Like most teachers, I have my favorite engagement strategies that work for my students. Generally these strategies work well throughout the year even as students become familiar with them. But when we’re about to go on break or when we’re returning from one, that’s when my students need the most help staying focused— and my favorite strategies don’t always keep their engagement. So, I do my best to come up with different engagement strategies to adapt to my students’ needs. I make sure to consider strategies that will help students build relationships with each other and engage with the content.
Here are four somewhat involved engagement strategies that I tested last year and yielded positive results and higher student engagement.
1. Guess the Directions
As students are more and more distracted by their phones, there are times when I don’t give my class direct directions. The reason for this is that I sense they’re tuning me out when I give directions, and then when it’s time to do work, they’ll ask, “What are we supposed to do?”
In order to mix it up and keep them engaged in this process, I‘ll sometimes give them a Google Form with a few questions related to the directions. We then check our answers together. If information is presented in this fashion, students feel more invested because they want to know if they guessed correctly. This method works well when you have very specific directions that are a bit complex and you want to ensure that the whole class understands the details clearly. Because as most teachers know, having oral and written directions and repeating them sometimes just isn’t enough.
2. Pop Culture Presentations
To review content, students select a term or concept and then create an analogy based on something trending in pop culture. If some students aren’t familiar with the term pop culture, I say “social media” and they get the gist. Some examples that students have come up with are comparing famous figures in history to various Pokémon characters or types of cars. I tell students to take what interests them and then find ways to make the concepts fit that. For example, if a student likes playing video games, I suggest they use a video game meme and match it to a science concept. The idea behind this is to get students to see links between what they enjoy with academic topics.
Because I teach a course where students need to share and review the learning from core classes, this gives us freedom to explore concepts from a variety of content areas, including English language arts, science, social studies, and math.
3. Personality Analogies
When we’re in the fourth quarter, and I have a sense that my students know one another fairly well and have a mutual respect for each person in class, personality analogies can encourage a lot of student engagement. However, to be clear, this engagement strategy should only be used when you know that all of your students will be respectful toward one another.
This is how I use it: When reviewing a complex concept, have students compare their peers’ personalities to the concept. For example, if the concept is a cell, then “Jeina would be the nucleus because she’s always in the middle of everything, and Tiati would be the cell membrane because she’s shy and doesn’t let people into her space.”
Students would present these comparisons in class to further help their peers. This strategy builds relationships between peers in a playful and content-driven way. If your students aren’t particularly close or don’t know each other well, then this strategy can be applied where students discuss how their own personality traits match or don’t match a concept. For example, “I would never be the nucleus because I don’t like to be in the middle of everything.”
For fun—with permission, of course—students can take photos of each other and add them to Google Slides. I’ve found that this makes for a fun and lighthearted review of content. All students have parent permission to have their photo taken or appear in video or voice recordings taken by the school, but for this activity, students ask each other for permission. I try to normalize the practice of having students ask permission because of all the secret photos and recordings in classrooms that I see rampant in social media—especially on TikTok.
4. Soundtrack Matches
This is a quick strategy where students are asked to match a song to a concept. For example, if the concept is the moon phases, a student might select “Moon,” by Jin of BTS, or “Harvest Moon,” by Neil Young, or “Talking to the Moon,” by Bruno Mars. This strategy could also be used based on how the students feel about a concept. So, if they understand and feel good about what they know, they can select a song that they like.
Since students often enjoy different types of music, it’s also a fun way for students to learn about their peers that doesn’t take up much learning time. To execute this, I create a Google Form, and students share the concept with the song title and artist. From there, I’ll have the students present their concept briefly, and during that time I’ll find the song on YouTube Music (free) and play a short snippet of it for the class. This strategy has had a lot of success in terms of engagement, especially when we do it in reverse. This means I ask the students to pick a song that does not match the concept.
When coming up with engagement strategies, I try to keep the concept simple and easy to execute within a portion of a class period (10–15 minutes at most). I don’t intend for this to take up the entire period, nor for it to be graded. I consider what all my students would be capable of doing and of course make exceptions and change things as needed. With engagement strategies, a good approach is to keep it interest- and peer-focused to create a learning environment where students feel seen and heard.