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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

mary russo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a second grade early intervention teacher. I am back in the classroom after 25 years of doing other educational jobs. My focus has been on following the standards as they are most emphasized at my school. I have done one individual long term project with my students and I helped them research information since this is a new concept for them. This was needed because many students do not have computers at home. Another short-term project was done in groups. This involved inquiry learning which they loved.
I found the steps Tristan suggested for project learning to be explicit and usable. After creating a climate of acceptance which includes respecting what others say even when students may disagree must be emphasized at the start of project learning and continue through all learning. I especially liked the idea of beginning a lesson asking questions all students can answer and then extending the learning from there. Using the intermediate steps is something that I have found to be needed not just for project learning but for other types of learning.
Even though creating an emotionally safe classroom is necessary often times I have found with grouping, some students work better with others than some. I try to put a leader in each group who is interested in accomplishing the task.
I think the journal writing will help me know better what my students are having problems with but often they don't know what those problems are. Having conversations about their journaling may be necessary for me to do. I will also use the self-awareness graphic, after an explanation of its use.

Sheryl Johnston's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I definitely agree with you about trying to keep students focused on the curriculum. It's hard to compete with the high tech gadgetry that kids are exposed to now a days.I sometimes feel like I need to emulate a video screen by sliding a front cut out box over my head to get my students' attention. After reading the article and everyone's responses, it seems that the project-based learning strategy is the way to keep kids focused and engaged with the curriculum. I'll be interested to discover more project-based ideas for the lower grades that we teach.

Julia Windham's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I also teach second grade and I think you just explained to us why it is so difficult to do more project-based learning activities with younger students. The concept of project-based learning is more than likely a brand new concept for them. We aren't able to dive in, we have to first teach them how to do the research (which can be considerably time consuming, but very beneficial to them in the long run).

Tristan de Frondeville's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Sandy, here are the promised suggestions from my colleague who has taught chemistry using Project Learning and constructivist approaches when possible.
The program that I worked with that comes closest to PBL is "Chemistry in the Community," which was created by the American Chemical Society, and you can check it out here: http://www.whfreeman.com/Chemcom/ .

Many Chem teachers know about it, and many, like me, are sometimes dissatisfied with it because in order to proceed with some of the units, the chemistry has to be introduced a bit like manna from Heaven, with little understanding of how we know what we know. For instance, the first unit deals with a mystery fish-kill near a town, and the students have to investigate the cause. In order to get at the chemistry, students need to know the structure and formula for water... which is just given to them, before they know anything about bonds, the octet rule, etc.

Another interesting approach to Chemistry is coming out of Arizona State University. A colleague of mine, Larry Dukerich, has been part of a team that has developed some awesome constructivist work with chemistry that follows the history of the development of ideas in chemistry, using models (in the metaphorical and mathematical sense of the word) to develop understanding in chemisty. This approach has the potential to be great, but if it is misused, then it is disastrous....much like PBL. The best way to steep yourself in this approach is to attend a workshop for teachers. You can find information about it at http://modeling.asu.edu/index.html .

You may be able to also email Larry to get more information.

Tristan de Frondeville's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mary, thank you for your clear explanation of how some of my suggestions are useful to you. Grouping issues is worth an article all by itself, as you know. I have a document called "Rules for High Performance Collaboration" that lists the 5 rules that I used to 'regulate' my group behaviors. You can find it here. I would be curious to see if you think those rules would be useful to second graders or whether it would need modification.
In her book (listed in a comment below), Elizabeth Cohen suggests 'teaching' collaborative behaviors by doing small (20 minute), not-too-pedagogical activities (that have a lot of intrinsic fun and collaborative work), and preparing for them by talking about collaborative behaviors that you want to see, versus those that you would rather not see. And then debriefing the experience afterwards. For older students, I have one person with a checklist of the behaviors sit next to the group and record their instances on a checklist, to help with the debrief.
I also like to talk about the looks like/sounds like aspect of the behaviors, so I make a T chart and list the what the positive behaviors look like and sound like.

One of the fun 20 minute activities I have used is to give kids 2 pieces of 8 x 10 paper, 10 paper clips, a scissors, and a 10 inch piece of tape, and give them 20 minutes to build the tallest free standing tower that they can. I think with younger students that you would want to 'de-emphasize' the competitive aspect of this to make it fun AND add structured time, such as 5 minutes of planning time without touching the equipment, then 5 mintues of planning time where you can touch the equipment, but you can't use it yet, or something like that. I have done this with adult teachers and young children, and everyone has lots of fun and we debrief such things as sharing ideas, was there a 'dominator?', who was a facilitator who calmed the waters and encouraged all members of the group to share their ideas.

Tristan de Frondeville's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mary, I hope that reading the article I mention below (in another comment) about the Superintendent in the 1930's who tried something very different and had his lower kids performing really well will prove inspiring for you to try to get kids to verbalize more. My math hero, Marilyn Burns, at this link, has great books on helping early grade students write about their learning. She also has great activities to get you started in constructivist ways.
Frankly, I used my own 10 year old twins as my 'math Piaget experiment' and I never taught them any 'standard algorithms' for paper and pencil math (interestingly enough, the only ones I had to touch up were subtracting with borowing - especially the ones with all the zeros - and long division). Instead, I mostly focused on mental math. Since math is my passion, I could write for days on the subject. I will try and post the rules for my "Ten Game" soon, and I think you will enjoy teaching your students that game and having them play it with each other a few minutes a day.

I will post about the Group of ONE issue soon.

Jennifer Marshall's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also loved the finger voting and choral answering ideas. I think they would work well while teaching the core subjects in first grade. Next year, I want to use the last ten minutes of the day to have them write in their journals about what they learned that day.

It is difficult to find time to do some of these great activities, but I think the students would be much more engaged if we taught using more project based strategies.

Jennifer Marshall's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also loved the "More Fun than a Barrel of Worms" link. The Wall Street activity was a great way to engage the students with real world examples too. I also liked the class who visited the "Virginia Living Museum". These are the things students will remember.

It is difficult with the younger grades to complete projects during class time. Some rush though the project while others won't finish. I have done a few projects in the past and have tweaked them to make them better the next year and more manageable. I would love to do more project-based activities next year like you said. With each passing year, I feel more comfortable trying new strategies.

I am going to also try the journal idea. It would be a valuable tool to use each day.

Karen Jones's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach fourth grade math, reading and language arts. This is my 20th year in elementary education. I found the article and suggestions for project-based learning very interesting however, I also found that the ideas presented are not really new concepts. Most of the techniques presented are fundamentally used by myself and most of the peers that I teach with. The major difference that I see is in the title of the concepts.

There are three concepts that I have not really put very much focus on that I think would benefit my students. I love the idea of Teaching Self-Awareness About Knowledge. This was one concept that I have never tried, but I think it is an excellent way of creating not only self-awareness among students, but also self responsibility. I have used journal writing as a means of communication, but found time constraints to hinder the effectiveness. I would appreciate more ideas on how to use this technique more effectively because I see the value of incorporating it daily as part of the lessons.
Karen Jones

Karen Jones's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Mary,
I agree with you about beginning lessons with questions that all students could answer. It is very important for students to feel empowered by what they know. What better way to illustrate to a student that they are in an intellectually safe environment. I also want to begin communication logs with students because I know how meaningful it is to a child to know that an adult is really interested in what they think.
See ya,

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