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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.
By Tristan de Frondeville

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)

Jennifer,
At the bottom of these comments, you will see that I talk a bit about Project Learning for the real early grades and mention a neat book about a 'bird' project that was done by a first grade teacher in Mendocino, California. I think it is an excellent resource that describes how to manage a bird project and technology in a first grade classroom. Thank you for sharing the book about Flow. I will get it myself. The journaling activity is confirmed by research that suggests a strong correlation between self-reflection and long term retention of information. I also believe that it helps all students become reflective about their learning, which is an important part of the critical thinking goal that we have for students, but rarely know how to 'teach.' I will also respond to the comment below with an article that I think you will find interesting about what works best with young children.

Tristan de Frondeville's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Julia,
Thank you for your helpful comments below. I have a very interesting article that may give you the confidence to 'break the box' with a positive outcome for your students. This is about a superintendent who had the courage to radically change what he encouraged his elementary school teachers to do (in the 1930's no less). I find that his emphasis on having kids describe their own real experiences and write about them, and use them as stepping stones to teach the 'standards', had the result that all of the learning had a concrete context with which to anchor itself in their young minds. Here is the link. Let me know if this helps with the standards issue. I don't suggest that you create the 'radical' change in this first year when you will be under the microscope, but perhaps the story will help you have confidence that kids learn more when they learn in a rich-context. Otherwise, it is really only the 'gifted' and or auditory-verbal learners that can absorb a steady stream of disconnected, de-contextualized, 'factoids' with any hope of retaining a large amount. And even then, they don't remember school as an inspiring experience, just something they were good at.
It may also inspire you to know that the most successful education countries of the world go slowly and deeply. Finland has the most college graduates per capita, with 50% wanting to be teachers when they graduate from college (think about what that means culturally!), and they do not start school until the age of 7. And, they go slowly and deeply after that. It is in the depth that you capture and motivate the excitement and high-level, critical thinking of the 'gifted' kids, while the slower speed allows "the students who need more time" to master the core basics that help them succeed in subsequent material. This prevents the gap from widening between the able and less-quick students, and prevents you from getting bogged down as the year goes on.
As the first grade teacher, you have the huge job of 'forming' the classroom and teaching the 'norms' of the school process. Groups can so quickly allow kids to 'coast' along and not pay attention, which is hard enough in first grade. I would work a lot on paired activities where the kids have to practice explaining things to each other, and then summarizing the explanations to the class. You have to model real patience at the beginning, showing everyone that it is worth listening carefully to the most halting explanations so that their confidence will build. Pairing helps kids not feel the intensity that occurs when everyone is focusing on just one individual. If you create groups, I recommend almost always making them heterogeneous. One of the 'hidden norms' that you want to communicate is that there are all kinds of talents that are required in group work, and that you do not reward just the 'best reader, or speaker'. Elizabeth Cohen has great ideas on groupwork in her book Designing Groupwork Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom Second Edition by Elizabeth Cohen. The first few times you create groups bigger than two, try to have very special activities where you can have clear roles for each student: the listener/summarizer of options, the recorder of facts, the gentle re-focuser, etc. Give them funny and powerful sounding names. The special activities should inherently require that a group of 3-4 students is involved, so that everyone feels needed. Once you create powerful collaborative norms, then you can have more casual activities successfully working with larger groups.
Finally, don't forget to ask questions that involve everyone in choral answering or finger voting, so that you create moments where everyone has to pay attention, and everyone has to answer, not just the few who are raising their hands all of the time.

Sheryl Johnston's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've been teaching for nine years at a public school in Lawrenceville, Georgia. I recently switched from 5th grade to 2nd grade. One of my concerns this year has been with the quality of work that my 2nd grade students have done with their group projects as compared with my 5th graders. While I observed the same level of enthusiasm from my 2nd graders, I haven't seen the the same level of creativity and careful work that I often found with my 5th graders. My 2nd graders have a tendency to rush to complete their projects and it concerns me that they aren't getting the full value of learning from their project work as my 5th graders did. As a result I haven't done as much project learning with my 2nd graders. After reading your article and some of the links that you've attached to a couple of the reply postings (I especially found the article "More Fun than a Barrel of Worms!" inspiring.), I now realize that I need to revisit the idea of project-based learning and start using it again in my classroom. I probably need to spend more time planning out the project ideas and outlining my expectations for my students. Do you have any other suggestions that you can give me to encourage my students to slow down and think about what they are learning as they engage in the group activity?

