finding time at the end of the day for this reflection is not always easy but important in the learning process.
Tristan's ideas about questioning strategies are very helpful with the thumbs up, down, etc. and could also be a good way to review factual questions from research discussed with the class. Another step that Tristan emphasized that I've really tried to work on this year, is getting the student's to slow down and produce a quality product. I feel that sometimes, I just want them to get finished so we can go on and will accept work that isn't their best. Not this year - we are working on taking more pride in what we do and try to do our best work - even though it is more time-consuming; however, my classes are smaller and I have fewer time retraints than the regular classroom teacher.

Jenni Schmidt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also think journals are a great way to communicate with students about their learning. After being overwhelmed with the time commitment involved with journals, a colleague made the simple suggestion of responding to 5 or so a day. While I may only respond to each child once a week, my responses are more thorough and meaningful because I don't have the pressure of reading and writing in 28 journals a day! It comes down to quality over quantity.

Pat Castleberry's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Sheryl - I agree with you. I'd love to see that box on your head. The students are so used to all the technology "gadgets" that sometimes it is hard to compete. I would like to try and use technology more in my lessons. We just got interactive white boards and had our training just two weeks ago but I haven't used it enough to feel confident; however, that is a good way to keep student's engaged.

Pat Castleberry's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with what you are saying; some of the ideas are not new but it was beneficial to see them written out as steps, explained and suggestion of how to make our students more engaged. As you related, I, too like the idea about the self-awareness about knowledge. This goes along with what we have talked about in several of our graduate classes and how important it is for students to develop their critical thinking skills and metacognition skills. It sounded so familiar in Tristan's article when he talked about students just guessing and sometimes just responding with any answer instead of taking the time to think and think about what they know and what they don't know or understand. This is a great technique I plan to use it,too, with my students.

Tristan de Frondeville's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Karen, hurray that these are not new concepts. I would be delighted if they might occasionally be well worn and used concepts, and I am excited to know that you and your peers use them often.
I also found the idea of bringing boxes of journals home on Friday afternoon intimidating until I discovered the idea of using them as a summative review and self-analysis tool. Now, I tell my students to go through a week or two of their journal entries and with a green pen, circle the two entries that they most want me to read. Then, I ask them to write a few sentences to me about why they chose those. I guarantee them that I will read those, and I MAY read other entries. I have found that both my students and I find this arrangement very satisfying. I can flip through and see extra thought put into their journal and communicate back to them on those two green sections, and then browse the rest at my whim. This has made the process less burdensome and more exciting for me. I ask my students to perform these summaries in other areas also, such as homework grades, etc. It helps them review the work they do and summarize it so that there are no surprises in grades and evaluations. I can review carefully the summaries and details of the students that might be inclined to exagerate their accomplishments, and I can go through more quickly the work of the other students if I so desire.

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