Tiffany Cheng is a fourth year chemistry teacher in California. Her AP, honors, and regular classes contain a wide variety of students with different personalities and skills. As Tiffany works on lesson plans and activities, she has to account for something teachers everywhere face. How do you keep an entire classroom of students engaged?
From buying new supplies to planning class activities to finding instructional resources, teachers prepare extensively for the new school year. However, there is one thing teachers cannot always predict: their students. Each year brings a different mix of student capabilities, interests, and motivation.
In one class, teachers can have students who grasp the material quickly, students with learning disabilities, and English Language Learners (ELLs). In addition, teachers will likely have a mix of highly motivated and not-so-motivated students. A student’s achievement and motivation can depend highly on the subject as well as their preferred learning style.
Here are four tips that may help teachers connect with all of their students. While these tips are presented in the context of STEM education, they can certainly be applied to other academic subjects.
Use student input and interests to facilitate learning.
Before students invest in their own education, they have to be engaged with the material and be able to see the relevance of what they’re learning. A teacher is bound to have students with several different interests. Finding common ground that appeals to those interests is a great place to start.
While this can be challenging at times, it is also a great opportunity to teach material using creative content delivery methods. For example, imagine that you are trying to teach your class about different types of rocks. Categorizing rocks as igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic may not be the most exciting exercise. However, you can make it interesting by drawing real-world connections to ideas and topics that interest your students.
Are there students in your class who love trendy jewelry? You can explain the relationship between gemstones and rocks, and discuss characteristics they have in common. What about students who love animals? Discuss ways that the rock cycle is similar or different from animal life cycles. For students that love building things? Compare magma and sediment to solder and bricks—suddenly, what seemed like “just rocks” become important building blocks in our ecosystem.
And those students who are always goofing off? Try relating this to another rock—the kind found in the Rock, Paper, Scissors game. Ask students what would happen if different types of rocks went head to head. What’s strongest? In fact, Education.com features a fun activity to test what happens when different types of rock collide.
Encourage students to articulate individual questions and concerns.
The best way to find out what students need is often the simplest—talking to them directly. In her article “Listening to Students”, leadership coach Elena Aguilar discusses how teachers can gain valuable insight by surveying students about their interests and experiences. Asking a few simple questions can tell you what students hope to gain from your class, and what support they need to succeed.
You don’t necessarily need to schedule one-on-one conversations to get individual feedback. In her chemistry class, Cheng uses “focus sheets” with questions like these to get quick, written feedback during the class period. The focus sheets require students to think about their own understanding. “If they have a question and they don’t understand, they’re not just raising their hands saying ‘I don’t get it’. They’re saying, ‘You lost me at (this),” says Cheng.
This can be especially helpful for getting feedback from ELL students. Cheng says, “They just read [their question] out, so it’s lower pressure for them, but it’s also them using the language and telling me exactly where they need help with their learning.” The focus sheets allow students to practice using English, while also asking their questions in a comfortable and effective way.
It never hurts to be proactive when trying to accommodate learning differences. As Cheng points out, “Science, especially chemistry, is so text-heavy and very vocabulary-dense. For ELLs who are just picking up the English language, it’s nearly impossible to add these scientific terms to a context they have no basis for.” Cheng uses other media to help ELL students understand important concepts. “I’ll supplement their notes with different images or graphics to help them organize all of the vocabulary in their notes.”
Offer optional challenges once a student has completed their work.
Imagine you have the perfect class period all figured out. You’ll start with some questions to get your students thinking. Then your students will start working on a lab or activity, and once they’re done, there’ll be just enough time for students to discuss what they’ve found.
Sadly, this is often far from reality. Often you’ll end up with a group of students who have completed the activity before you know it. What can you do?
One strategy is to be prepared with higher-order extension activities for students that quickly complete other planned activities.
Assess the depth of student comprehension by having them think about other ways they could accomplish what they’ve just done. For example, imagine your students are testing the ideal gas law by observing the effect of temperature on volume. If students finish the lab early, have them test other ways of changing volume. Students can try adding more of the gas to the same container. If you have a vacuum or bell jar in your classroom, students can find out how varying pressure affects volume too.
Prioritize your own engagement.
Currently, the American education system places strong emphasis on student achievement, with district funding often dependent on student test scores. However, this can lead to pressure without payoff. Jim Parsons, professor of secondary education at the University of Alberta, notes, “The focus on student achievement is the wrong focus. It doesn’t improve student engagement.” In fact, policymakers in Western Alberta, Canada are aiming to focus more on formative assessment and the learning process, rather than definitive summative assessments.
If you’re trying to keep students engaged, it’s important to be aware of your own engagement. Being mentally focused and present in class allows you to respond to student needs. In addition, teacher engagement can improve academic results. Parsons underscores the importance of teacher engagement, saying, “When teachers are engaged, their students will be engaged. When students are engaged, they will learn, and when they learn, they will show measurable achievement on any standard set.”
Parsons notes three key components of teacher motivation:
- Community (both at the class and school levels)
- Agency (believing that you have the power to make a difference)
- Service (believing that you are improving student engagement and learning)
Creating a school community is crucial. Teachers can learn a great deal by working together, even if they don’t have all the answers. Parsons mentioned a group of Alberta math teachers that met regularly to discuss the province’s new “pure math” requirements “because they couldn’t figure out how to teach or assess it,” he said. “Over the year, they all came away from that year of work with ideas. Old teachers and new teachers, young and old, experienced and novice…they all came up with a plan.”
Agency and service start within the teacher. There may be external factors that affect what happens in the classroom, but believing in your ability to help students is a cornerstone of engagement. In her article “Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement”, Heather Wolpert-Gawron notes that students notice and look for teacher engagement. One student she interviewed even described the teacher’s engagement as “contagious.”
Just as every teacher is different, every student has different abilities and motivations. However, each student can grow with the right support. Cheng mentioned the growth mindset, which is “the idea that you can grow and learn through challenges. If you push yourself and work hard at something, eventually you will attain success.” Being mindful of student engagement can make a big difference.
Share your ideas, stories, and tips for student engagement in the comments below, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.