George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Student engagement can be tough all year, but spring fever makes it a bit worse as the weather gets warmer and students' minds wander. After 15 years of teaching, I've learned that a teacher cannot rely on any single solution to keep kids focused on learning. There are so many different ways to get students’ attention because there are so many different types of students. However, here are a few ways that have really made a difference in my classes.

The First Five

I like spending the first few minutes of each class just talking to the students. This time is centered on their lives outside of the classroom. We talk about sports, video games, movies, or anything else going on in the world around us. I want them to know that they're valued for more than just being bodies in the seats. This attention gets kids focused because they appreciate being treated as individuals. It also gives them a few minutes to connect with their peers. In high school, they might not have seen their friend all day, and a few minutes to catch up at the start of the class means they won't be disruptive later in the period. I've seen an increase in student engagement since I started this practice. I don't worry about "lost time" because it's time that I get back from not having to redirect the students multiple times during class. A happier group of students is a more engaged group of students.


Sometimes students just need a place to play. I saw overall growth in student engagement after I helped establish a makerspace in our school's library. More and more students are using the space to design and create objects with the 3D printer. I've also seen them brainstorm ideas for their own problems at home or other things that interest them. A diverse group of students have shown up to participate in a Raspberry Pi contest that we're hosting in the space. These students are taking what they've learned in our science classes and applying it in a space where they can tinker and create projects that mean something to them. This very cool idea gives students reasons to engage in STEM fields in ways they wouldn't have done before.

Makerspaces are great for all ages and don't require a single piece of technology -- that's not what makes it engaging. Kids can use a makerspace for knitting, molding with clay, origami, or any medium that lets them create. Making gives them the freedom to explore their interests without the structure of a classroom. Creating more makerspaces in schools and classrooms is a great way to increase engagement for all students.

Project-Based Learning

This approach to student engagement is a big winner in my class. My least engaged students become highly engaged when project time rolls around. There are many different ways to go with PBL, but I've found that the best way is what's called free range PBL. Free range is when students can choose the medium in which they want to demonstrate understanding. The teacher provides the rough guidelines and framework of the project rubric, and the rest is up to the students. They create the project, alter the rubric to meet it, and present to the class. Students are fully engaged in the lesson because they need to understand the material if they're going to create a project demonstrating their understanding. They love to show off their skills, so why not let them choose what works best for them?

Some might worry that a student will only do one type of project all year, but I put a caveat in place for those students. Once they choose a project medium, it cannot be repeated during the school year. If they make one movie, they can't make another. This forces students to think about the different projects and their skills when choosing their medium. When students embrace the idea of taking more ownership of their projects, that increases engagement significantly.

Genius Hour/20 Time

Edutopia has many great resources on interest-based learning, but I wanted to mention Genius Hour/20 Time in this post because of how successful it's been at engaging my most reluctant learners. This practice gives students the opportunity to explore something about which they're passionate during a set time in class. This class time, determined by the teacher, can go for a couple of months, a whole semester, or the entire year. The students use the time in class to learn about their topic. They share with blog posts, class updates, and sometimes a TEDx-style speech at the end. The power behind this approach to student engagement is that it teaches so many different skills, and students improve because they're doing something that they care about. They'll hone their research, writing, reading, and speaking skills as they learn about their chosen topic. Some students are always a bit resistant, but in my experience, those students end up loving this more than others because they finally got a chance to explore something that mattered to them. This approach to learning engages students from the very beginning and has them learning all year long.

Student engagement is about opportunity. How often do students get a choice in their learning? Are teachers just standing in front of the class and talking to them all day? How many teachers are honestly engaged when PD is delivered in this way? We need to work on creative ways of keeping students engaged because the stand-and-deliver approach won't reach them all. To increase student engagement, I recommend trying out some of these practices in your classroom. Your students will be happy that you did.

Have your own tips for increasing student engagement? Please leave them in the comments section below.

Was this useful? (3)

Comments (7) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (7) Sign in or register to comment

Dorothy Hastings's picture
Dorothy Hastings
Director of First school

It was a really nice read! If you give children freedom to engage with others and let them utilize their creativity. It will help children to follow their interest and is also very beneficial for their academic study.

Russ Ewell's picture
Russ Ewell
Parent of 3 and Android + iOS Educational App Developer

I love project based learning. Your inclusion of it in your student engagement approach is smart as is your entire post. Will definitely be sharing. One thing stands out in your are working hard to help your students learn to think...something I believe is the key to great education. Teaching kids to think! - Thanks, Russ Ewell

Chris's picture

With the Genius hour / 20 time, what kind of projects do you generally see? Also what student age group do you usually use this with? I am considering it for my class's next year but would love a bit more info on your experiences with it.

Dennis Baker's picture

I concur with Chris Fsis's questions about the applications of Genius Hour/20 Time? Also I would like to know what classes are suited to PBL Learning?

Stephania Ahern's picture

Great ideas-

I am a Masters student at Capella doing a research project on project based learning and I keep reading more and more amazing things about it. Have you had issues with students not contributing enough? I also love the idea about having a makerspace for students to explore creativity, I wish every school could implement this.
Thanks Stephania Ahern

ProfeCarlos's picture

Great ideas! Tis the season! I am ok with letting a student repeat a project medium. If they enjoy making a good video and that is their best way to show understanding, I'm Ok with it if it helps differentiate learner variance. Thanks!

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

@ Stephania,

Hello, and thanks for your question. So, yes, indeed, I have had problems with some students not contributing their fair share, or at least dragging their feet expecting to get away with it! My solution is to use a group contract!

My group contract includes the following:

1) group agreements - the students create these, but I prime the pump by suggesting ideas for consideration. For example, almost all groups agree that everyone must do his/her fair share. They also often include agreements about their responsibility to inform the group if absent and to make up work due to absences.

2) group communication norms - if they want to use phone numbers, or send text messages, or if they prefer to use another tool, an app, or email.

3) a list of deliverables and responsibilities, as well as roles of each person in the group, such as project manager, secretary, or other important roles.

4) The last thing is the process for firing a member of the group. I should tell you right away that I have never had a student fired from the group! There are a few steps to this process:

a) The group MUST confront a student not keeping the agreements.
b) When the group has tried on their own to confront the offender, with no improvement, they as me to mediate the issue. I ask each group member to tell me all about the issue from their point of view. Everyone must listen and take turns. I also ask clarifying questions, seeking to help them resolve the matter.
c) If a student is fired, he/she receives NO credit for collaboration, and must still do the whole project on his/her own. There is a cost, and a heavy work load, so there is a big motivation to make it work! When I remind students about this provision of their contract, they have always fixed the problem!

The key to making this work is to keep the contract the issue. There must be a third party reference - i.e., the contract. Each group must give me a copy of the contract for the project. When I show it to the group, and reference it in mediation, the students understand the importance of making things work! Brilliant!

You can find an example group contract at this link:

I think you will find a good solution by implementing a group contract. Best wishes!

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.