6 Questions to Tackle When Engaging Students in Learning

Jon Konen
School Principal

Argumentatively the most important aspect of teaching today: keeping students in engaged. Others would argue that classroom management is the ticket, while myself and others would state, "If you have effective engagement strategies, you do not have classroom management or discipline problems." It is true, effective instruction can cure a rowdy behavior-ridden bunch of students. Through relationship building and a toolbox chuck full of engagement strategies, a teacher can successfully turn a classroom around.

Did you ever wonder about that difficult class going through your school? How were some teachers able to tackle the problems, get student buy-in, and make progress while other teachers drowned all year long? It comes back to engagement. The effective teachers choose strong activities, tasks, and assignments that sparks students' interests, and not necessarily straight from the textbook. They group their students for specific needs. They also change up what instruction looks like through different learning structures, as well as pacing.

The ability to challenge student's thinking, while creating an atmosphere of agency, as well as keeping students connected is an art form. Thinking of Robert Marzano's work about the art and science of teaching, we must understand that science and data play a role in developing a student. It can guide a teacher and it is the backbone to the art of engagement. The following six questions will support your transition from proficient to exemplary teacher when engaging students in learning.

1 - How Can I Incorporate More Engagement in the Activities, Tasks, and Assignments for the Students?

The first question you must ask yourself when increasing engagement is who is working harder in the classroom, the teacher or the student? Too many times the teacher is working hard engaging students by making sure they have eye contact, nodding, and raising their hand to answer a question. The philosophy of "whoever is talking the most, is learning the most" is not evident in this classroom. Exemplary teachers build a toolbox that can be used in all instructional areas and they believe that engagement is not only "eye contact and nodding." It is also the mind, hands, and body. Students in these classrooms are working harder than the teachers.

Not every lesson has to contain bells, whistles, lights, and signing, but it does need to include components that can naturally engage students in the activity, task, or assignment. Exemplary teachers know when to add in more conversation, hands on materials, visuals, technology, and more. They continuously keep up on best practices, what students are interested in, and they are not afraid to take risks.

Exemplary teachers read their students body language. When the students are overly chatty, they change their lesson structure by adding in more learning structures to get them talking. Using the student's energy and talkative nature can lead to deeper discussions and engagement that is more appropriate. They also realize that when the students do not understand a concept, they may have to adjust the lesson. For example, for students that are not grasping the abstract idea of an algebra equation, they may have to pull out a visual or manipulative. The use of a scale to model the equation, using a program such as Hands On Equations, can make the concept more concrete for students. This is also true for extending a concept to a more complex level. When using an algebra equation to solve a volume problem, a teacher can use a real world scenario involving a ratio of the correct amount of cocoa for the perfect cup of hot chocolate.

Exemplary teachers are more successful when they can introduce a concept at the concrete level, then advance to the pictorial or representational level, and lastly to the abstract level (CPA). Understanding the learners in your classroom helps determine where and how fast you start on this continuum. First coined by Jerome Bruner, CPA, is prevalent in many math programs. It can be used across the curriculum for the introduction of many topics.

The use of Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligence (MI) research can increase engagement in the classroom. MI focuses on the strengths of a student. Understanding the strengths or intelligences in your classroom can support you taking them academically further. Teaching new or difficult concepts through a student's strengths has been proven to increase achievement according to his research. Here are the seven multiple intelligences, as well as how a teacher can use them (according to Gardner):

