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The Preview: Education

5 tips for getting all your students engaged in learning

Two elementary school students carefully studying a globe
Spark students' interest by making learning personally meaningful

What is Lesson One for teachers who want students to successfully grasp, retain, and apply new material? First—say Whitney Rapp and Katrina Arndt, authors of the new Teaching Everyone: An Introduction to Inclusive Education—you need to "recruit their interest." Teachers need to find ways to make learning "relevant, authentic, and valuable" in students' lives.

Here are 5 steps you can follow to actively engage your students and help them feel personally connected to their learning:

1. Connect what you're teaching to real life
2. Use students' interests and fascinations
3. Give students choices
4. Present information in multiple formats
5. Teach students self-monitoring skills

Connect what you're teaching to real life

One key way to involve students in their learning is to ensure the material speaks to them. These strategies, adapted from Teaching Everyone and Systematic Instruction for Students with Moderate and Severe Disabilities, the new text by Belva Collins, will connect your lessons to students' real-life experiences:

  • Choose culturally relevant materials. According to the National Council of Teachers of English, students who do not find representations of their own cultures in texts are likely to lose interest in school-based literacies. (Read how one new teacher learned this valuable lesson in this excerpt from Teaching Everyone.) Have your students complete a short survey on their outside interests and use that information to assist in building your lesson plans. This will help your students see the connections between what they're learning inside and outside the classroom.

  • Use specific everyday examples. An easy way to help students feel personally connected to what they're being taught is to talk about how they can apply the material in real life. In Systematic Instruction for Students with Moderate and Severe Disabilities, Collins suggests teachers demonstrate how students can apply the math concepts they are learning to help them manage personal finances, ensure nutritional sustenance, and schedule daily activities.

  • Link routines to learning. Conversely, teachers can promote learning through classroom routines. For instance, a child learning to wash hands during bathroom breaks can also be taught science concepts (body parts, hygiene and disease prevention, water conservation), reading (bathroom signage), antonyms (hot/cold, left/right), and math (counting).

Use students' interests and fascinations

Find out what your students are passionate about and then use those interests as natural motivators to increase engagement. Whether a child is fixated on one thing or has a few areas of intense interest, there are many simple strategies you can use to work those fascinations into your instruction. The result? Happier, more motivated students.

In "Just Give Him the Whale!" 20 Ways to Use Fascinations, Areas of Expertise, and Strengths to Support Students with Autism, authors Paula Kluth and Patrick Schwarz offer an abundance of suggestions on how to use student interests to boost learning in key areas:

  • Literacy. Allow a child to integrate their most-loved characters and possessions into your classroom reading time. In one case, a student was able to participate in reading circle when his turn came once he was permitted to speak through a favorite puppet.

  • History. Find creative ways to adapt standards-based content to the fun things your students are excited about. For example, one US history teacher explained the U.S. role in the UN and its relationship to other nations by drawing an analogy with the Super Friends cartoon characters.

  • Math. If you're working on a math lesson, consider asking a student to write a problem, diagram, or pattern that relates to his particular area of interest. Sometimes, the best way to combine academic material with a student's interests may not be immediately evident—but your students may see connections that you don't!

To help you discover what your students are passionate about, download these student surveys from "Just Give Him the Whale!" And, learn more about innovative ways to use students' interests to help them grasp academic content.

Give students choices

As Rapp & Arndt note in Teaching Everyone, engagement increases any time students are empowered to make their own choices about how they learn material. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Group students. Breaking the class up in groups increases the likelihood that everyone will contribute to class discussion and problem solving. Poll your students about their working preference, or experiment with breaking them up in different ways. Divide the students in half, place them in small teams of three or four, or divvy them up in pairs.

  • Allow students to set the pace. Let your students choose their own starting point on an assignment, and they'll stay comfortable and challenged. For example, try giving your students tiered math problems, with increasing levels of difficulty. From least to most sophisticated, the tiers could be: determine the surface area of a cube; determine the surface area of a rectangular prism; determine the amount of wrapping paper needed to cover a rectangular box; determine how many cans of paint you'll need to buy to paint a house with given dimensions. Once students choose a starting point, the teacher can guide them through increasing levels of mastery.

