17 Best Student Engagement Strategies [Teachers Swear By!]
Glazed eyes. Doodled-over papers. Half-hearted math assignments on rumpled worksheets.
It’s pretty easy to spot when student engagement is low in your classroom. So how do you build a classroom filled with positivity, encouragement and excitement for learning?
Good news! There are lots of amazing student engagement strategies you can use to inspire a love of learning in your classroom and build a positive school culture overall.
When students are engaged, research shows they’re more likely to follow behavioral expectations, be kind to their peers and succeed academically.
In this blog, we’ll talk about:
- What student engagement is and what it looks like
- Why student engagement is important
- 17 activities and teaching strategies for student engagement
Tap any of the links above and jump straight to that section.
What is student engagement?
Student engagement is when students show up to class excited to learn, participate in learning and demonstrate a positive attitude.
There are three types of student engagement:
- Behavioral -- Students behave and don’t act out. They bring everything they need during class, follow instructions, work carefully and participate in class discussion.
- Emotional -- Students feel like they’re a part of the school community and are happy to be there! They greet you with a smile, interact positively with their classmates and look alert during your lessons.
- Cognitive -- Also known as intellectual engagement, students are eager to learn and think deeply about the subject matter. They ask challenging questions, and often go above and beyond when completing assignments.
Big-picture engagement is so much more than students who don’t fall asleep during geography class. Douglas Willms, director of the Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy at the University of New Brunswick and a member of the US National Academy of Education, defines student engagement as:
“A long-term disposition towards learning -- viewing learning as fun, seeing it as important, seeing the value of working with and functioning as part of a team, being part of a social institution. To me, those are critically important lifelong skills.”
The conclusion? Engaged students = lifelong learning students.
Why is student engagement important?
Student engagement is important because it’s linked to increased student achievement. Since the 1980s, hundreds of studies have found that when teachers use strategies designed to capture students’ attention and actively involve them in the learning process, student achievement soars.
When students aren’t engaged, they’re more likely not to graduate, have lower test scores and deal with more behavioral issues. Engagement can predict student achievement and behavior regardless of socioeconomic status.
According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures academic achievement and engagement from students around the world:
“Students who are highly engaged and are effective learners are most likely to be proficient in mathematics and students who hold positive dispositions towards schools and learning, who attend school regularly and who have positive self-beliefs about mathematics.”
You can lead students to the textbook, but you can’t make them read it. Engagement -- behavioral, cognitive and emotional -- is essential for deep, meaningful learning. Willms notes that:
“There is a back and forth process as children are going through school in which they develop social skills and motivation; that begets academic achievement and academic achievement begets more motivation and social skills. Engagement and learning go hand-in-hand.”
Want to see these results in your classroom? Keep reading to find research-backed strategies for increasing student engagement.
17 Student engagement strategies to use today
Is engagement a “nice-to-have” or a “must have” in your classroom? Let’s look at 17 strategies for increasing student engagement.
1. Educational technology
Today’s students are surrounded by online distractions. But what if technology could help — instead of hinder — learning?
Educational technology helps students develop necessary 21st century skills while also keeping them engaged and learning.
Here at Prodigy, helping students love learning is our number one priority. Our no-cost, adaptive math platform turns learning into an adventure, complete with epic quests and amazing rewards.
While students explore Prodigy, they answer curriculum-aligned math questions to complete challenges and earn prizes.
“My students are very engaged and beg me to play Prodigy!I have seen one of my lowest students at the beginning of the year start to shine in math because he was doing Prodigy for at least 20 minutes every day.”Kelli Gardner, 1st Grade teacher, Minnesota
As a teacher, your free Prodigy account lets you easily differentiate content for every student and gives you real-time data about where students are excelling and where they need more practice.
2. Classroom management strategies
In a busy classroom, distractions draw your students’ attention away from your lesson and impact their learning.
Classroom management strategies help you build a structured environment where students are encouraged to bring their best selves to the classroom. It might seem counterintuitive, but rules and routines can actually minimize distractions and enhance the learning experience.
While each teacher has their own unique set of strategies, here are a few to get you started:
- Create classroom rules that set expectations. Increase student buy-in and let students help you shape the rules! Decide on shared classroom values and create guidelines that reflect them.
- Build routines that get students’ attention. Give students signals that it’s time to face the front, listen to instructions and start learning. When students are focused on you, they’re engaged and ready to dive deep into the lesson.
