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Actively Engage Students Using Hands-on & Minds-on Instruction

Laura Candler, TeachHUB Blogger

Contrary to popular belief, “active engagement” involves more than “hands-on” instruction. Years ago, I discovered this when I realized that hands-on teaching didn’t always result in student learning.

Yes, my students had fun, but follow-up activities showed little grasp of essential concepts. How could that be? My students appeared to be actively engaged, but apparently only their hands and their mouths were active!

My “ah-ah” moment came when I realized that both minds and hands are necessary for active engagement. The “minds-on” factor was the missing piece of the equation. When students are fully engaged in a task, they are actively doing and actively thinking. While hands are engaged, minds should be questioning, sorting through sensory input, and making connections.

Luckily, there are dozens of active engagement “tools” you can use to spark excitement and add rigor to your lessons. Like any tool, each one requires a certain amount of practice to use effectively. But after you experiment a bit, you’ll find yourself selecting just the right active engagement tool when planning instruction. Here is an overview of several effective strategies for implementing active engagement tools.

Active Engagement Tools

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Random Student Selection

Choosing students randomly is one of the easiest ways to engage students in learning. A simple cup with craft sticks will do the trick when you need to select someone to participate in a discussion or read aloud to the class. Write each student’s name on a craft stick and place it in a large cup. Instead of calling on someone whose hand is raised, select a stick from the cup. When students know they might be called on at any moment, they are more likely to pay attention. If you have an interactive whiteboard, you can use a fun application called The Hat to randomly select individuals and pairs of students.

Learn more about The Hat here.

Individual Dry Erase Boards

Providing each student with an individual dry erase board requires some initial time and expense, but it’s well worth the effort. Buy a sheet of white tile board at your local home improvement store and have it cut into 12” by 12” squares. Ask students to supply their own markers or use school-provided markers. In math, present problems, one at a time, and ask students to solve them on their dry erase boards before displaying the results to you or the class. In other subjects, ask students to respond to questions and problems on their dry erase boards before participating in a class discussion. This immediate feedback will help you adjust your instruction to meet the needs of all students. Involving students in this way keeps instruction fast-paced, focused, and interactive.

Partner Games and Activities

Creating an activity or game that can be played with a partner is a great way to actively engage students. Drill and practice is boring, but a board game using those same problems or questions is exciting! Even working with a partner to complete a worksheet is more engaging (and uses less paper!) than the same activity completed independently. When you ask students to work with a partner, encourage them to discuss and justify their answers before recording them on paper.

Cooperative Learning Teams

Research has shown that when implemented properly, cooperative learning leads to dramatic achievement gains. However, cooperative interactions need structure to elevate them above simple “group work.” Structured lessons involve the use of roles or specific directions. For example, a simple group-work activity like a team discussion can be improved with the use of discussion cards. Students in teams can take turns flipping over a discussion card and responding. After the first person responds, each person has a chance to respond and the discussion card stays in play until the topic is completely discussed. Then another person flips over the next card and starts the discussion. This type of interaction requires the active participation of all team members. Simplify and Snap and Sentence Go Round are examples of cooperative learning activities with structure.

Read more information about cooperative learning here.

Hands-on Instruction

Even though “hands-on” doesn’t guarantee “minds-on,” students do need to manipulate objects, investigate ideas, and conduct experiments in order to learn. You can improve your hands-on lessons by taking time to discuss the importance of each part of the activity at key points during the lesson. Relate the activity to real world examples and reflect on what the activity is supposed to demonstrate. Have students discuss the essential concepts with a partner or summarize the importance of the lesson in writing.

Learning Centers and Small Group Instruction

Another effective method for engaging students is to switch from whole group instruction to small group instruction and learning centers. Even if you do this just once or twice a week, the impact can be significant. When a few students are having difficulty grasping a concept, pulling them together as a group for guided practice can be very effective. In the meantime, you’ll need meaningful and engaging activities for the rest of the class. Learning centers meet this need because they are fun and interactive, often involving review games or enrichment activities.

Interactive Whiteboards

In recent years, interactive whiteboards have revolutionized the modern classroom. By their very nature, they are engaging and exciting. However, whiteboards need to be more than glorified projection screens. If only used to display Power Points and websites, the true power of the whiteboard is overlooked. Interactive software allows teachers to design lessons that allow students to manipulate numbers, words, and objects to make connections and deepen understanding. Involving students in everything from sorting geometric shapes to highlighting key words ensures that your class is focused and actively engaged.

Learn more smart board strategies here.

Are some of these tools already in your teaching toolbox? Perhaps you need a little instruction on how to use some tools or a bit more practice with others. Some strategies may be tools that you used long ago and just need to dig out of storage. Fortunately, the Internet contains a wealth of information about these active engagement strategies and many more. Just reach for a tool and begin using it to build better lessons!

How do you create active engagement in your classroom? Share in the comments section!


Submitted by Laura Candler. Laura has 29 years experience teaching elementary and middle school. She is a workshop consultant and the author of more than a dozen books for teachers, including Empowering Readers: A Quick Start Guide to Reading Workshop. Laura is also the creator of the Teaching Resources website, and offers hundreds of free materials in her online File Cabinet. She is currently taking a year off from the classroom to create additional resources for teachers. Visit Laura's Teaching Resources website for classroom activities, strategies, newsletter sign-up, and to purchase her ebooks.

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