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Teaching Strategies for Boosting Engagement

Jordan Catapano

We know that study after study demonstrates that if students are engaged, then learning is more likely to happen. However, students don’t necessarily walk into our classrooms automatically prepared to dive deeply into our content every day. The effective teacher must make sure they not only consider what teaching strategies they will teach, but also consider how they can deliver their teaching strategies in a manner that engages students. Before we talk specifically about teaching strategies that increase student engagement, let’s first consider what exactly it means to be engaged. What do we mean when we say, “We want our students to be more engaged”?

Teaching Strategies: The Levels of Student Engagement

While the levels of student engagement can be broken down into many different subsets, there are generally three overarching categories we can use to understand the extent of student engagement in our classroom.

Students are ENGAGED. This is where we want our students to be. The engaged classroom has learners authentically pursuing information and skills, making personal connections, and letting their interest and curiosity lead them to further learning. Students are not merely going through the motions, but are sincerely interested and invested in learning.

Students are COMPLIANT. Observers can easily confuse compliant students with engaged students, but there is an important difference. The compliant classroom has students who go through the motions of learning, but are only involved to the minimum extent required. They are not authentically pursuing new skills and knowledge, but rather treat the assigned tasks like a checklist.

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Students are RESISTANT. Students in the resistant classroom are not even going through the autonomous motions of learning; instead, they are actively seeking tasks other than the ones oriented towards learning. When asked to complete work or focus on a given task, the resistant class will disengage, find distractions, openly rebel, or make no attempt to comply.

While we can easily identify the resistant students, we might often confuse compliance with engagement. But going through the motions and completing the minimum is far different from being truly engaged. Engaged students tend to demonstrate more effort, experience more positive emotions, and pay more attention in the classroom as compared to their merely compliant peers.

10 Tactics for Engagement

While teachers cannot directly control students’ mood or interest, they can control how lessons are designed. So teachers should pay close attention to how they intentionally include components that are more likely to boost student engagement and enhance the authenticity of learning.

Here are ten ideas for elements you could add to almost any lesson to increase engagement over compliance.

Add a Tech-Twist: With more and more tech tools infiltrating the classroom, it would be a shame not to leverage their inherently engaging qualities. Ask students to do something with their technology that they wouldn’t be able to do without it. This might involve students in producing a short film, taking photos, collaborating online, having a backchannel or forum discussion, or creating something entirely original. Consider how iMovie, GarageBand, GetKahoot.com, or Google Docs and Slideshow might play a role in your lesson design.

Gamify it: Many students love a friendly competition, and this has led to many teachers incorporating games of one kind or another into their lessons. Gamification is simply the act of linking competition or game-based methods to learning. For example, students might work in teams, score points, race against time, “Level up,” and earn achievements. This is not a cheapening of the education process; instead, it is incorporating tried-and-true techniques already leveraged by games, companies, and marketers to increase motivation and likelihood of continued use. Consider how you might incorporate game-based elements to get students to become passionate about learning.

Catch Them With Hooks: Sometimes it’s all about how you start a lesson. Just like a good speaker will begin with a compelling introduction to draw in their audience, so too might the effective teacher boost interest with the right “Hook” for their lesson. Dave Burgess, author of “Teach Like a Pirate,” offers loads of ideas for hooks teachers can utilize for their classroom lessons to immediately stimulate their interest and curiosity.

Add Movement: It’s amazing how much time students spend sitting still each day. An easy way to help students get more involved in their learning is to give them a reason to move around. How and when they move depends on what you’re teaching, but consider how to help students use their bodies in addition to their minds. Perhaps they work on a task out of their seats; perhaps they can answer questions by moving around the room rather than speaking from a seat; perhaps they can jump, wiggle, or spin to communicate during activities; perhaps you choreograph a dance to reinforce concepts. However you have them move, adding the kinesthetic element to your lesson allows students to more physically and creatively interact with the content, boosting their engagement and their retention.

Let Them Create … and Be Proud: When little kids perform the smallest feat, they seek attention: “Mom, watch me do this!” They feel a sense of pride and desire praise and validation for their achievement. This feeling never gets old; give your students the opportunity to genuinely create something original or achieve something new, and then gush over their accomplishment. Put the tools, resources, and time in their hands to generate something truly their own.

Include Reflection: Before, during, or after a given lesson, it’s important to give students an opportunity to process their new information. Give students a chance to connect the content to their lives, think about their own experiences, consider how well they have grasped the content, and process feedback and growth. Serious, authentic reflection boosts student awareness of themselves and their learning, and this in turn leads to increased engagement in the learning tasks overall.

Make It Concrete: If our instructions are vague, then student results are likely going to miss the mark of our expectations. However, if we include concrete, specific directions, students are more likely to engage in the specific task. If we vaguely ask students to “Think about what this passage says,” then they won’t be able to determine if they’ve done the task correctly or to the extent we’re looking for. If, however, we say, “Take ten minutes to determine the author’s point and three reasons he gives to support it,” then students know exactly what they’re expected to do, giving them firmer parameters within which to target their engagement.

Give Them a Reason to Talk: Too often, classrooms are stigmatized as places that forbid talking or interaction. At times it might be appropriate for students to work independently, but it is entirely appropriate for students to interact with one another when opportunity allows. Talking and interaction work best when students are given a constructive reason to talk. Ask students to turn to their partners and share an idea; allow them to debate an opinion; organize a formal seminar discussion; go around the room and have each student summarize their thinking. Don’t forbid student talking. Instead, give students the opportunity to use their voices for the sake of formulating and expressing their thinking.

Incorporate Student Choice: Engagement increases when students have the chance to pursue their own interests and curiosities. When formulating lessons and work, don’t neglect to include a variety of options from which students can choose. Freely allow students to formulate their questions and pursue their interests. Go one step further and let a portion of your classroom work stem entirely from student choice, such as independent reading, genius hour, or student-led discussions and activities.

Infuse Your Own Passion and Enthusiasm: Don’t forget that expressing your own passion can be a form of engagement all its own. When you let your enthusiasm shine, others will automatically gravitate towards you and light their own candles from your flame. A sincerely passionate person is a difficult force to ignore, and effective teachers will help students feed off of this enthusiasm.

Let Them Play: It might be cliché to say that “Students learn best when they’re having fun,” but it’s true. This doesn’t mean that fun needs to take precedence over learning, but rather that fun can be a medium through which genuine learning can take place. Give students a chance to play, and then use their play to incorporate the skills and knowledge you want to lead them to. Give them toys, games, and tools through which play can be facilitated, for it’s through playing that students have the chance to do their own thinking, experimenting, and creating.

How you engage your students depends on who you are, who your students are, and what learning you want to lead them to. Above all, do not settle for a merely compliant group of students who completes work out of necessity, obligation, or fear. Instead, strive toward facilitating genuine learning that stems from the engagement they experience within your classroom.


Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.