My Top 10 Effective Strategies to Improve Student Engagement
Updated: Apr 5
Student engagement has always been one of my favorite things to plan as an educator. I love to plan for not just “fun” activities, but lessons that will keep my students engaged and learning while they work. When the pandemic hit last year, my district went from face-to-face learning to distance learning in a matter of days. I went from being confident as a teacher to not knowing what the heck I was doing. Last year’s “virtual teaching” was significantly different from this year’s teaching. Last year I was surviving, whereas this year I feel as if I am thriving. Do all my students engage every single day? Nope. But what I focus on are the students who ARE engaged, present, and focused on the task. Those who are not, I connect with on other levels. There is never a school day where I do not speak to or message a student or their parents. There is no one size that fits all when it comes to virtual student engagement. What works for one teacher may not work for the teacher in the next room. It depends on the teacher, the class of students and often just what day of the week it is. Below are my top 10 ways to improve student engagement in my classroom.
Know and understand your students. To engage your students on an academic level, you need to know them on a more personal level. I am fortunate enough to know many of my students this year already, as I taught them when they were 4th graders. However, that is not enough. I need to know ALL my students and to do this I make sure I start with a morning greeting. When we were in “normal” school I always greeted my students at the door with a handshake (of their choosing) and saying good morning. This has not changed online, as every student deserves to hear their name every day. We turn on our cameras and say good morning one at a time. No excuses, this is done every day, and I have 31 students. Does it take a few minutes, yes of course it does, but it is a few minutes of our day that is worth every single minute. Next, do a morning check-in and morning meeting. I have a form that I use to check in with my students each morning. Morning meetings are also a great way to get to know your students and how they think. I have 6th-graders and understanding where they come from in a morning meeting has been a lifesaver. Have lunch with your students, yes, lunch online. I do not make this a “treat” or something my students must work towards; we will just hang out online during our lunchtime. They do not have to earn it, because that would, unfortunately, take it away from many of the students who need this time. We just talk, sometimes play video games, and be silly. Finally, let your students into your life. I know this is not for every teacher, but it works for me. My students know about me, about my children, and about my life.
Student ownership When I was a first-year teacher I had no idea what student ownership meant. I thought that hanging up some student work on the walls was enough to give my students ownership of their classroom. Needless to say, it wasn’t. To give my students ownership of THEIR classroom I start by providing some choice. By providing student choice I do not just mean they get to choose where they sit and call it a day. I also do not offer choice all the time, but I do incorporate choice boards into my weekly lesson plans. Padlet is an excellent option to provide choice boards to your students virtually. Check out an example I made here. I do give them a choice to keep their cameras off (most of the time, see the post below). I establish clear learning objectives. My students know what they are expected to learn because I make it a point to tell them at the beginning of each lesson and to do frequent temperature checks throughout my lessons. Authentic and instant feedback is important to providing student ownership. In an online environment, this is hard to do, which again is why I use Padlet. I also use Nearpod to help provide instant feedback, although the lag that many of my students have makes Nearpod for feedback a little tougher than Padlet. I make sure to incorporate real-life connections into my students’ lessons. If they are working on a language arts lesson that may be a little dull, I try to incorporate it into their real lives, and things that they may be able to associate with. Finally, to provide student ownership I work on a teaching strategy called reciprocal teaching. It is not as easy to work on in a virtual environment, but with some time and patience, it can be done.
Don’t force cameras to be turned on all the time. Cameras are a touchy subject in a virtual environment. I know many districts that require cameras to always be turned on. Mine does not, and I am thankful for that. Why? It all boils back down to engagement. If my students are participating, by unmuting when I ask them to, answering questions in the chat, logging into Nearpod and Padlet, then I honestly don’t care if their cameras are on. I teach 6th-grade, at a Title I school, there are many students who deal with distractions in the background, homes they do not want their peers to see, who are uncomfortable with their appearance, and so on. There are times during the day I will ask for cameras to be turned on, just so, I can see everyone is there, but for the most part, I give my students a choice. I know! Touchy subject and I know that everyone is entitled to their opinion and allowing my students to keep their cameras off is mine.
