Ed Focus Initiative

Increasing Student Engagement

The research on successful and sustained learning has proven what is really common sense: Students who (a) remember what they are taught long enough to pass a test and (b) retain it several months afterwards are those who were actively engaged in their classroom activities. By contrast, students who failed to retain what they learned after a few days as well as several months later were those whose learning activities were passive and where the students remained disengaged during most of their classroom work. Worksheets, drills, and even some computer activities are rote and mechanistic and do not engage students in actively processing information.

EdFOCUS provides training in several “best practices” to maximize student engagement; these include


Goal Setting

One key to active engagement is for students to take ownership in their learning - - to feel empowered by all the sights and sounds of the classroom. This ownership occurs when students feel they control at least a portion of what is expected of them academically. The research is clear that when students help decide what and how they learn, they connect their success (or failure) to their own effort (or lack thereof). 

One of the most successful “best practices” is to help students identify one or more academic and one or more personal learning  goals for each Unit. These goals are not year-long, vacuous aims such as “take my studies more seriously.” They are specific, measurable, and directly connected to the objectives of each Unit.

A sample academic goal might be -

            “understand how the body systems interact with each other in terms of healthy vs unhealthy food”

and a personal goal might be -

            “schedule a time each day to do my homework”

Students record their goals at the outset, monitor them throughout the Unit, and evaluate their progress at the end. The key is not that each goal must be accomplished but that “the needle move,” showing that progress was made. Students actually award themselves a grade or points, having complete control over this aspect of the Unit. Through dialogue with the teacher, each student “makes his or her case” as to the progress made toward each goal.

Although the identification of viable goals may require the teacher’s assistance at first, students quickly learn to formulate their own goals from the previous unit, a pre-test on the current unit, or an important life experience.     

Recognition and Reinforcement

A second “best practice” to encourage student engagement is the habit of continuously recognizing students for legitimate effort and reinforcing indicators of progress. These attentions to each student are for substantive accomplishments and for genuine risk-taking - - they are not phony tributes for simply being alive or showing up. And, more importantly, they are not false praise for empty accomplishments or sub-standard achievements. Such dishonesty only misleads students and sets them up for future failures.

Although many of the gestures are private, some are public recognitions to strengthen a student’s status among his or her peers. At the core of this “practice” is that students make the direct connection between their efforts and success - or failure. Recognition and reinforcement serve the dual purpose of strengthening each student’s self-confidence as a learner and establishing the classroom as a community of supportive learners. Additionally, there is zero tolerance for teasing, ridicule, or “refusal to work with” another student. This atmosphere of civility and efficiency promotes good citizenship and self-management, while maximizing productivity.

Continuous Monitoring and Feedback

Rather than waiting until the end of a Unit or chunk of content, “best practice” teachers continuously check for students’ understanding. This is to ensure that adequate progress is being made as well as to detect any mis-learning or the need for intervention. These frequent checks are crucial for making timely and targeted adjustments in classroom instruction. This is not to advocate a barrage of paper-pencil tests resulting in more time being used in testing than teaching. Most of these monitoring strategies are indirect or observational and occur as part of the normal flow of teaching-learning exchanges.

Moreover, students should be given specific feedback as to whether their answers are correct or not - and why. Originating with the TESA Research from the mid-1980s, the notion of “affirm and correct” has been positively correlated with students’ academic success.

Examples of Affirm and Correct

To Affirm: During a class discussion about the characters in a story, one student insists that the villain was “set up” and is not really at fault. One way to affirm that response might be: “Interpreting the story from the villain’s point of view casts everything else in the story into a whole different light.  Go on to tell us how.”

To Correct: During an activity to assemble data on growth of a plant over time, one student suggests using a circle graph, similar to the one used to display the portions of a budget. One way to correct that response might be “We get it that you understand circle graphs, but these data aren’t proportional; they’re linear.  How should we display linear data?” ).  But - as shown in the example - the “correction” should also include the invitation for self-correction.