7 Ways to Kick-Start Student Engagement

We surveyed administrators in the fall of 2021 and again in 2022 to discover the top concerns on K-12 administrators minds. In 2021, the top 3 concerns were learning loss, mental health, and teacher morale. And in 2022, the top 3 concerns were student engagement, improving teaching and learning, and teacher morale. So, administrators are still (and rightly) concerned with teacher retention and teacher morale, but they are now able to attend more to issues of student engagement and instructional effectiveness than even a year ago.

A Top Priority: Student Engagement
The heart of student engagement lies in authentic learning, where students learn content with purpose. They realize that what they are learning makes a difference in the world around the and they are motivated to be successful. In order to maximize student engagement, support teachers in incorporating more of these characteristics authentic learning into their instructional practices.

Make it Sustained: Scientists and Researchers study problems for years, decades even. Yet so often we relegated our instruction to 1-hour increments. We need to provide students with opportunities to develop the academic perseverance required to tackle big problems that require sustained inquiry.

Bring the World to Your Students: Too often students feel like the only purpose of an assignment is to get a grade. If they are applying what they have learned to real-world problems outside the classroom, not only are they more engaged, but the community places more value on schools and the role they play.

Bring Your Students to the World: When students present their learning to the teacher alone, there’s minimal engagement. But the moment you bring in someone outside the classroom, especially someone with expertise in the subject matter being studied or someone who is personally impacted by the subject, the level of engagement skyrockets.

Hand Over the Keys (with appropriate scaffolding): Employers value most those employees who are self-driven, who can figure out the path forward without having every detail laid out for them. So, offering students opportunities for choice and ownership not only increases engagement, but it also develops their sense of self direction, better preparing them for the future workplace, and saving you valuable time not having to direct every students’ every move.

Break Down Content Silos: A surprising number of concepts are taught across disciplines as if the concept was brand new each time. Consider comprehension strategies often taught in elementary reading: cause and effect, sequencing, making predictions, main idea and details, etc. These concepts are also found in Science, Social Studies, and Math, so instead of teaching them by discipline, we can save time by teaching them through a PBL unit and then applying them as needed in content-area

Allow Time to Fix it Up: We’re always pressed for time, so we are often quick to move from one thing to the next without giving students critical time to reflect upon their learning, get feedback from others, and revise their work to a new level. The design thinking process is critical in today’s workforce and getting students comfortable with seeking and implementing feedback will serve them well in our classrooms and beyond.

Make Collaboration a Priority: Most professions require workers to engage in at least some level of collaboration. STEM fields are particularly dependent on workers’ ability to combine their focused efforts in one area with someone else’s work to move ideas forward. We can provide meaningful, rich opportunities for students to make meaning together.

Genuine student engagement is the ultimate goal of any authentic learning experience. When students feel a connection to the content, when they feel like their work has purpose, they work harder and smarter. They retain learning because it was memorable, meaningful, and fun!

Dawn McCotter is the Teacher Programs Manager at Van Andel Institute for Education, a Michigan- based education nonprofit dedicating to creating classrooms where curiosity, creativity, and critical


Published by David Franklin

Dr. David Franklin is an experienced school administrator, education professor, curriculum designer, and presenter. Dr. Franklin has presented at national and international education conferences as is available for school and district professional development sessions.

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