Think about the worst class you ever experienced, whether in high school or university or any place else. Whatever the class was, there was some reason for it to exist — some standard to be met, some real-life utility, or a sense that the class was helping produce well-informed citizens. Yet, since it was the worst class you ever took, something went wrong. Chances are, students found the class boring, too easy or too hard, or even completely meaningless. If a class can go so wrong, what can make a class go right?
Based on my experience and research, here are five tips for engaging students in the classroom:
1. Classroom Culture
Above all, the classroom should feel like a place where students belong, where they are not afraid to be wrong, where they see their classmates as resources, and that they enjoy being a part of. A classroom where students feel isolated or experience hostility renders learning all but impossible. Building a positive and warm classroom culture, where students enjoy good rapport amongst themselves and with the teacher, is absolutely crucial for engaging students.
In order to build a strong classroom culture, it helps to create certain class traditions that students can identify with, look forward to, and that distinguish your class from other classes. I try to use alliteration with the days of the week to inject both variety and rhythm into the passage of school weeks. So we have Musical Mondays, Tech-less Tuesdays, Wisdom Wednesdays, Think-Outside-the-Box Thursdays, Formal Fridays. Each of my sections has their own classroom mascot in the form of a named stuffed animal, a visible symbol of classroom unity and identity.
It is very important for me that students feel that they are making friends in my class, and that they could work with any of their classmates. I have learned from experience that the existence of cliques within a class can breed classroom management issues and reduce student enjoyment.
As a result, I invested a lot of class time at the beginning of the school year for team-building activities. One of them is a classic icebreaker, where students have to build a stack of 10 solo cups using only string and a rubber band. The key to the exercise is that students have to use teamwork to stretch the rubber band open with the string in order to lift each cup into place, requiring all members of the group to be on the same page and in constant verbal and non-verbal communication.
I use a very fluid seating arrangement so that students would get used to working with all of their classmates. Some days students would be in assigned seats in rows, some days their desks would be in randomly assigned pods. As a well-established procedure, students don’t bat at eye at walking into the classroom, finding the seat with their name on a Popsicle stick, and sitting down and discussing a prompt with a random set of classmates.
Even when students are in rows, I do activities where students get in groups with their row- or column-mates and solve problems on the board. The goal for all of this is to expose students to as many of their classmates as possible, get students learning each others’ names and interests, and creating a classroom where students felt comfortable sharing their voices.
2. Friendly Competition
One of the bogeymen of teachers, especially in high school, is Performance Orientation. Performance Orientation is when students care more about appearing to be successful, winning external markers of accomplishment, and avoiding embarrassment than about mastering new skills. Unfortunately, many school unwittingly breed Performance Orientation through practicies like over-emphasizing honor roll status. Parents who ask their children “What did you get on the test?” rather than “What did you learn today?” contribute to this, as do teachers who provide grades without any form of growth-oriented feedback.
All that being said, a sense of friendly competition can go a long way towards motivating students and getting them excited about a certain task.
I frequently use game-based software such as Kahoot and Quizizz, which allows me to check student understanding quickly, while the students also have a good time. I sometimes give some sort of very small prize (like a Starburst candy) to the winner of the Kahoot. Striking the right balance between friendly competition and Performance Orientation is difficult; the main difference is that students should ideally be exciting and motivated by the activity itself, not just an extrinsic reward or badge of honor.
Another way I inject friendly competition into the classroom is through group-based activities where students are vying to finish an engaging task as quickly as possible. For example, I have designed Escape Room activities where each group of students needs to work together to solve a sequence of clues (each of which is grounded in the content we are learning) in order to “escape the room”. The main differences between this and any other math worksheet is that each solved clue unlocks the next clue. Such an activity creates an element of suspense and curiosity as to what comes next. I find that the prize for winning (a piece of candy, perhaps), is usually inconsequential compared to the intrinsic motivation that students demonstrate as they solve the problems.
3. Real-World Scenarios
Teachers need to be prepared to give a good answer to a student when she asks “When will we EVER use this in real life??”
A great way to provide the answer is to design activities and assignments that incorporate real-world scenarios. These do not necessarily have to be completely realistic — the important thing is that students can make the mental connection to how the current topic might be useful in a future career, or how it could help solve some problem in society.
In addition to demonstrating how a lesson’s concept can be applied to real life, activities like this build actual skills that are relevant and marketable when it comes to internships or job opportunities. Providing real-life data where possible is much better than fake or unrealistic data, and letting students experiment and get their hands dirty is better than providing too rigid of a structure for students to follow.
4. Respecting Physiology
Teachers have to be real about teenage (and general human) physiology. Expecting high school students to sit still and absorb information for the duration of a school day is unrealistic.
I avoid lecturing for extended periods of time, breaking up the day’s lesson with activities, changes for partner or group work, or even just asking everyone to stand up and stretch.
Where possible, I’ve found that it’s great to incorporate Total Physical Response into lessons. For example, when discussing horizontal and vertical stretches and compressions in Algebra class, I made students demonstrate with their hands what stretching and compressing functions would look like.
Tactile sensations are important during learning. Sensory experiences that I associate strongly with my own education, like the scratch of a pencil on paper or the smooth glide of a highlighter across a page, are becoming increasingly rare in a world where learning is often done through devices. Although my students all have iPads, I try to get them writing on the whiteboard with real markers as often as possible, or building models out of Play-Doh, or measuring actual shapes with a ruler.
In the escape room activity mentioned above, students had to unlock a physical combination lock using the answer to a math question. Adding this extra step of not only figuring out an answer, but physically dialing the number into the lock and hearing the click of the catch releasing creates a much more vivid experience for students. In moments like that, the click of the combination lock represents a leap from the abstract world to the concrete world; I tell my students that it is the sound of them using their math superpowers, using nothing but numbers and mental powers to unlock real, physical doors.
5. Think Outside the Classroom
Communicating proactively with parents can help nip problems in the bud, but should also be used to praise and reward students for good work. Often, parents only hear the bad news from teachers. Sending a quick note when a student does well on an assessment or makes a great contribution to a class discussion can help that student feel good about him/herself. Parents also appreciate you taking the time out of your day to send a personal email about something positive.
People are multi-dimensional, and this includes students, too. Only talking about content and academics with students can get wearisome on both parties. Getting to know students in other context outside the classroom, such as through coaching a sport or advising a club can be a great way to learn their interests, show that you care, and boost student motivation. If you have an existing relationship with a student outside of class, they will naturally feel more motivated to do well in your class and show you that they are working hard. Other ways to get involved include attending student events like sports games or theater productions, eating at restaurants where your students have part-time jobs, or chaperoning school trips. In the words of one of my education professors, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
I hope you have found some of these tips useful! Feel free to leave comments with suggestions of your own.