Engaging students’ interest is an important part of every educator’s job. Research has established that engaged students are better learners and that student engagement is linked both to academic success and to students’ overall impressions of their experience at school.
Unfortunately, keeping students engaged is also one of the most challenging (and frustrating) things about teaching. It’s arguably harder now than it’s ever been. Students today carry the entire Internet around literally in their pockets, along with warehouses worth of games, music, movies, and other media. It’s not easy for a lecture or textbook to compete with the countless diversions constantly at their fingertips.
Earning and maintaining students’ interest may be an uphill battle for educators – but fortunately it’s not a hopeless one. Here are four tips for teachers who are looking to increase student engagement.
No educator can (or should) be best friends with all their students. However, students are more likely to find a lesson engaging if they have at least some degree of rapport with the person delivering it.
“Positive relationships between teachers and students are among the most commonly cited variables associated with effective instruction,” according to Robert J. Marzano, an American educational researcher. “If the relationship is strong, instructional strategies seem to be more effective.” Though Mr. Marzano wrote this about K-12 schools, it’s hard to imagine that a personal touch can’t foster more engagement in higher education as well.
Something as simple as learning students’ names can go a long way toward fostering the kind of positive relationship Marzano describes. A survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education found that students consider this the top sign that their teacher’s invested in their academic success.
Of course, this won’t be feasible for all educators. It’s one thing to get on a first-name basis with a small workshop or K-12 class; doing so with a college course of 200 students is quite another. And this is ok. One respondent to the Chronicle said she’s fine if an instructor doesn’t know her name: “as long as it seems like they’re making an effort to learn it.” What’s most important isn’t what educators call their students, but that they treat those students as individuals and with respect and consideration.
Communication is Key
Keeping set office hours is great. But today’s students are used to more diverse, direct, and immediate forms of communication. And they’re more likely to engage with a teacher who’s willing to engage back.
Educators should establish as many channels of communication with their students as they feel comfortable managing. Social media is a great way to make oneself available to students who have questions outside of office hours. A study on student engagement from the University of San Francisco found that educators’ use of Twitter improved student-instructor communication and encouraged collaboration. Social media can also be used to post quick updates, spark class discussions, and more.
For educators who don’t have time to monitor social media (or who don’t feel comfortable having students on their Friend list), email is a fine alternative, so long as your students know they’re free to contact you through it. What’s important isn’t how they can reach you so much as that they feel free to reach out when they need to.
Of course, digital communication can’t replace direct interaction. Taking a few minutes before or after class to simply chat with some of your students – or even just making sure those students feel comfortable approaching you when they need to talk – can help them feel more engaged.
Teach in High Tech
Students today are more technologically inclined than ever. They practically live in digital environments and on high-tech devices. That being the case, one of the most effective ways for educators to engage them is by incorporating technology into their teaching.
A study by Promethean found that engaging students is the most popular use of technology by schools in the UK. This makes sense. Lessons are more captivating when bolstered with multimedia content, interactive activities, and other high-tech flourishes. And, as established, today’s students are accustomed to operating in high-tech environments.
Aside from the communication tools discussed earlier, teachers use numerous technologies to better engage their students. Student response systems and interactive digital quizzes are used to “gamify” education. Some eReading platforms, such as Kivuto’s Texidium Reader, feature built-in interactive features that allow teachers to share notes, assign readings, field questions, and provide feedback to students directly through the pages of their digital textbooks.
Higher-ed instructors often include industry-standard software in their curricula, both to engage students and to better prepare them for careers. Not all educators will be budgeted for this, but that’s not necessarily a dealbreaker. Many schools belong to academic programs that entitle faculty and students to free licenses for such software. For schools that don’t, there are always sites like the OnTheHub eStore, which offers major discounts on software exclusively to students and educators.
Different Lessons for Different Learners
My old philosophy teacher used to say: “It’s not how smart you are; it’s how you are smart.” And while I’m still trying to decide if that was his sly way of calling me stupid, a similar statement applies to student engagement. “It’s not how well you learn; it’s how you learn well.”
It’s widely understood that learning styles vary from person to person. There’s debate over exactly how many distinct styles of learning there are (some sources say four, others insist there are seven). But the consensus is that different people learn best in different ways.
Some students like to work in groups while others do better in solitude. Some like to have processes demonstrated or described while others prefer to learn by doing. Different learners absorb information better in different ways (by seeing, by hearing, by reading, etc.).
The lesson for educators is that no single style of teaching will win the interest of an entire class. Teachers should mix up their techniques to appeal to the full spectrum of learning styles. Lectures and assigned readings will be fine for some students. Peppering in class discussions, group work, and the use of tech and media will appeal to others. Using a mix of methods rather than just leaning on one or a couple will diversify the appeal of your lessons and engage more students.