  • Try homework menus. Instead of having all of your students complete the same homework assignment, why not offer a menu of options that tie in with your lesson plan? A little variety and choice go a long way toward relieving the sense of drudgery some students experience when completing their homework. Take a look at this math menu for an example of how to give students a choice of homework problems to complete.

Present information in multiple formats

Every student in your classroom learns differently. So it's important to recognize that differentiated instruction isn't just for helping students with special needs—it's the best way to engage all learners. Incorporate different activities, such as these suggested in Paula Kluth's From Tutor Scripts to Talking Sticks: 100 Ways to Differentiate Instruction in K–12 Inclusive Classrooms, to accommodate diverse learning styles:

  • Class response cards. Start by distributing pre-made response cards or individual dry erase/chalkboards to each student. Then, instead of having only a few students raise their hands after a question is asked, instruct all students to write their answers on their boards or select a response from the pre-made cards. This is an easy and effective way to get your entire class involved and keep them connected to what you're teaching, instead of waiting for a single student to provide the answer.

  • Rubber stamps. Picture, word, and letter stamps can be ideal for practicing sentence construction, counting skills, and spelling. They're an effective tool for all students, whether they have fine motor problems, struggle with writing skills, or could simply benefit from a fun learning supplement. (There are a wide variety of stamps available to meet most of your classroom needs, but you can also easily find instructions online to make your own.)

  • Human calculator. Add an element of fun to addition and subtraction by making an oversized calculator out of an old shower curtain or large tablecloth and letting students jump to the keys. It's an inexpensive but highly motivating change of pace that combines basic math principles with physical activity.

Download these additional creative activities you can try from From Tutor Scripts to Talking Sticks: Cue Cards, Partner Puzzles, and Adapted Board Games.

Teach students self-monitoring skills

An advanced way of involving children so that they stay engaged in their learning is to help them develop greater self-regulation skills. Children sometimes struggle with self-awareness, so they may not even realize when they're straying off task or acting in disruptive ways. When children are taught to regulate their behavior and work independently, they develop habits to help them succeed and you are freed to operate more flexibly in the classroom.

Try these strategies, outlined in the new book Building Comprehension in Adolescents: Powerful Strategies for Improving Reading and Writing in Content Areas by Linda H. Mason and colleagues, to assist students with self-regulation:

  • Self-monitoring of attention (SMA). Instruct students to evaluate whether or not they've been paying attention at random intervals throughout the school day. This is usually accomplished with an auditory cue like a chime or tone, which prompts each child to reflect on questions like Am I at my desk? and Am I listening to the teacher? Students record their answers on a simple SMA tally sheet.

  • Self-monitoring of performance. Students log on a chart or graph whether they've been able to complete a pre-defined problem or task. Viewing an explicit graphical representation of their performance can have a highly motivating effect on students.

Read how one science teacher was able to motivate her students to assess their own performance and significantly improve completion of group projects by following these specific steps of self-monitoring outlined in Building Comprehension in Adolescents.

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When you make a concerted effort to engage students in their learning, the result you'll discover is students who are better able to maintain focus, better able to sustain behavior, and better able to grasp and retain the material you are working so hard to deliver—a positive outcome for everybody!

This article features excerpts and downloads from the following resources:

Teaching Everyone: An Introduction to Inclusive Education

From Tutor Scripts to Talking Sticks: 100 Ways to Differentiate Instruction in K–12 Inclusive Classrooms

"Just Give Him the Whale!" 20 Ways to Use Fascinations, Areas of Expertise, and Strengths to Support Students with Autism

Systematic Instruction for Students with Moderate and Severe Disabilities Building Comprehension in Adolescents: Powerful Strategies for Improving Reading and Writing in Content Areas

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