Collaboration Students love to talk to their peers. Give them the opportunity to do so. I know you are thinking how hard this is in a virtual environment, but it doesn’t have to be. Start out small, give them some time to talk just for fun during their morning meeting and during breaks. If they are comfortable using the chat, then let them use the chat. From there start branching out to having them talk about the text you are reading or the math problem you are doing. Sentence stems work wonders, but don’t expect magic to happen right away. Provide them with the question and sentence stem and send them to a breakout room to talk for a few minutes. Set some ground rules and expectations of them while they are in their rooms, and then provide them a chance to share with the whole class. It can be done virtually; it just takes time and planning.
Positivity I took a professional development course a few years ago where I learned the praise-to-criticism approach to classroom management. For every negative comment you make to a student, you should provide three positive comments back. It is an even higher ratio of positives when you work with tier three behavior students. I kept track for an entire week and noticed how many negative comments I was making. I made it a point to change that aspect of my classroom management plan and noticed almost right away what a difference it made. I am now an extremely positive teacher and praise my students frequently for a job well done. Instead of focusing on the negative aspects “Why is no one turning in their assignments” I focus on the positives, “Great job Megan for turning your work in on time. “Students love to be praised, and even 6th-graders still want the approval of their teacher. I use Class Dojo frequently as a motivator, and only give out positive points. Even sixth graders want to work for rewards and want to be part of my raffle at the end of the week.
Connect with families. Connecting with families is time-consuming, but necessary. If parents don’t know what is expected of their children, then they cannot support them at home. I use a wonderful application called “Talking Points” (see My Favorite Distance Learning Websites) to connect with my parents. When that doesn’t work, I pick up the phone and call them. When that doesn’t work, I get ahold of our home school liaison to make the call. Communicating weekly is essential and my parents need to know that we are a team in their children’s education and we both depend on each other. When I connect with my parents, I make it a point to do the Oreo cookie approach and provide a positive comment about their child, an area of growth, and another positive statement about their child. I also make it a point to not just call/text home on the “bad” days. Call families on good days as well. Don’t forget to document, document, document.
Breaks Take a break from learning for a couple of minutes. Being online all day is hard on the eyes, and it’s hard on the brain. As an educated adult, I have a hard time staying focused all day, and even my brain needs some breaks. Be silly for a few minutes every 12 to 15 minutes, have a dance break or play “Would you rather”. Just take your mind off things for a minute but be warned, you need to have a plan in place to get right back to work after a couple of minutes. If your quick brain break ends up taking 30 minutes because you can’t get your class under control, then you are going to have some issues. Plan ahead and tell your students that they get 2 minutes to be silly or chat with their friends and then share your screen with a 2-minute timer set. Let them know that as soon as the timer goes off, they must get right back to work. Here are some great classroom timers that even my sixth graders love.
Daily schedule Even in the virtual world, students need a routine, and they need a daily schedule. I review our schedule at the beginning of each day and make it a point to have students check in and out when they go to breaks and lunch. Keep your schedule the same day to day if possible, to keep the structure in your students’ lives. It might seem like a minor detail, but keeping the schedule the same, and reviewing it daily helps our students keep on track and engaged.
Norms Just like routine and schedule, our students need norms and they need to be reviewed regularly. I started the year off with a few of my own norms, but we gradually came up with our own authentic norms as a class. These norms include turning cameras on when asked, keeping a positive attitude, coming to class prepared, and only unmuting when asked or when necessary. They are simple norms, but I find that they do the trick for my class.
Show them you care. Last, but not least. Show your students that you care about them. If you shared your morning check-in with your students and have reviewed it then you will know when they are having a bad day or a great day, even virtually. Send them a message letting them know that you are there for them if they need to talk. Is your student’s camera on and you see a cat/dog/sibling come into the frame? Instead of scolding your student, take a minute and send them a private chat asking about their cat/dog/sibling. **Tip: Don’t do this in front of your whole class or you will quickly have an entire show and tell session happening. Just letting your students know that you are there for them when they need you goes a long way.
I hope that these 10 ways to engage your students are beneficial to you. Do you have more to add? I would love to hear about them.