An Easy Blueprint for Student Engagement of K-12 and College Students

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There are many moving pieces when it comes to student engagement from the littlest of littles to our oldest of learners. However, even though it may look different depending on what age group you are looking at, the same concepts ring true over and over again.

The Learning Process and Student Success

It is the gold standard of every teacher to have their students succeed in all things. However, I have come to understand that there is something much more important than blanket success in the overall frame of educational reference. That thing is learning.

On the face of it, this may seem strange. How can the process by which skill is acquired be more important than if it was acquired? This is something that I find is not only glanced over in teacher training but is often forgotten in the hustle and bustle of curriculums and meetings and standardized testing.

It comes down to what we as teachers, and as people really, hold the dearest…and that is student achievement.

The Focus on Student Achievement

Student Achievement is at the forefront of everything that happens in school. It is constantly monitored, evaluated, and modified to produce greater success in the students. More often than not, when student achievement is spoken about it is always in context to how well they did on this test or their grades for this marking period.

These things are extremely important, but they are an endpoint, not the journey.

In this new era which includes an emphasis on online learning (for better or for worse), a resurgence in achievement-based funding, and a push for standardized testing, student success has become the focus of every teacher.

I understand this position because I have been there myself. At times I think that it is my sole duty to make sure that students pass their tests and complete their work on time. In many ways, these things are my job, but again, this is the endpoint and not the journey.

So how do we make the journey…and enjoy the ride while we’re at it?

Student motivation and a plan to increase student engagement

Student motivation and engagement are the results of a well-thought-out plan that will keep students at their best while working in your classroom. They need to feel safe, welcomed, respected, and challenged. If they have these things then they will be more willing to give you 100% effort every time so that they can meet the challenge.

A plan can be as simple or complex as you would like; it’s a matter of finding what works for your students.

Type of Engagement in Elementary, Middle School, and High School

The first step is understanding the concept of student engagement. According to the Texas Education Agency, the definition of student engagement is “the degree to which a student is actively and productively involved in learning”. The American Psychological Association offers multiple different definitions for engagement including a state of absorption or rapt attention; a state of collaboration between a teacher and student that leads to constructive educational outcomes; and an investment of time by the student in an activity.

Different types of engagement

There is no one definition for what engagement looks like, but there are standards and they are the same no matter what grade you teach. Though the activity and age-appropriate behavior may be different, the same concepts emerge: investment in the activity, getting “lost” in the assignment, true collaboration with peers, and as I like to say often, “learning by accident”.

Taking an Active Role in their own learning

When asking students what engagement means to them, some responses included: ‘you’re not just watching the clock for time to pass,’ ‘when you are totally into what you are doing and focused on it’, or ‘sharpening your focus.’ Other definitions include that engaged students are actively participating in learning, working collaboratively with their peers, and showing an interest in the learning.

Peers as partners

Students define engagement as working together with others, especially their peers. When they feel like they are part of a group and part of something bigger than themselves they feel engaged. Some students participate at school 42 percent less than at home because they do not feel they have anyone to collaborate with.

When you introduce students to new learning objectives and give them a chance to build on their ideas, students become more engaged in the work. They also see that there is a lot of value in what they bring to the table.

More than just test scores

Students define engagement as something that happens during the academic day, not just on specific days or on a state test. Students view test scores as a glimpse into what they do on a daily basis and it is more than an assessment of their knowledge. It is also how they work with others, if they are always on task, and if they are building a strong relationship with their peers.

They define engagement as doing something that they enjoy, not specifically as completing homework or assignments. When it becomes time to learn, for some reason the motivation is not there if the work is required. In order for engagement to happen at school, students need to be given a choice about what they work on.

In order for students to become engaged in learning, it should begin with the teacher. You can’t expect students to become highly engaged and involved if their teachers are not doing so themselves. Teachers who believe in their students and trust them will see more engagement in the classroom and the whole experience will snowball from there.

An Office of Student Engagement for Academic Outcomes?

Though many schools have some type of committee, at the very least, that focuses on student affairs, the concept of creating an actual position for student engagement is something that should be up for consideration.

If that is not in the cards for your district, how can you move something like this “in-house” within your own classroom? In essence, what does a student engagement position look like within the academic classroom?

Let’s start by examining the job qualifications. In all honesty, this should be something that is formed from an “inside-out” approach. For example, what types of tasks do teachers need help with within their classrooms? What has been tried in the past and what has been successful? What have been the challenges and obstacles to overcome?

In my own classroom, I found that what was needed was a “secondary facilitator” within the classroom. In other words, not only did students need help with their academics, but they also needed someone who could help them navigate through some of life’s more difficult circumstances as well.