- Establish standards for your classroom community. Students are more likely to stay engaged and share their opinions when they know how their classmates will respond. Shut down dismissive or demeaning language, respond to answers neutrally and create a safe environment for questions.
For even more effective classroom management strategies, check out 20 classroom management strategies and techniques.
3. Active learning
Sitting still for a whole lesson can be a bit much for some of your students. Active learning strategies get students engaging with the lesson in different ways.
As a bonus, many active learning techniques encourage students to work with their classmates to discuss a problem, solve an issue or drill down on a new concept. This provides multiple entry points into the lesson and engages student learning.
Some popular active learning activities include:
- Three-step interview -- Make groups of three after a lesson. During a 5 to 10-minute interview, the interviewee will quiz their classmate on the lesson they just learned, while the notetaker records the conversation.
- Play devil’s advocate -- Challenge students to debate and think critically about an issue. When students understand there’s more than one side to the story, they’re more likely to develop intellectual curiosity and engage with the lesson.
- The pause procedure -- While you’re teaching, pause every 10 to 15 minutes to give students a chance to discuss their notes with a partner, write questions or compose a quick paragraph about the lesson.
To learn more about active learning and how you can use it in your classroom, read about eight active learning strategies and examples (and get a downloadable list).
4. Blended learning
Blended learning combines online learning tools with traditional classroom methods in several different ways.
In a blended learning classroom, students work to master concepts before they move on, closing learning gaps and building a solid foundation for more advanced work.
A popular blended learning technique is the station rotation method, where students rotate through group activities or learning, individual work and online learning. (Learn more about how you can use Prodigy as part of your station rotation setup!)
For more info on different blended learning models and how you can bring them to your classroom, read our guide on how to implement the six blended learning models.
5. Quick writes
Journaling isn’t just for language arts anymore. Having students write down their thoughts and questions is an engaging and insightful practice in the science lab, geography class and beyond.
Before, during or after lessons, challenge students to complete quick writes, where they compose a short paragraph about their thoughts on the lesson or any questions they might have. Writing down their thoughts is a great way to encourage them to think more deeply about the material.
Plus, you’ll get to know your students better, understand where they are in their learning journey and build connections with them. Don’t have time to mark every entry? Each week, have students pick out their best for you to look at.
Here are some prompts to help you get started:
|Describe the setting/characters/theme of the story.|
Which of the characters in this story would you most like to meet?
How does this story make you feel?
What do you think happens after the story ends?
|What do you still not understand after this lesson?|
Tell me everything you know about [Topic].
Explain, in words, how to solve this problem.
Find two different ways to solve this problem.
|After this lesson, what questions do you still have?|
The most important thing I learned today was…
How does [Topic A] connect to [Topic B]?
Tell me everything you know already about [Topic].
6. Reciprocal teaching
Not every student loves reading. But reciprocal teaching techniques can increase reading comprehension and get students excited to participate in your language arts lesson!
Using reciprocal teaching strategies to predict, question, clarify and summarize small chunks of text. Our ELLs are engaged in close reading, sharing thoughts and helping each other understand a Newsela article on the pressures of social media. #ell #closereading #newsela pic.twitter.com/dJiIxy9avJ— Kirsten Gatti (@ESLGatti) October 22, 2019
Reciprocal teaching involves four key parts:
- Predicting what is going to happen in the text
- Questioning the text and asking questions like who, what, when, where, why and how
- Clarifying the text and identifying confusing concepts or unknown words
- Summarizing the text and condensing the reading to its most important parts
Reciprocal teaching strategies center around the concept of “I do, we do, you do.” First, model how the strategy works in front of the whole class. Then, students practice together in groups. Finally, they practice the technique on their own.
To find out more, read about four reciprocal teaching strategies you can use today!
7. Class participation strategies
If just three or four of your students are answering most of the questions you pose in class, the rest of your students probably aren’t staying engaged with the lesson.
Lucky for you, there’s lots of simple techniques you can start using today to encourage every student to get involved in your lessons!
- Popsicle stick names -- Write every student’s name down on a popsicle stick and pop it in a spare mug. When you need answers from the class, just pull out a popsicle stick and ask the relevant student to share.
- Think-pair-share -- A classic for a reason, the think-pair-share technique challenges students to think about the answer to a question on their own, pair up with a classmate to discuss, then share their conclusions with the class.
- Wait time -- There’s nothing worse than asking a question and being met with a room of blank stares. Instead of going to fill the silence with your own answer, just wait. Giving students the space they need to develop an answer will pay off in the long run!
