Teaching Wednesday: Student Engagement

We’ve all been there. You’re in the middle of a lesson or a project, and NO ONE IS GETTING IT. You have put blood sweat and tears into the design and implementation of this lesson or project, and deep down you know they aren’t getting it, not because they can’t, but because for some reason they just won’t.

Student engagement is a tricky topic, ultimately because each learner is different. What works for one kid won’t work for all the others, and that’s okay. That’s how it is supposed to be. There are a few tricks that we use to increase student engagement in our class, though.

What is Student Engagement

The first way that we really encourage learner engagement is through choice. Each or our projects asks learners to choose what they are interested in. In our most recent project, learners created documentaries that explored our Rights and Responsibilities in relationship to the Constitution. Let me tell you, I know a heck of a lot more about cruel and unusual punishment and the death penalty than I ever thought I would. They know a lot because the enjoyed the learning. They chose their topic. I didn’t have to convince them to buy in because they chose what they wanted to learn about.

Another way that we encourage learner engagement is through our expectations. Throughout the documentary project we had really high expectations. They were working under a time crunch from all of the snow days, there were a lot of components (a process paper, annotated bibliography, and final cut of a documentary) that they needed to complete. For those learners who chose to work in groups, they had to learn to divide and conquer, yes, but some of those over-achievers had to learn to trust that their group members would get work done. Holding each other accountable to the group contract (a contract that learners in groups create at the beginning of a project) became even more important because sitting back and relaxing while everyone else did the work wasn’t an option.

We also spend a lot of our time encouraging. One group of learners showed their 8 minute documentary on the due date even though it wasn’t complete. They were just going to keep the grade that they got and they didn’t want to complete the project. In the end, one of the group members put in the work for the last two minutes of their documentary, and I couldn’t have been more proud. We value work ethic and agency in our class because that is what separates the successful from the unsuccessful. It is the only thing. Even when learners don’t feel like they are “smart enough” we all know that “smart enough” isn’t really the issue. The real issue at hand is how hard will an individual plan on working?

The most important way that we increase learner engagement? We eliminated busy work. Busy work not only hurts the learners, it also adds work for the facilitators without adding any value to the learner. We don’t do busy work at all. Ever. Any time a learner questions our motives or the value of an assignment, we always have an answer as to how this assignment or workshop will help them either with the project or with the information that they need to be successful in the project.

That’s it really. Increased learner engagement is all about high expectations, learner choice, and eliminating busy work. There are of course some other things that you can do, one article I looked at is on increasing learner curiosity, and I know there are others out there.

What do you do in your classroom to increase learner engagement? How do you make it all meaningful?