  1. Visual-Spatial- think in terms of physical space, as do architects and sailors. Very aware of their environments. They like to draw, do jigsaw puzzles, read maps, daydream. They can be taught through drawings, verbal and physical imagery. Tools include models, graphics, charts, photographs, drawings, 3-D modeling, video, videoconferencing, television, multimedia, texts with pictures/charts/graphs.
  2. Bodily-kinesthetic- use the body effectively, like a dancer or a surgeon. Keen sense of body awareness. They like movement, making things, touching. They communicate well through body language and be taught through physical activity, hands-on learning, acting out, role playing. Tools include equipment and real objects.
  3. Musical- show sensitivity to rhythm and sound. They love music, but they are also sensitive to sounds in their environments. They may study better with music in the background. They can be taught by turning lessons into lyrics, speaking rhythmically, tapping out time. Tools include musical instruments, music, radio, stereo, CD-ROM, multimedia.
  4. Interpersonal- understanding, interacting with others. These students learn through interaction. They have many friends, empathy for others, street smarts. They can be taught through group activities, seminars, dialogues. Tools include the telephone, audio conferencing, time and attention from the instructor, video conferencing, writing, computer conferencing, E-mail.
  5. Intrapersonal- understanding one's own interests, goals. These learners tend to shy away from others. They're in tune with their inner feelings; they have wisdom, intuition and motivation, as well as a strong will, confidence and opinions. They can be taught through independent study and introspection. Tools include books, creative materials, diaries, privacy and time. They are the most independent of the learners.
  6. Linguistic- using words effectively. These learners have highly developed auditory skills and often think in words. They like reading, playing word games, making up poetry or stories. They can be taught by encouraging them to say and see words, read books together. Tools include computers, games, multimedia, books, tape recorders, and lecture.
  7. Logical -Mathematical- reasoning, calculating. Think conceptually, abstractly and are able to see and explore patterns and relationships. They like to experiment, solve puzzles, ask cosmic questions. They can be taught through logic games, investigations, mysteries. They need to learn and form concepts before they can deal with details.

The use of Bloom's Taxonomy is another strategy teachers can use to increase the engagement level of their instruction. Bloom believed that the way we question or formulate tasks for students can be at varying levels of complexity. Teachers can use this taxonomy to address, connect, and engage students in topics at varying levels. Here is a diagram of Bloom's Taxonomy created by Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching:

While teachers must think meta-cognitively about the level of complexity of the question or task, the strengths of the students, and the concrete-to-abstract nature of the concept, they can use best practice instructional strategies and materials to engage students. Here is a short list of common teacher engagement ideas that have an infinite number of variations:

  • Discussion
  • Writing
  • Movement
  • Visuals
  • Technology
  • Magic
  • Discrepant Event
  • Quote
  • Poem
  • Passion Projects
  • Genius Hour
  • Total Participation Techniques
  • Active Participation

2 - How Can Learning Structures and Active Participation Support a Higher Level of Engagement?

In many traditional classrooms, a teacher would lecture for a while, and then ask a handful of questions to students. The students that raised their hands were predictable, and most likely, always had the correct answer. This made the teacher feel like they were really doing their job, as they knew at least a couple of students understood the lecture content and could answer the questions. How do we know that the other students were learning as well? That's were learning structures and active participation techniques play a key role in getting all students involved and engaged with the content.

Learning structures are a way to organize students, learning, and materials to support full or total engagement and collaboration with each other and the teacher. One of the oldest and most popular learning structures is T-P-S. This stands for "think, pair, and share." A teacher will pose a question to the students. Students then think meta-cognitively on their own first. Then the teacher pairs them up and they take turns sharing their answers with each other. In this fashion, all students are engaged covertly with their minds, than they share out with a partner overtly. There is an infinite amount of learning structures a teacher can use to increase engagement. Here are 10:

  1. Timed Pair Share
  2. Socratic Circles
  3. Inside-Outside Circle
  4. Rally Robin
  5. Rally Coach
  6. Stand Up, Hand Up, Pair Up
  7. Lingo Line Up
  8. Power Brainstorming
  9. Four Corners
  10. Jig Saw

In addition to learning structures, a teacher can add active participation techniques, or Total Participation Techniques, into their engagement toolbox. These techniques are different from learning structures in a couple ways. One, these techniques are used to keep students engaged for a longer period during a lesson. Two, they may or may not be a part of an overall learning structure, and they may stand alone if used effectively. It can be as simple as a "thumbs up," or as advanced as a Kahoot online quiz. Here is a short list of 10 active participation techniques:

  1. Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down - agreement, disagreement, or for voting purposes
  2. White Boards - used to show written response
  3. Kahoot Quiz - used to quiz students or used as a poll for all to view classroom results; can be used in game format
  4. Pinch Cards - used for students to hold up the given response according to what is on the pinch card (ie. A, B, C, D, 1, 2, 3, or True, False, etc…)
  5. Notetaking - students write down notes in some manner
  6. Ranking or Ordering - students putting items in a rank order or some other fashion
  7. Stand Up/Sit Down - getting students moving according to given questions
  8. Padlet - Using a web 2.0 tool for all students to respond
  9. Quick Draw - using a white board or paper, students draw the answer
  10. Likert Scale Scoring - students use a numbered system to score questions, tasks, opinions, etc…

3 - How Can Teachers Transfer the Power of Engagement to the Students?