- Whip around: Pose a question, then go around the room and ask every student to contribute. If they have the same answer as another student, that’s fine! Encourage them to rephrase it in a different way to boost comprehension for the entire class.
8. Flexible seating
Desks aren’t always the most comfortable option, especially for students stuck in them all day.
Flexible seating gives students the opportunity to learn in a comfortable, adaptive environment that suits their needs. Reading is always more of a treat when it’s on a comfy couch, and students can (quietly) bounce away extra energy on an exercise ball during a social studies class.
Flexible seating options can make the classroom feel more welcoming for even the most reluctant learners.
Flexible seating options can work for any classroom and budget. Try:
- Standing desks
- Bean bag chairs
- Cushions and mats
Or whatever else your imagination can think of!
For more flexible seating ideas from teachers like you, check out 21 flexible seating ideas for your classroom.
9. Culturally responsive teaching
When students see themselves reflected in lessons and teaching materials, they’re more likely to be engaged and empowered to share their perspective.
- Bring in guest speakers from the local community -- According to a 2015 study by the Economics of Education Review, students often work harder when they share a background with an educator. Diverse guest speakers can bring context and engagement for students they share a cultural background with!
- Pose relevant word problems -- Students get a kick out of seeing their names in a word problem on a test or worksheet. Try linking your questions to student interests or referencing diverse cultures.
- Differentiate learning -- Use a learning station strategy to easily differentiate for every student. Students can rotate through stations that include small group instruction, completing a worksheet, group work, creating artwork or whatever else fits the lesson.
- Diversify your learning materials -- What voices are speaking in your classroom? Work to find teaching materials about and by under-represented groups to show your whole class the value of diversity.
When students understand the classroom is a place for everyone, they’re more likely to speak up, get involved and participate in the learning process.
To learn more about focusing on diversity in your classroom, check out our list of 15 culturally-responsive teaching strategies and examples.
10. Personalized learning
Some students race through math worksheets, others need a little more time. Excelling students might have already grasped the latest concept, while some or even the majority of students will need more instruction and perhaps remediation.
In the face of all this, how do you make sure all levels of learners are staying engaged in your classroom?
According to a study from the Gates Foundation, supplementing math instruction with personalized learning techniques substantially improved students’ test scores:
“Students attending [school using personalized learning] made gains in math and reading over the last two years that are significantly greater than a virtual control group made up of similar students selected from comparable schools.”
Personalized learning techniques help students stay motivated and engaged in learning and encourage them to practice self-advocacy. Some common personalized learning strategies for student engagement include:
- Involving students in academic goal-setting for themselves
- Giving students multiple opportunities to show their knowledge, from assessments to journal entries
- Using flipped instruction strategies to help students learn at their own pace
For more personalized learning techniques, check out seven personalized learning strategies and examples for your classroom.
11. Cooperative learning
Cooperative learning involves delivering instruction through small groups and encouraging students to work together as they explore new topics and concepts.
The best part of cooperative learning is that it can be as formal or informal as you need and it works across different subjects and grade levels!
Cooperative learning prioritizes:
- Positive interdependence -- Students learn that each group member’s efforts are important for success
- Promotive Interaction -- Students offer encouragement and feedback to other group members
- Accountability -- Every student accepts responsibility for fulfilling their role
- Soft Skills Instruction -- Students develop interpersonal skills that help them work together effectively
- Group Processing -- Students work together to determine how they’ll meet their goals
What does this look like in your classroom? Create formal or informal learning groups and ask them to explore problems. Cooperative base groups stay together for most or all of the year and can work together to meet bigger academic goals.
For more information on how to use cooperative learning in your classroom, read all about cooperative learning principles and strategies.
12. Service learning
According to the National Youth Leadership Council, service learning is “a philosophy, pedagogy, and model for community development that is used as an instructional strategy to meet learning goals and/or content standards.”
Service learning promotes student engagement through hands-on experience and a student-centered approach to community service.
Plus, one study found service learning increased students’ grade-point averages 76% of the time and kept students more engaged with course content.
Not sure where to start with service learning? Try:
- Supporting a local animal shelter with a fundraiser
- Collecting books for a local library and tracking the results
- Running a food drive in the school community and creating relevant marketing materials
Want more ideas? We’ve put together a teacher's guide to service learning!
13. Inquiry-based learning
Inquiry-based learning allows students to focus on an open question or problem, using evidence-based reasoning and creative problem-solving to come to a solution.
