George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

How to Engage Students in Any Subject Area

A high school teacher with four decades of experience shares the principles she has used to build student excitement in a wide variety of subjects.

December 2, 2021
High school students work together in a small group
Wavebreak Media ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Decades of teaching social studies, math, biology, English, French, and journalism taught me that no matter what the subject, getting high school students excited about it was the key to learning. I also discovered there are definitely some tricks to getting the kids engaged and having a productive learning environment.  

4 Characteristics of Effective Classrooms

1. There’s a culture of caring and kindness within the class: You can feel it—kids are smiling, working in groups, engaged. The teacher seems relaxed, and the kids are excited about learning. They feel trusted and respected, and they are. Students aren’t afraid of making mistakes because they know they can revise. Grading isn’t punitive, new ideas are welcomed, and the teacher is approachable.

I always started out my new classes with an activity I called “personality feature.” It was an opportunity for each student to interview one other student in the class and also to be interviewed. The idea was to introduce each student to the class, so they all could get to know each other and work collaboratively. Kids work better when they know the other students and have a sense of trust and respect for them.

2. Students know why they’re studying the subject: Their work has to be authentic and relatable. Kids love learning if it connects to their lives. Teachers need to tie whatever students are studying to their lives today, and kids can help with this. For example, in history, kids can work in groups looking for ties about policy decisions to events that happened years ago or even in the last century. 

3. There’s a student-friendly revision policy: Make sure that students always have the opportunity to revise, even on tests. Kids get discouraged because of poor grades. If there’s no chance for them to get a better grade, they lose motivation. Giving them the opportunity to revise (with a deadline) gives them hope that they can improve and so can their grade. 

I even had a student-friendly revision policy in math. I gave kids the opportunity to relearn the concept and take the test again. Some kids just take longer, but once they learn it, they retain it as long as it’s meaningful to them. That’s one of the advantages of adaptive learning. Kids can relearn a concept that’s complex as many times as they need until they get it.

As Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford writes in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, what you think about yourself and your ability to learn is the key to how you learn. Giving kids the opportunity to revise helps them see they can actually learn whatever they want to learn.

4. Embed collaboration in most of the assignments: Working with a partner or in groups makes learning fun. Allow students to pick their partner unless it’s not a good fit. Humans are social beings, and no one likes to learn alone.

One example of the importance of collaboration is what’s happening with massive open online courses (MOOCs). As many as 90 percent of the learners may drop out before completing courses. People don’t like to learn alone or in isolation. They don’t like lectures.

They like to talk to each other about what they’re learning. Even math concepts, especially complex concepts, are up for discussion. One student can explain the concept to another student, and each learns—the one who teaches learns leadership skills, so it’s beneficial for both students.

In a world where kids are focused on “learning loss,” test scores, and memorizing, I cofounded a company called Tract a year ago to help give them agency and excitement—to bring the joy back to learning and not focus on test scores. It’s a peer-to-peer, project-based, kids’ social media platform focused on independence and collaboration. Teens create the learning for preteens on the assumption that no one is more exciting to a kid than a kid who’s a little bit older.

Tract is built on the above key points and on my TRICK philosophy (trust, respect, independence, collaboration, and kindness), which I explain in my book How to Raise Successful People. TRICK belongs in all teacher-student and parent-child relationships.

TRICK worked in my classrooms for 40 years and with my own children who became highly successful. It can help empower your students to be passionate about school and learning, too, if you treat them with TRICK, it can make your life as a teacher much easier and more satisfying and bring joy into the classroom.

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  • Collaborative Learning
  • 9-12 High School

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George Lucas Educational Foundation