But if you are a one-man show in your realm, it is important to find a way to be able to wear those hats concurrently WITHOUT it being more stress on your plate. A student-centered classroom allows for this: a focus on student growth and student life while still moving full steam ahead with your curriculum (and again, once implemented properly, is no extra time or stress on your plate to accomplish.)

This is why I say that student-centered learning is a complete game-changer in the classroom, especially in the world we are currently living in.

Student Organizations and the Student Experience

We need to remember through all of this, we are preparing our students for the real world, which is different than the world we all entered as we became of age. Your first goal as a community should be providing a safe and positive experience for students. A perfect way to do this is through school activities.

This can be as basic as giving your students a task to complete (ie. hold the door for someone) or as advanced as a full student government system. By creating opportunities for students outside of the classroom, the piquing of students’ interest will start lending itself towards natural engagement strategies both inside and outside of the classroom.

Best Practices of the Academic Experience with your Current Students

Engaging students with their academics is something that comes once all the other pieces are in place. Too often, we jump right into the content and we forget the little things: relationships, well-being, social-emotional needs, and trauma-based teaching.

While many see these as obstacles and just “something else” to do, they shouldn’t be. First, once these needs are met, the rest falls into place (ever try to learn something when your mind is elsewhere?). Second, there are plenty of ways to incorporate all of this seamlessly into the day-to-day with, again, no extra time necessary from you.

Leadership skills of the Current Students

Give students opportunities to lead, beginning with something little that takes minimal effort on your end. Let them take attendance (and know how to use the phone system). Giving opportunities for leadership development like this in the classroom gives students a sense of efficacy, that they have a place. 

Once the students are comfortable with leading, it’s time to give them more responsibility. An example? Let them lead the teaching portion of the class once you’ve reviewed and guided their efforts.

We often forget about the power of giving students responsibilities. When we do, we lose our opportunity to instill a sense of purpose and ownership in the classroom – something that is vital for student development today.

Even sending home a weekly newsletter with student input can be empowering. Asking kids to share their insights with parents (in addition to the teacher’s perspective) lets them know that their voice matters.

Making Learning Matter

One of the best ways to make learning personal for students is by letting them share what they are learning outside of the classroom. For example, asking students to write articles or design posters about what they’ve learned not only makes learning personal for students but also allows them to show their families what they are up to.

In addition, when we give students opportunities to share what they have learned with the larger group, it brings a sense of community and belonging that is often missing from today’s classrooms. Letting your students present what they’ve learned (be it in writing or through a technology tool like Prezi) lets them share with the class and across social media platforms. Plus, when students see what they’ve done shared outside of the classroom, they will be motivated to do more good work for you and their peers.

New Ways of Monitoring Behavioral Engagement

Again, none of this is one-size-fits-all, but when you start giving these techniques a try in the classroom, it is much easier to see little moments to give more mind to and help grow.

The Teacher-student relationship

One of the best ways to monitor engagement and behavioral choices is to ask students regularly how they are feeling and ask them what we can do as teachers to make them feel more engaged. Be open and willing to adjust your teaching style and content on the fly when you hear this feedback from them.

It may be hard for some schools (or districts) to allow for this shift in teaching, but it is worth trying. What’s more, when we shift our approach in the classroom (and stay open to change), students will notice and they will be more inclined to take their learning seriously.

We can’t forget that trust needs to go both ways between teachers and students. Once you have established that relationship and thank goodness you have! (because it’s not an easy feat), we can move to free up time in the day-to-day.

Student-student interaction

Allowing, helping, and encouraging peer-to-peer collaboration and interaction is a skill that will take your students far beyond the walls of your classroom.

It’s not easy to set up peer-to-peer interaction in an elementary or secondary classroom, but it is worth the effort. The key is to begin small and give some time for students to get used to working this way. For example, instead of calling on one student at a time, ask that they work in pairs or trios based on their answers.

Collaborating with classmates builds life-long social skills and learning outcomes while freeing you up from managing the class all day.

Praising effort, not ability, with the 4 Keys

It’s easy to get caught up in how well (or poorly) a student is performing. But when we shift our focus from what students can’t do to what they CAN do, we make learning much more powerful and personal. Moreover, when we praise effort over ability, it encourages students to try again and again, fostering a growth mindset.

Finding the ways to do this in your classroom isn’t difficult, it just needs to ebb and flow with the students and where they are (physically, mentally, and emotionally). Being flexible is the key to making all of this work. The key is engagement. There are four keys to student engagement that I discuss in my video training challenge that releases twice per year. It is called “Finding Your Student Engagement Formula” and it walks you through those four keys and how to implement them in the classroom.

If you are interested in registering (it’s totally free), visit the Finding Your Student Engagement Formula Challenge registration page and you will be notified the next time the series is available.

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