Student Engagement

Using Class Agreements to Boost Engagement in Middle and High School

When students and teachers spell out what each side will do to ensure greater learning gains, the results can be powerful.

February 14, 2024
Drazen Zigic / iStock

Rather than aspiring to be a sage on the stage or a guide on the side, consider the impact of entering into an agreement with students to build stronger engagement in the work of learning. This agreement is not a signed contract, but a mutual understanding that the teacher will examine their practice to consider the changing needs of students, and, in trade, students will engage fully in four behaviors that lead to success.

Today’s students are sophisticated; they know more about the world and are more connected than ever before. The agreement is not a fix that assumes students are inherently bad or unmotivated, but instead the intention is to normalize agreed-upon behaviors that dictate what teachers do and what students do in order to collaborate effectively. At the core, teachers who enter such an agreement build the trust necessary to partner with students and shift the attention to learning.

4 Agreements to Build Stronger Student Engagement

1. Do all the things. Don’t feed the beast of trading points for completed assignments. Students are often pulled in many directions by outside commitments, which can cause them to shift priorities, and, as a result, they choose only the most “valuable” assignments to complete, letting the others go. To keep the focus on learning, examine the purpose of each assignment.

As teachers, it’s important to evaluate all assignments and eliminate senseless busywork. Then assign only what is essential to learning to increase student willingness to engage in new habits of learning. Assignments worth doing build trust with students.

When students do all the things—and the work is meaningful—they begin to recognize the value in even the smallest task. Doing all the things also helps those students who struggle to scaffold their way to success. When students use a completed assignment again as the base for new learning, they start to see the connection between doing and learning.

Student quote: “I have your voice in my head being like ‘Do all the things.’ I often make jokes from that phrase because it really does help. But in this case I do all the things and by doing them have turned them in on time, and I am prepared with the material for the next day.”

2. Try your best. For years, secondary students have been motivated by our points, stars, or praise. To keep the focus on learning, examine the role you play in measuring student success.

We have to give students control over their own learning. Instead of assigning grades or points that judge student effort, we can use rubrics and exit slips to provide feedback to help students determine if they have done their best work and where to go next. Prioritizing feedback over points strengthens the supportive relationship between teacher and student.

Students who try their best can feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction no matter the outcome. A sense of control over effort may also help with anxiety about grades. (If the effort is there, the grade will take care of itself.)

Student quote: “I will continue to try my hardest in this class to leave my comfort zone.”

3. Read. (No, really—read!) We’ve all done it—skimmed an article or read just the headline grabber and kept scrolling. To keep the focus on learning, examine how you select texts, and model close reading.

We need to choose culturally responsive texts or allow student choice, which invites learners to engage in reading and increases their sense of belonging. Modeling first- and second-draft reading teaches students to engage more deeply with a text, boosts understanding, and increases confidence.

Questioning if they have really read the text allows students to openly wonder what it means to read. Students get to determine for themselves if they have really read the text and can apply strategies to read deeper—quickly learning that close reading helps them better understand what they’ve read.

Student quote: “I know we really focused on the importance of reading and fully understanding, but I guess I was lazy and felt like I could get around it in a sense, but now that I’ve experienced not being able to write a strong report when not fully understanding the reading, I really do understand the importance, and it’s honestly made writing so much easier.”

4. Ask for help. Many of us push ourselves to a breaking point, in part because we’re convinced that we should be able to figure things out on our own. Students are no different. Whether in an Advanced Placement class or English 9, students don’t want to appear dumb in front of peers. To keep the focus on learning, examine how you make space for vulnerability in your classroom.

We can model vulnerability by admitting our own confusion or unknowing and show how we seek to find answers. Guide students to be self-advocates in their own learning. Asking for and offering help benefits student learning and builds a stronger classroom community.

When students admit they don’t know, they make themselves vulnerable, which is powerful for perfectionists and reluctant learners alike. Additionally, students learn that there is power in asking for help and in offering support to those in need.

Student quote: “When I’ve been stuck, I ask questions to my group, who are usually able to answer them and help me feel less trapped in my unknowns.”

When we name, define, and incorporate the four agreements into classroom culture, we commit to examining our own practice and invite students to partner with us in their learning. As a collection, the agreements work to support students and build momentum for both teachers and students to achieve success.

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  • Student Engagement
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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