Let's face it. For most teachers, getting their students to focus and stay engaged during classroom instruction is challenging. How do you capture student attention and sustain this despite the students' differing abilities and skill levels? What do you do about the limited attention spans of many students? How can you compete with the fast-paced world of technology that many students embrace (nearly 24/7)?
Teachers have been known to have a bag of tricks. They use these techniques with ease to do just that... to keep students engaging and participating in classroom activities. So what are some of these techniques?
1. Use many teaching styles to meet the differentiated needs of your students
Everyone learns in different ways: visual, aural, verbal, physical, logical, social and solitary. As a teacher, if you use a combination of teaching styles, you are more likely to reach each of your students. It is important to integrate these styles in any teaching activities, projects and assessments assigned to your students, as well. When learning needs are met, students are most apt to engage and to succeed.
2. Make learning meaningful
When students feel learning activities are worthy of their time and effort, they pay more attention. When you can connect the activities to the students' prior knowledge and personal experiences, students will better realize the value and relevance of the learning. Another suggestion is to have real-life examples of how the learning is linked to relevancy. For example, field trips and guest speakers can show students how the learning is used in everyday life. You can vary your activities and move from teacher-centered to student-centered and back again to keep the classroom atmosphere as captivating as possible.
3. Help children to be successful
Students who effectively execute a task will be more prone to continue with that task or to build on that task. It is important, then, to design activities at or slightly above the students' present functioning ability and not make them too difficult. It is also important to provide continuous monitoring/guidance of your students to assess their understanding and progress and to offer assistance where needed. When students meet success with certain skills and concepts and can see this achievement, they will shift from merely wanting to get a good grade to valuing the journey of learning (e.g., improvement and progression).
4. Nurture student behavior and goals
Instead of being solely authoritative in your approach to teaching, it is important to allow for student input. When you welcome students' suggestions and ideas into the activity, you empower them. Using inviting and non-controlling language and giving sufficient time to digest the information are helpful tips to increasing student engagement.
5. Establish a positive teacher-student relationship
Students who feel their teacher cares about them are more likely to be engaged in classroom instruction. Some ways to increase the quality of the teacher-student relationship include treating all students fairly, increasing the time spent with each student 1-1, being positive and enthusiastic, and genuinely inquiring or taking action about students' academic and social emotional needs.
6. Use warm-up activities, activities during downtime, movement, and attention to involve students and to keep them focused
You can use any number of warm up activities at the onset of the class: reviewing vocabulary or studying a review sheet; summarizing a math concept or reading passage; making a list of important questions for a science chapter; etc. A similar activity can be done during downtime or routines (i.e., when waiting for class to officially begin or for the daily announcements, passing out papers, handling an interruption, etc.) so classroom time is not wasted and students are encouraged to remain on task.
Throughout the instructional time period, allowing some type of movement is a great way to keep student attention. This can be as simple as clapping out a rhythm, holding up so many fingers to an answer, standing up if they agree with an opinion, etc.
Developing a method to use before you give important instructions is helpful. You may require total silence, "all eyes on you," pencils down, or folded hands. Some teachers shake a bell or flip the light switch to garner attention.
7. Invite students to participate and to be involved in learning
Asking students to do a quick write or short journal writing (e.g., what's the most interesting _____, list 3 things you have learned about _____, defend one of the positions taken in class about _____, explain what such and such means) helps sustain attention and keep students focused.
You can put each student's name on a piece of paper and pull the names out randomly from a hat when asking questions to ensure active thinking or you can ask questions to the class and expect everyone to answer with a given prompt (e.g. thumbs up or down, raise so many fingers, etc.). Another suggestion is to ask questions that have multiple answers or explanations. That way you can expect everyone to at least have one answer and it challenges students to find more answers.
8. Teach students collaboration and accountability
If you plan on doing group projects or any team-based work, it is important to teach some key collaboration skills first. You could use an activity that is related to your content area or try any type of group team-building activity (e.g., make a free-standing tower given certain supplies, design a new invention with so many classroom objects, create a new cereal complete with name/slogan/ingredients and packaging design). A discussion prior to the activity and after the activity about appropriate behaviors and outcomes of teamwork will be helpful. After the groups share their "creations," you can talk about ways to make working with a team better. You can consider assigning different roles to the team members, mixing up the groups so they are heterogeneous at times or purposely ability grouped, and evaluate the student/group performance to foster more accountability for student involvement and learning.
Considering some of the above techniques to engage students when designing and implementing learning activities will most likely support students' engagement. They will help students to stay on task and to manage their own behavior to guide learning.