I think your suggestion of having students keep a reflective journal is a good idea. While it might take a bit of time to read and respond to their journal entries, I think it would be a valuable tool to help me gage student understanding especially from the quieter students who are sometimes reluctant to ask for help or express confusion. This might be one way to get my students thinking about what they are doing when they are engaged in group work.

One question that I have regarding group projects is how would you handle a student who is reluctant to do group work? I've had a couple of students who have had difficulty working with others. My way of dealing with this was to give the student the choice of working individually or with the group. While I think it's important for the students to develop cooperative working skills, sometimes it's just not worth the disruptive behavior that reluctant students exhibit when they refuse to work well with others. Is giving the student the option of working alone the best way to handle this kind of problem when it occurs or do you have a better suggestion? Can students be engaged in project-based learning even if they are doing it alone, or is the group dynamics key to this method of teaching?

Sheryl Johnston's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Julia,
I understand your concern about covering all the academic standards. I haven't done as much project-based learning with my students this year as I have in the past because of my concern that they weren't getting as much out of their project work as my 5th graders did. I've allowed myself to get too stressed out by the benchmark tests that was new to my school this year. I guess I just found it easier to stick to the instructional calendars that walked me through the curriculum rather than to venture off and integrate the curriculum with project-based learning assignments. Hopefully I'll be able to let go of this stress and incorporate more project work in my classroom next year. Plus, with this year behind me I think I'll have a better idea of what I can expect from 2nd graders and not compare them so much to my 5th graders.

Amanda Van Voorhis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach first grade and in teaching the core subjects Reading and Math, it is often not interesting to my students and they don't stay focused on what we are doing. Some of the project-based learning strategies would be helpful in keeping everyone engaged. I want to use your ideas of finger voting and choral answering, so that every student would be involved in answering questions, not waiting while one student answers. I also want to have my students write in their journals about work they have done. That would be a good way for me to evaluate how much they actually grasped the concept we studied that day.

I want to plan more project-based learning activities to go along with our Science and Social Studies curriculums. Thank you for the links to help us with ideas for the lower grades.

Amanda Van Voorhis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I want to use reflective journals with my students, too. They would be an effective way to see how much my students have learned as well as letting me know about all the students, not just the vocal ones.

I am interested in the answer to your question concerning the student that doesn't want to work in a group. Sometimes it's easier to just let the student work alone, but is that the best solution?

Amanda Van Voorhis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

From my understanding of our Georgia Performance Standards, we should be doing more hands-on activities and assessments. Like you, it concerns me about how much time it takes to do those, but some of the "ten steps to better students engagement" could be a big help in setting the foundation for doing more project-based learning. I think if we took the time to set the foundation in our classrooms, it would be easier and more effective to do more projects.

mary Russo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have some of the same concerns as you do Sheryl. I have been out of the regular classroom for 25 years. This year has been my first experience using standard -based education and everything I have taught has been totally based on what the standards are for second grade. My other concern is that most of my students are low and we have to spend even more time learning and reviewing the information, particularly in math, to make it stick.
I do like the steps that Tristan suggests as I think they help students become more doers and thinkers, rather than just spitting out information.

mary russo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

hi Julia,
I too like the idea of using the Self-Awareness graphic. I plan to use it after explaining thoroughly how its used. I also think writing in a journal after a lesson would give me more of an understanding of what my students know. My students benefit from questioning them about things they know. They love to talk!-Mary

mary russo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

hi Julia,
I too like the idea of using the Self-Awareness graphic. I plan to use it after explaining thoroughly how its used. I also think writing in a journal after a lesson would give me more of an understanding of what my students know. My students benefit from questioning them about things they know. They love to talk!-Mary

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