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Engaging students – especially at the end of the year when attention wanes, or the start of the year when teachers want to get a class off on the right foot – is a critical part of classroom strategy. Here are five ideas about how to get your whole class interested and motivated and learning at a deep level.

1) Grab attention. It can be a joke, a demonstration, something visual or an opportunity to go somewhere new or just move around the room that gets their attention, but experts say it is important to start off right and make sure that everyone is involved, experts say. If you consistently are finding that one or two students aren’t responding, address the concerns with them separately and find out what works so that you can feel confident you can get the entire class’s attention when you need it. One middle school instructor makes students who are slow to pay attention responsible for handing out material or starting the discussion and focuses on them more at the start of a lesson. At another school, two teachers visit each others classroom at times to get students engaged or invite in a special guest – even an administrator or counselor. A different face and delivery will often do the trick. Start with something different and vary the technique.

2) Use visuals. Persida Himmele, a Millersville College education professor and co-author of a book “Total Participation Techniques: Making Every Student an Active Listener”, recommends a picture walk as one of the nearly 40 techniques for active engagement outlined in her book. She suggests enlarging pictures from the text and placing them around the room with prompts about what is happening and why it is important. Groups of four students then move from one to another to discuss the prompts and record their thoughts on post-its near the pictures for discussion later. Himmele believes that engagement really requires three things: the initial engagement, then higher order thinking and, eventually, evidence of learning. The picture walk accomplishes all three. Other teachers distribute images or use interesting charts or graphs to summarize a topic, or start with a cartoon that relates. Research show visuals engage students.

3) Let them lead. Inquiry based learning involves having students develop their own questions and do their own discovery of the answers. It typically requires four steps, according to James Davis, a professor at Coastal College specializing in educational leadership:

  • Students develop questions they to answer, related to the lesson.
  • They research the topic using time in class
  • They present what they’ve learned
  • Finally, students reflect on what worked about the process of learning and reporting and what didn’t.

 Heather Wolpert-Gawron, a veteran teacher and author of the book “Just Ask Us. Kids Speak out on Student Engagement”, says with inquiry based methods students will be engaged and “learn deeper and wider than ever before”.

4) All Hands on. This one is perhaps obvious. Carefully planned and thoroughly implemented project based learning is one of the best ways to engage students, research continually shows. It not only engages students but gets them to learn at a deeper level, a goal of any lesson, according to Himmele.

5) Creative assessment and more learning. Experts like Himmele and Wolpert-Gawron stress that engagement must have the component of deep learning and evidence of it.  Sometimes that deep learning benefits from one other step – perhaps a video that elaborates on the material being learned or an activity the imbeds the information. The evaluation of what students know should also engage them, Hiummele says. Teacher and education writer Natalie Regier has put together a comprehensive list of 60 assessment strategies, with brief descriptions of how to carry them out and the theory behind formative assessments. They are simple and quick and range from exit cards and graphic organizers to less traditional methods such as graffiti walls and choral responses.

Written by Jim Paterson

Jim Paterson has been a newspaper and magazine editor and an award-winning writer for The Washington Post, USA Today Weekend, the Christian Science Monitor, Parents magazine, and a number of national and regional publications. During a break from writing he worked as a school counselor for seven years and quickly became head of a counseling department and "Counselor of the Year" in Montgomery County, Md.