March 7, 2018

“Teaching is a hard job when students make an effort to learn. When they make no effort it is an impossible one.” William Glasser wrote this in his book Control Theory in the Classroom, and unfortunately you’ve probably know exactly what he means.

Research tells us that problems with student engagement at school often begin in grades 7 through 10— particularly among boys, ethnic minorities and students living in poverty. You can likely recognize the disengaged students in your class; they are absent more often, usually wait to be told what to do, don’t participate or only participate in small amounts.

But what can you do?

While there are a host of reasons for a lack of student engagement there are steps you can take to engage even your most reluctant students. Drawing from Karen Hume’s book Tuned Out, Engaging the 21st Century Learner we’ve pulled together three strategies to help you improve student engagement—particularly for older students.

Make it personal
One of Hume’s first suggestions for creating an engaging classroom is to give your students choices and create personal connections to what they’re learning. When students feel connected to what they’re learning and can see the relevance, they’re far more engaged. Here are a few ways to make classes feel relevant to students:

  • Invite students to teach the class about something important to them.
  • Hold a genius hour where students spend an hour working on answering a question or problem of their choice. When the project ends, students choose how to deliver their learning (maybe a poster, a song they write, a video, a presentation).  
  • Give students some fun and creative options for sharing their thoughts on a key questions about a book your reading. For example, they can deliver a newscast announcing their findings, create a short play or present their ideas through an art collage. (Check out this story from Copperas Cove Junior High it’s a great example of the benefits of engaging students with a play.)

Just remember, to be effective, the choices must address the same learning outcomes, be engaging and respectful and take about the same amount of time to complete.

Promote creative thinking

From simulating a business to teach math skills to integrating technology in your clases--when you and your students get creative engagement grows. As Hume explains “Providing students with opportunities to be flexible and innovative, promotes their engagement. Creating this type of learning environment engages the student and as a result taps into their creative thinking process and leads to greater academic achievement.”

Boost creativity by adding art, technology and hands-on learning opportunities to your classes.

In her book, Hume provides an example of how one teacher, who was searching for a way to bring Metis leader Louis Riel to life for students, had students arrange artifacts (the collar of an old dress, a noose, a baby’s sock and a portrait of Riel) in the order they would have appeared in Riel’s life.  

Create a sense of community
In Hume’s words. “It is essential that a strong classroom community of mutual respect, caring and support are in place to engage students and promote academic success.” Here are some suggestions for developing that sense of community in your classroom.

  • Use plenty of partner and group activities so students can interact socially while learning.
  • Use positive language with your students, “You can do it” and “I won’t give up on you.
  • Instruct and access in a variety of ways to meet the varying needs, interests and preferences of students and support everyone’s success.
  • Get to know your students, ask them questions. Try spending 2 minutes per day for 10 consecutive days talking with a disengaged student. Talk about anything...except their disengagement. Behaviour expert Allen Mendler says this approach often results in better behavior and students completing more work.

When students are engaged at school, teaching and learning is easier. Students are absent less often, have fewer behaviour issues and are eager to participate.

It creates the ideal equation; enthusiastic teacher + engaged students = successful learning.