George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Students want to be engaged in class. They really do -- but sometimes other things get in the way of their natural instincts. A few changes to how a teacher runs a classroom can make a huge impact on how engaged students will be in that classroom. It's an issue that every teacher has to face, but it can be addressed in some very simple ways. Here are just a few of my strategies for dealing with low levels of student engagement. They've made a major difference in my classes over the years.

Shuffle Seats

I did the seat shuffle because class conversation had become stale, and students just seemed to be there but not actually there. It's one of the simplest ways to shake up a class and get things going again. I had all of my students pick new seats at the tables. The rules were simple. They could not sit with more than one other person they'd already sat with, and it had to be at a different table. The kids were a little annoyed at first, but the shuffle paid off immediately. For one class, it was one of their best participation days of the year. Sitting with fresh faces and bouncing new ideas off different people got them going in a different way than they were used to. It was a nice change of pace, and I look forward to doing it once a month to keep the conversations fresh.

Student Takeover

Once in a while, it can be fun to let the students take over a lesson or two in a unit. Let them become the teachers, and the teacher becomes the student. You can provide the topic they need to cover and give them some benchmarks, but the rest of the lesson should be left up to the students. They get to engage with the material in a way that is refreshing and new to them. Different student groups can be in charge of different aspects of the lesson and can teach on different days. This approach has students looking at information in a different way, and can allow the teachers to see what their students can learn when they explore information on their own. For the daring teacher, let the students choose the topic, prepare everything for the lesson, and teach the class whatever they want.

Open Projects

Open projects have been very successful in my class. I've found that the more options I gave my students, the better the projects have been. I used to dictate every part of my project assignments. Students would ask to do things a little differently, and I'd give in, surprised that their ideas were better than mine. Since I decided to give up control on the project format, I’ve received amazing presentations from students. I give them the project objective and ask for a proposal explaining how their project will demonstrate their understanding of the objective. Once I green-light them, they get to work. They create their own rubric, which I approve, and I grade their presentations. The final stipulation to my open projects is that they cannot do the same type of project more than once in a semester. This encourages students to explore other media. Giving up control was a scary thought at first, but it has paid off with some of the best work I've ever seen my students complete.

Have Fun

Sometimes teachers forget to bring the fun to the classroom. We try so hard to cover the curriculum that we work our students until they collapse. Sometimes it's good to just set things aside for a day or two and have some fun. I had noticed that my two American literature classes were getting pretty run down, so I thought we'd play a little for a couple of days at the end of a long unit. I challenged these classes to come up with the best lip-dub for the song "Good Time." They had one day in class to figure out what they wanted to do in the video, and one class period to film it. After a week, the class with the most likes would receive a prize from me. The students loved the project and came up with two very different but very awesome videos:

The students had so much fun making these videos, and they were able to share them with their friends and family and fight for bragging rights. Only ten or so votes separated the two classes when it was all finished. This episode of fun relieved some stress and allowed the students to just be kids. It gave them a shot of energy for the rest of the year, and their engagement level returned to normal. Sometimes a fun and different activity can change the way a class works.

There is never one answer to solve student engagement issues. What works in one class will be a failure in the next, and every year will present new challenges for engaging students in various lessons. The important thing to remember is that when teachers keep it fresh and relaxed in their class, they allow for changes to better engage students in the content. In the comments section, please share the ways you engage your students so we can all learn something new to use in our classes down the line.

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Cassandra Smith's picture
Cassandra Smith
Special education teacher from New Hebron, MS

Hi Nicholas!

I loved reading your blog. As I read, it brought a feeling of rejuvenation and excitement for new ideas for my students and me. I have tried a couple of the ideas you talked about in your blog in my class already, and they also proved to be very successful for me as well. Shuffle seats is one of your ideas that I use in my class. I love it because I feel it allows for students to get to know and interact with everyone instead of just the peers in their usual click. I have also seen where it can completely transform the most withdrawn and shy wall flower into a social bee. To me, it gives these students a sense of belonging to the class. My students and I also love student takeover. it allows the students and me to take a walk in the shoes of the other. I feel this idea gives both of us a sense of appreciation and understanding.

As educators, I feel that we do have to allow our students to have more reign and freedom than what has been taking place in traditional classrooms. Since they are the doctors, lawyers, teachers, and citizens of tomorrow; why not let them start making positive impacts today?

Rebecca's picture
Communications Specialist

These are wonderful ideas. Student engagement is a challenging issue for all teachers, and it's true: what works for one group of students may not work for another. I've written several blog articles about ways to improve student engagement. Hopefully these will help educators looking for new ideas.

hilljason's picture

The classroom should not, of course, be a place where a lecturer comes to practice monologue because learning is not a spectator activity. Students do not learn much by sitting down in class to listen to a teacher and memorise the notes to pass examinations. A good teacher must encourage students to discuss what they have learnt, write essays regularly and apply what they have learnt in their daily lives.

Jennifer Ro's picture

I would love more suggestions. I teach in school where 99% of the students are on government assistance. Holding their attention right before a holiday is extremely difficult. Classroom dynamics don't allow for much freedom. When class is not very structured, behavior gets out of control very fast.

Cheryl M's picture

I do open projects in almost exactly this way. They are a huge hit and I have kids begging to do research! :) That's engaged.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Jennifer, my husband (a 1-2 grades teacher) has a lot of success with saving his best stuff for the last week(s) before holiday and summer breaks. Plays, field work, projects, etc.

You mention that your kids tend to get out of control pretty quickly when your class is less structured. From my experience, students can move to a place were less structure is possible *if* (and this is a big IF) they have opportunities to practice baby-steps towards autonomy with clear, observable benchmarks for success. So, to dump the edubabble, if there's a conversation about an idea like "working together" with a t-chart showing what it looks like and sounds like when it's done well. Then give the kids 2 minutes to practice this while they do a task that they can already do well independently. Then 4 minutes and slightly more complex task, then 6 or 10 (depending). If they go off the rails, stop them and come back to the circle and the t-chart. These are skills they need to learn- make them part of your curriculum and you'll get more content covered more deeply over the rest of the year.

Good luck!

Christina Dozier's picture

I really enjoyed reading your blog about student engagement. I'm constantly trying to keep the students engaged and have tried many tricks. A few weeks ago I looked around and the students just were not paying attention so I stood up on a desk and taught the remainder of my lesson. The students were so shocked that I had their full attention.
I really like the student shuffle and will definitely remember that one next time I look at my students and they aren't engaged. I also like the student takeover. I allow students to present their work but I've never tried the takeover method. I imagine my students would love teaching a lesson.
Keeping student's attention is quite difficult on some days and these ideas will help keep them engaged. Thanks again for the great ideas!

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