Agency is the ability for students to take charge of their learning. The transfer of power from teacher driven to student driven instruction is a key indicator of an exemplary teacher. Teachers may drive the engagement, but they end up doing most of the work in the classroom. In exemplary classrooms, students own the learning, support each other, and help drive the engagement level of their peers. Students do most of the work in these classrooms.

The focus on leadership, and the fact that everyone in the classroom can be a leader, starts with developing a positive classroom culture. When students lead, engagement is a spontaneous positive reaction. Students lead by listening, encouraging, and having discussions with their peers. Teachers can set up learning structures and active participation strategies that let students lead. Students feel empowered with they are given responsibility and choices.

The transfer of power is evident when students are completely respectful with one and another. They build on their peers comments, thoughts, and arguments. They transform a discussion, task, or assignment into something deeper than originally planned. In these learning moments, teachers step back and they are merely an observer. They may continue using coaching techniques where they model language and actions, but when students show independence, they gradually release their responsibility and give it back to students.

4 - How Does Pacing Play a Role in Student Engagement?

How a teacher adjusts the curriculum, instruction, and assessment play a vital role in the pacing of student learning. An effective teacher uses both science (data), and art (decisions based on individual students) to determine how fast, what materials to use, and what structure is best suited for the learning. These constructs are only built through classroom teaching experience, mentoring and collaboration, and research.

An exemplary teacher builds a bag of tricks or tools to use throughout their teaching career. They are able to diagnosis problems immediately, as well as solve many of them before they occur. A new teacher to the profession has a more difficult time deciding what works best. They are unable to draw from prior experiences of what worked best in the past for a student with the one seated in front of them. This aspect for an administrator can be difficult and time consuming to teach a new teacher. The best administrators can teach, coach, and connect new teachers with strategies that will support their development. Building philosophy with a growth mindset is essential for the new teacher to determine what is my next move with instruction? In the same manner, schools have veteran teachers that struggle with pacing for various reasons. Sometimes, they have never had professional development in this area or ever had a peer or administrator work with them on pacing. Exemplary teachers not only make distinct decisions on planning and pacing ahead of time, they are flexible enough to make instructional decisions in the middle of a lesson. There are many questions a teacher should be able to answer in order to determine the correct pacing:

  • What are the majority of the students giving me today for engagement? (ie. Sleepy, day before a long weekend, happy and ready rock and roll, full moon, etc…)
  • Do I need to adjust the speed of the content…slow it down or speed it up? Why?
  • What background information do the students have on this topic?
  • What learning structure best fits this material, this particular day of student engagement, and what I want students to be able to do with the information?
  • What data from past assessments supports me in determining what and how fast I teach the content?
  • What is the best use of my time as a teacher today? (ie. Pulling students 1:1 for added support, pulling students in small group for more direct instruction, working whole group on clarifying misconceptions, etc…).
  • What does my school district require for my pacing schedule?

5 - What Does Student Engagement and Teacher Engagement Look Like in the Classroom?

In the education setting, there is a multitude of definitions for the word "engagement." Even teachers that have worked together for years may argue over what true engagement looks and sounds like. Creating a common definition among the district, school, and even grade level teams can be powerful when making changes to increase engagement levels. Simply being "on task," or "busy" is not enough to guarantee your students are learning to their potential.

Charlotte Danielson discusses student engagement, as quoted in a post by blogger Diane Senechal, as the following,

"All students are actively engaged in the activities and assignments in their exploration of content. Students initiate or adapt activities and projects to enhance their understanding.

Instructional groups are productive and fully appropriate to the students or to the instructional purposes of the lesson. Students take the initiative to influence the formation or adjustment of instructional groups.

Instructional materials and resources are suitable to the instructional purposes and engage students mentally. Students initiate the choice, adaptation, or creation of materials to enhance their learning.

The lesson's structure is highly coherent, allowing for reflection and closure. Pacing of the lesson is appropriate for all students."

