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What is student engagement?

When our students are engaged in the learning process, they’re less likely to lose interest in what we’re teaching them. If our students are engaged, they’re more likely to understand new concepts, make progress, and excel when it comes to testing time.

Having our students engage with the learning process means that they are less likely to lose interest in what they are taught, particularly if a new concept is tricky to understand at first. If they’re engaged, they’re committed to seeing the concept through to completion.

It’s our job to make learning engaging. When the learning process is dull, students tend to lose focus. Conversely, when they are energised, students maintain their focus and even better grasp what they are being taught.

Student engagement is key to student learning and success.

How can we measure and improve student engagement?

If we were to take a measure of student engagement, we’d be looking at their level of interaction with their peers, and teaching staff. We’d also want to look at the quality of their involvement in activities and quality of effort directed towards projects.

Maintaining students’ enthusiasm in their schooling has been a puzzle that many education professionals have not yet solved. In the conventional classroom-based technique in which the day is segmented and punctuated by bells, students come across different teachers, leaving them feeling disengaged and alienated.

Restructuring students’ learning journey by making it more engaging results in stronger achievement in topics/courses, a stronger satisfaction with the learning experience, and an increase in the rate at which students graduate. Student engagement refers to the degree of curiosity, optimism, interest, attention, and passion students portray when undertaking a course. So how can student engagement be enhanced?

Strategies to help boost student engagement

Collaboration

Group work is a great way to encourage students to get together and get involved in a topic or project.

Working together can really help students to engage with the subject matter, as well as forming relationships with peers. Small group collaboration is also a super way for students to develop their talking and listening skills. Group work also helps our students to become more articulate in presenting their viewpoint. You should ensure that you create the right balance in the study groups. When we’re creating groups, we need to ensure that there are no clashing partnerships. Or else, work closely together with the group to work through any clashes.

Discussion opportunities

Asking students to simply listen as we talk through a lesson is a sure fire way to disengage most of the class.

An easy way to avoid this is to assign students “talking partners. By pausing frequently during a lesson, or after giving assignment instructions to ask “talking partners” to have a chat about what they’ve just learned, or how they’ll approach the task at hand. It’s an easy way to encourage students to engage in what’s happening in the lesson, but also to iron out any areas of confusion.

Active teaching methods

A sage on the stage versus a guide on the side.

Limiting lecture style lessons is an excellent way to increase engagement in our classrooms. When we’re lesson planning, we try to think “How could we teach this in a more discovery-based way?” Allowing students to be hands-on and involved in the direction the lesson is going means that they’re more invested in the learning.

Student choice

Giving our students options for learning holds a lot of power. If we give students an active choice in what they learn, and the way that they learn it we can see student engagement deepen.

Adding more choice to our students’ day doesn’t have to be revolutionary. Here’s a couple of easy ways to do it:

  • Let them pick which books they read, rather than assigning them.
  • Where it’s possible, using a more flexible approach to seating.
  • If there’s group work, allow them to choose their own teams (when it’s appropriate)
  • Instead of one uniform project, present students with a menu of project options.
  • For classwork or homework, ask students to pick 10 of 12 questions/problems to answer.

All-in participation

When we pose a question to our classes, chances are that the same five students will always eagerly offer up an answer. Equally, going around the class for an answer from everyone can be tedious and not very engaging.

There’s also some students who just aren’t confident enough to speak up amongst their peers. Here’s a couple of ways to encourage all students to participate without making anyone feel uncomfortable.

  • Use chalk or dry erase boards
    Let every student record their answer on their own board then hold it up. Some may be willing to offer more explanation if called upon.
  • Ask for hand signal responses
    Great for younger students, saying things like “give me a thumbs up if you think this is true, or thumbs down if you think it’s false” is a great way to get everyone involved. It’s also a great way to quickly assess our whole class’s understanding of a new concept.

Technology and student engagement

The introduction of new technology in the classroom has always created a buzz. Whether that’s the old days of the VCR and TV being rolled in on a Friday afternoon, or the introduction to the Makerspace labs we see today. One guaranteed way of getting our students engaged in learning is through the use of technology. And, for some, the introduction of a piece of technology might be the way they access learning like never before. Perhaps for a partially sighted student, giving them access to e-books which they can hear aloud, is the difference between them engaging and interacting in class, and feeling marginalised having to absorb the lesson separately from their peers.

At the BETT Show in London this year, we had the opportunity to sit down with Baasit Siddiqui, director of Siddiqui Education to delve into how he thinks technology can help to transform classroom engagement.

“I think when tech is used right and you create this classroom environment around kids where you can let them just explore the technology, that opens up so many different avenues and you'll just see different characters within that classroom, which is lovely to see.” Baasit Siddiqui, Siddiqui Education

What is student agency?

When we talk about student agency, we’re talking about students being agents in their own learning. Or in other words, our students are in control of their own educational destiny. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) describes student agency as “the capacity to set a goal, reflect and act responsibly to effect change. It is about acting rather than being acted upon; shaping rather than being shaped; and making responsible decisions and choices rather than accepting those determined by others.” We want our students to be able to work alongside educators and their wider school/home community to build interactive and supportive relationships to help them make progress towards their own educational goals.

Voice and Choice: how students can demonstrate agency in their learning

The age-old sage-on-the-stage role of the teacher is a hard one to shake. And it’s one our students, and indeed their parents/carers often expect to meet in the classroom. Co-constructing learning and giving students the opportunity to take control of their own learning means adopting a new way of teaching. It’s no longer “myself and them”. We need to start thinking about “us” as a whole class, in it together. Transforming the learning space we share with our students is about giving them a voice and a choice, every single day. Transformation doesn’t happen overnight, so here’s some very simple ways we can start to encourage students to demonstrate agency in our classrooms.

Direct their own learning make choices

A great way for students to direct their own learning is to have a regular brainstorming activity on topics they want to know more about and are interested in.

Whether that’s within our own field of expertise, or whether we encourage students to think outside our subject area - then find ways to tie the topic back in. Always having a choice for students is a sure-fire way to make sure they’re engaged in what we’re teaching.

Voice opinions

Using something like Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week is a great way to get students to voice their opinions.

It’s not just on the content we teach, and the content within the article itself but it encourages students to form opinions on the world around them. It helps students to build up prior knowledge too, so they come to class with already formed knowledge and opinions.

Ask questions and thinking aloud

As we’re working our way through a lesson always remember to pause and ask questions.

Let students know it’s ok to ask questions back, make comments and connections with things they already know, or other areas they’ve already explored as a class.

Self-grading

Let students pick their own projects.

Since all of our students learn differently, they will all be able to demonstrate their mastery in different ways as well. So instead of issuing one cover-all project or homework, give students a list to pick from. While offering up choice of project, collaborate with students on how to grade each type of project. Be sure to give them the opportunity to add reflection on why they’ve graded themselves the way they did. Engagement and learning are stronger when we have the chance to reflect.

Keep on reading

Now that you’ve read a little about student confidence and agency, here’s some other topics you might be interested in:

Why does equity in education matter?

Discover the difference between equal opportunity in education and equity in education. Learn how technology in the classroom, and maximizing access to this technology can help DEI in our classrooms.

Closing the achievement gap in education

Whatever the reasons for the achievement gap in education we’ve got information in this section to help identify the gaps in our classrooms. We’ll learn how edtech can help us to both identify learning gaps, and close the gap.

Inclusive education

Learn about varied learning experiences and best practice in teaching and learning. We’ll also get a better understanding of the role that technology has to play in our inclusive classroom.