As a teacher, inquiry-based learning helps students move beyond an initial “Why?” and into the realm of critical thinking and understanding.
There are a few different ways to structure an inquiry-based learning project, including:
- Confirmation inquiry -- Students get the question, answer and method, and build an investigation into how the method works
- Structured inquiry -- Students get an open question and investigation method and use the method to craft an evidence-based conclusion
- Guided inquiry -- Students design their own method -- usually in groups -- to reach the conclusion of an open-ended question.
- Open inquiry -- Students pose original questions and investigate them. Once they develop their own methods and reach a conclusion, they present their findings for discussion.
To successfully bring inquiry-based learning into your classroom, it has to be intentional and research-backed.
Read about inquiry-based learning definition, benefits and strategies for more ideas on how to structure effective inquiry-based learning projects!
14. Project-based learning
Researchers who analyzed 82 studies found that project-based learning helps create a classroom environment where the majority of students are engaged and excited about learning.
Similar to inquiry-based learning, project-based learning challenges students to work individually or in groups to address an engaging, intricate question related to the curriculum.
The question always:
- Stays open-ended, so students can explore where they want
- Encourages students to apply skills they’ve already learned in the classroom
- Allows students to develop their own approaches to problem solving and product innovation.
Instead of following teacher-directed instruction, students develop critical thinking and interdisciplinary skills to keep them intellectually engaged in their learning.
Critics of project-based learning point out that it can be difficult to objectively grade assignments and really tie in student learnings to specific curriculum skills. But you know your classroom best, and you know what your students can achieve when presented with a challenge!
To find out more about what project-based learning could look like in your classroom, check out The Definitive Project-Based Learning (PBL) Guide.
15. Brain breaks
Bring brain breaks into your classroom to get students up and moving!
Brain breaks are quick exercises or activities that give students a way to channel some of the extra energy they’ve stored up. In the middle of your class, pause for a few moments to do something fun and unexpected!
There’s no limit to what you can do during a brain break, but here are a few of our favorite ideas:
- Sing a quick song
- Play a round of silent ball
- Do a one-minute drawing about the lesson
- Have students line up using specific criteria, like tallest to shortest or by birthdate
- Do a quick sun salutation or downward dog to engage students’ minds and bodies
- Bring an inflatable beach ball to bounce around the room, but don’t let it touch the ground
- Start a freeze dance party -- play some music and bust a move, but challenge students to freeze in place when you pause the tunes
With so many different ideas, you’re sure to find one or two that work for your students.
What if you could challenge your students to be more engaged? According to a 2011 study, gamification in the classroom is correlated with increased student motivation and engagement.
Gamification involves setting learning and behavior goals, then creating a points system where students can work their way towards the goal and earn a reward.
There are lots of different ways to structure your system, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. We recommend using a points system where students earn rewards for:
- Good behavior
- Exceptional kindness
- Academic achievement
Every student enjoys rewards and recognition for what they’re doing well. In addition to boosting student engagement, gamification can also improve:
- Time on task
- Classroom behavior
- Content delivery and processing
To find more examples of how to use gamification in your classroom, read 5 Easy Steps for Gamification in Education.
17. Interdisciplinary teaching
Interdisciplinary teaching challenges students to make connections between different subjects. Work across different subjects and with colleagues to create assignments that foster creativity and experimentation, while also expanding your students’ worldview.
Some common interdisciplinary teaching activities include:
- Present students with a news story, then give students a related question to solve on their own or in a group.
- Challenge students to plan an exciting vacation! They can develop a budget, research their destination and develop an itinerary.
- Go on a field study to a local park or nature reserve and explore poetry, ideas, literature and scientific concepts related to the scenery around them.
For more interdisciplinary teaching ideas, check out ten interdisciplinary teaching activities and get design steps!
Final thoughts about student engagement strategies
Where can student engagement be improved in your classroom? Are there places in your teaching practice where small changes would have a big impact?
Douglas Willms got to the heart of the matter when he noted:
“Engagement requires that students know they’ve been heard, that their voice matters.”
Use techniques that make students active partners in the learning process. When students feel supported and encouraged, there’s no telling what they’ll be able to accomplish!
Prodigy is a no-cost, game-based learning platform for students in grades 1-8. Loved by more than 50 million teachers, parents and students, Prodigy transforms math learning into an epic adventure.
Ready to find out how Prodigy can level up math learning in your classroom? Sign up for your free teacher account today!