In order to implement Danielson's engagement definition, the teacher must also be engaged. A blog post by Maryellen Weimer, PhD from The Center for Engaged Teaching and Learning at the University of California: Merced, tilted, What Does Student Engagement Look Like?, states that most research on engagement all comes back to these three premises:

  • Behaviorally engagedstudents do what students are supposed to do in class. They adhere to the rules and norms, and they display behaviors associated with persistence, concentration, and attention. They may ask questions and contribute during discussions.
  • Emotional engagement reveals students' attitudes toward learning. Those attitudes can range from simply liking what they're doing to deeply valuing the knowledge and skills they are acquiring.
  • Cognitive engagement involves effort and strategy use. It's wanting to understand something and being willing to go beyond what's required in order to accomplish learning goals. Those who are cognitively engaged use strategies associated with deep learning.

Teachers must also be behaviorally, emotionally, and cognitively engaged with their students, parents, colleagues, and administration in the same manner. If all three of these premises are present, the teacher is deemed as fully vested and highly engaged. There are very few articles about what teacher engagement looks and sounds like, but one can extrapolate that if students are fully vested in engagement, so is the teacher.

6 - What Are the Most Common Components of a Highly Engaged Lesson?

When reviewing the most common lesson formats, be it Madeline Hunter or the 5E Learning Model, engagement should be noticeable all throughout a strong lesson. Students should be engaged with materials, each other, and the teacher. Many teachers use a plethora of manipulatives to make lessons "hands-on." There are lessons where a teacher may not have manipulatives, but as long as the materials and learning structures create a "minds-on" mentality, engagement is evident.

What has been called the "hook" or the "introduction," is the very first portion of a lesson that gets students interested into the learning that is forthcoming. Developing teachers start the lesson without thinking of the importance of the first couple of minutes. Proficient teachers start by stating the lesson objective and rationale; they answer the question why the students are going to learn the concept. Exemplary teachers spend time finding an exciting hook that gets students interest peaked and can continue this engagement level throughout the lesson. Here is a short list of ways a teacher may start a lesson (many ideas can be used across the subject areas if done effectively):

  • Discrepant Event
  • Work Hands-on with Materials
  • Joke
  • Quick Write
  • Video
  • Quote
  • Movie or Book Trailer
  • Music
  • Origin Story
  • Picture Book

Many teachers and subsequent textbook companies design instructional lessons with a gradual release of responsibility, "I do, we do, and you do," is the most prevalent format. Teachers start by modeling and using direct instruction of the new concept with students. Students are watching the teacher first. Next, the teacher and the students complete a task together. Both students and the teacher are working. The teacher continues to check which students may need further support. Lastly, the teacher assigns students to complete a task on their own. Students work individually while the teacher travels around to support students or groups of students. Engagement in this phase of the lesson includes every aspect as mentioned above.

The last part of the lesson should be delineated to closure and self-reflection. How a teacher ends a lesson should summarize the learning for students, as well as support further and upcoming learning. Exemplary teachers collect some type of data to determine whether students met the learning objective. They also use this data to determine the effectiveness of the instruction. Engagement in this component can be both covert and overt. Students can self-assess their progress towards attaining proficiency of the learning objective. They also empower students by transferring the learning responsibility back to them. Teachers can collect this data to determine the next steps for learning. Quick assessments, whether they are formative or summative, support the data decision-making process for the teachers. Here are some quick assessments that teachers can use at the end of lessons for closure and self-reflection:

  • 5 Minute Topic Driven Quick Write
  • 3-2-1: 3 Facts, 2 Opinions, and 1 Question
  • Checklist of Mastery - check off what students have mastered through teacher observation
  • 5 Question Quiz
  • Muddiest Point - students write down the concept that is the most unclear to them
  • Kahoot Quiz
  • Google Survey
  • Brain Dump - students write for a given amount of time on everything they have learned
  • Exit Card - students write on a notecard answering a question pertaining to the learning
  • Concept Map - students fill in concepts on a graphic organizer
  • Fact Storming - write down a given number facts from learning
  • KWL - students finish a graphic organizer that contains the following columns: know, what I want to learn, and what I learned
  • Draw Your Answer - students draw the answer instead of writing it


Jon Konen

Jon Konen

Jon Konen is a K-6 elementary principal in Great Falls, Montana. His school won the 2012 Blue Ribbon Award. He has taught most all grade levels, been a K-12 principal of a rural school, as well as an instructional coach.
Jon Konen