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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

Tristan de Frondeville's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Rachel, I would love to help you 'jump in'. I am on vacation this week, however, there are a few things we can do to prepare ourselves to launch your effort when I get back. One, is I would like to know a bit more about what you have tried so far where you put kids in groups (probably paired activities). Also, have you tried finger voting (as in the article) where you get all kids to answer questions at once? This will change the culture of your classroom so that all kids get used to occasionally being responsible to listen to the question, and get ready to answer the question. Even if they can't vote with their fingers (such as what is the captital of the United States), you can ask them to raise one finger when they are ready, and then at the count of three they can all "whisper" the answer. I think you will find that they enjoy this "choral answering" and these are all small steps to get them going towards a culture of a project. Finally, I will try and look up this evening an amzaing book that used to be on Amazon and still should be about a First Grade Teacher's "Bird" project. Reading that will be very inspiring for you, as it walks through first grade issues in detail.

Tristan de Frondeville's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Diane, thank you for your great idea for Carol. I have often participated in these 'email' group lists, and they are super helpful. I think that somehow, your link did not post, so it would be great if you could repost it.
Carol, thank you for being honest about your kids lack of enthusiasm so far, and I commend you for taking responsibility for it, however, keep your sense of balance about it all. Until you discover the projects and methods to teach your particular group of kids a balance of the authentic, engaging materials and activities that they need to feel good about learning, while including the big ideas and powerful standards (out of the always very long list) that you and the government feel will benefit their lives and society, engaging students is a daunting task. You need to nurture your own energy needs so that you stick with it until you succeed. My math teaching hero, Marylin Burns, always admits that it took her years to develop the skills, habits, techniques, activities, and big ideas, that she uses to create powerful learning experiences...And me too! As teachers, she and I and you are "always learning".
Thus, I am curious. What makes you think that Project Learning is 'the way to go'? If we build on your beliefs about the benefits, then we will reinforce your successes more quickly.

Tristan de Frondeville's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Here is a nice way to get some 'free' information on Ms. Morton's First Grade Bird Project. Please go to Google, and type "first grade bird project mendocino" and you will see some resources describing the project. Also, here is the link to the book she wrote on Amazon. Kids on the Net: Conducting Internet Research in K-5 Classrooms by Jessica Morton

Neil Stephenson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think this post has nailed the important element of good project work - that we as teachers need to chunk and plan out the project into managed and meaningful pieces. We need to know where we want our students to go, and plan out all the steps along the way. If I've learned anything in my career, it's that we must teach anything we want our students to be able to do. We can't assume they know how to take notes, or find good websites, or work effectively in groups. At the grade level I teach (grade 7) I must build in teaching all the skills I expect my students to demonstrate.

Please check out my blog to see how I have chunked and unrolled a year-long, Canadian History project: http://thinkinginming.blogspot.com


Sandy Gallogly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Project-Based learning can be a great way to engage students. The key is finding projects that the students can really relate to and enjoy. Teaching high school can be very challenging to get the student motivated but the strategies mentioned above do work in the classroom. As a Science teacher of 21 years I struggled with using inquiry type instruction because of the student apathy, but have had some success and continue to work on finding new ideas. If you have any lessons that I could use for inquiry learning in Chemistry please share them with me. I also liked the Self-Awareness graphic given in your article and plan on trying this on my next assessment.

Laurie (Staff)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Staff comment:

Dear Rachel:

This could work for first graders as well: Voyages of Discovery: Five-Year-Olds Explore Through PBL, and More Fun Than a Barrel of . . . Worms?!

Tristan de Frondeville's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Sandy, good luck on using the self-awareness graphic. I hope it gives your students and yourself some interesting information and conversations. I am working with a friend of mine who is a PBL coach and Chemistry teacher to find you some resources.

Julia Windham's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Sandy. I'm definitely going to try to use the Self-Awareness Graphic as well. Many times after an assessment, I'll ask my class how they think they've done. It seems that as a whole, the class will always give a positive response. However, this graphic will give the students that are afraid of speaking out a more private method of sharing their confidence level. It will also help me know when I need to do some reteaching to some of my students.

Julia Windham's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It really seems as though project-based classrooms and standards-based classrooms can go hand-in-hand. I've been asked to model a standards-based classroom next year at my school. I'm a bit apprehensive about this because I feel that I don't really know enough about standards-based classrooms at this point. I would love to incorporate more project-based assessments in my 2nd grade classroom. I think that the ten steps you described are essential in building the strong foundation that is necessary for a project-based classroom. One thing that I do fear is the amount of time it will take to do more projects with my students. At the elementary level, my class is made up of all types of learners, from the lowest, who is served in our early intervention program, to the highest, who is classified as gifted. I teach to the very last minute, and I still feel that I need more time to adequately cover all of the Georgia Performance Standards. Do you have any suggestions on how I could set up my classroom in order to do more project-based assessments? Would you assign students to a group? If so, should I ability group, have a mixed group, or do a little of both? What do you think would be more effective?

Jennifer Marshall's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently teaching first grade and several years ago I received my Master's degree. One of the required courses was Authentic Assessment. There was no textbook for the class, but we were required to read a book called "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I wasn't too excited when I found out I had to read this book, but it ended up being quite interesting. The book talked about "flowing" when you are completing a task or assignment and how engaged you are or are not during the activity. Your article reminded me of the book when you talked about project-based classrooms having" in-the-flow moments". I do believe this is when the children are actively engaged and will learn the most.

I think the journaling activity your article stated is a great activity at the end of the day to remind students what they learned and what they may be confused about. I would like to learn about some project-based activities I could use with my first grade class. It makes it difficult with first graders because they require lots of help during projects.

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