There were few things more frustrating to me than spending time meticulously planning a lesson only to have my students zone out in the middle of what I thought was sure to be an enthralling lecture on the ancient Egyptians. I guess I should not be surprised by this type of behavior; after all, our brains are programmed to find things they can engage with. If the lesson isn’t engaging, then the student brain naturally drifts off to find something else in order to entertain itself.
It is to everyone’s advantage to keep students engaged and eager to learn. This type of engaged learning is more time-efficient as well as more conducive to student achievement.
Keep Students Engaged with These Tips
Students will be more engaged if more of them is engaged. Instead of lecturing and using a classic white board, try having the student stand up and use the body to learn. The idea of “whole body learning” in education has applications ranging from math to history – you can find more specific ideas on this on Pinterest. You can also involve movement by taking active breaks every 25-30 minutes. You could stretch, take a quick jog, or do five jumping jacks. Breaks like these break up what can be long periods of sitting and gives both the body and the brain a way to reset and refresh.
Make Learning Multisensory
Instead of just reading about a concept, show it to them by using picture; let them touch it by building a model; write and perform a song about it; create a short claymation film demonstrating it.
Take Your Learning Outside
A change of learning environment can perk up the learner. Instead of discussing a novel indoors, find a nice patch of grass to camp out on and enjoy both the discussion and the cool breeze. This doubly applies for learning with field trip opportunities to places like an art museum, site of a battle, the planetarium, or a nature preserve.
Make Lessons Applicable to Real Life
If I could only give one tip for how to keep students engaged, it would be this one. If you can make the connection between what is being learned and the student’s own life, they will far more likely be invested in the lesson. Students often struggle to see how geometry or photosynthesis could have anything to do with them, but point out how shapes play with one another in the buildings you walk past everyday or explain that the reason their favorite plant has to sit the kitchen windowsill is a long word called photosynthesis. Helping them make these connections will help your students feel ownership over the topics being learned.
Engaged learners are also happy learners, and happy learners make our jobs as instructors so enjoyable. Take the time to integrate these engagement boosters into your routine and your lessons will start to feel like they are flying by – for both you and your students!
I started taking Zumba classes second semester of my junior year in college. For the first few months of classes, I only went because my friends wanted to go. I would feel anxious a few hours before the class and spend time thinking about how my feet tripped over one another and how hard I had to try not to fall down while others were spinning in pretty circles. I was so nervous that I was not enjoying myself at all and I certainly was not growing to be a better dancer.
“You’re a good dancer,” my friend Ally casually said to me over dinner after class one day.
What a monumental thing to say! And hearing her say it made me realize the thought that I’d been holding at the forefront of my mind this whole time was “I am a terrible dancer. Everyone will find out and then I will surely be humiliated.” No wonder Zumba class was such an excruciating experience! The truth about this world is that we are what believe ourselves to be. I believed that I was a terrible dancer, so I made sure with all of my actions and my anxiety that this would be true. At this time in my life, I realized how much my self-perception and anxiety were holding me back, not just in dance, but in all areas of life. I decided that I could believe something different about myself.
Other than anecdotal evidence from our own lives, research shows more of the same. In a 2003 study out of Pace University, Dr. Staci Beth Friedman found that a “significant negative correlation exists between anxiety and self-perceived competence, with no significant gender differences”. (Source) The inverse relationship is also true – when children’s self-perceived competence is lacking, their anxiety tends to be high. In a comparative study of adolescents in the United States and England, researchers found a strong positive correlation between self-confidence and academic achievement.
We, as parents and teachers, have the opportunity to minimize opportunities for student anxiety and make confidence and resilience a habit in the lives of our children.
Strategies for Reducing Student Anxiety
In a subject that students are pre-dispositioned to have anxiety about, make sure that there are as many predictable factors as possible. Math-U-See Student Workbooks, for example, uses the same set of pages structured in the same way for each lesson. The pages are also simple and uncluttered. The manipulatives are the same for multiple years. This provides an environment that the student’s mind can rest knowing that the only thing that will be new is the concept being presented – they do not have to waste their precious mental energy worrying about any other aspect of the lesson.
Build routine into your child’s day. This applies to teaching and learning as well as the rest of your daily activities. When children can depend on a schedule and consistent people involved in that schedule, they are more able to settle their minds and take risks in other areas of their lives. Create a routine, inform your child about that routine, then review it with some regularity.
Strategies for Increasing Student Confidence
Give students small challenges that they perceive as impossible so that once they accomplish it, their self-perceived ability to accomplish tasks in general is increased. Give aid where necessary, but be wary of performing the task for your child or student because of your own impatience. Know that though the task of learning a dance step may seem small to you, the actual task is changing pathways in the brain that have been so ingrained so that your child is able to think differently about themselves.
Give appropriate, ample, and timely praise. This praise should be two kinds – both love that is unconditional and praise for effort exerted. Avoid encouraging perfection; instead, praise your child or student for confronting a challenge, not giving up, and learning from both the failure and the success wrapped up in each experience. Remember that what we say to children becomes the soundtracks of what they say to themselves for the rest of their lives.
The future belongs to our children, and we want them to be people who can see themselves as capable and resilient people. The building of this attitude starts with us now.
Related Blog Post
I used to run around my childhood neighborhood with a small gaggle of girls. We would climb over fences, stealthily pluck roses from groomed gardens, and make believe that we were princesses or poor trapped maids or warriors burdened with great responsibility, depending on our mood. During the week, though, I was a first-grader in a typical Chinese classroom. I sat in a straight row with a straight back and listened quietly while my teacher lectured about addition or calligraphy.
Now, at 28, I remember far better the lessons I learned in the wild than those I learned sitting upright. This was because, instead of being told to believe something to be true, I experienced it for myself. As a young student, I thought of “school world” and “real world” as totally separate entities. However, this is not how we want to teach our children; we want them to know that what they’re learning with us applies to what they experience in the real world and have their real-world experiences fluidly reinforce what they’re learning in the classroom about math, history, or science.
The National Center for Education reported in 2011 that a significant number of American students felt disengaged from their education and were unable to apply their learning to real life. This may seem obvious, but the report also found that higher levels of engagement closely correlate with high levels of achievement and with lower dropout rates.
Hands-on Learning Benefits
Well-designed, hands-on activities in the classroom foster connections to real-world situations and increase learner engagement. This commingling of the classroom and the rest of life is called hands-on learning. When students make connections between the concepts in the classroom and concepts in the real world, more parts of their brains are activated, and the knowledge gained more easily transfers to long-term memory. This style of teaching and learning also fosters the growth of critical thinking and problem solving skills – skills that many employers say they view as high priorities in new hires. Another perk to hands-on learning is that it makes both teaching and learning fun again. School time is not simply a time to “buckle down” and “do work” but an extension of the full lives that your kids are already living.
A great way to get started with hands-on learning is simply by asking the question, “How can what we’re learning be used in the world around us?” Therefore, instead of learning chemistry exclusively through formulas and worksheets, why not bake up some chemical reactions? Instead of teaching map reading purely from a book, consider incorporating a map of your own neighborhood or a city that you’ve visited.
In math, a great way to incorporate hands-on learning is with our Math-U-See® manipulatives. By using these colorful and tactile blocks, students see and touch in order to learn how math concepts work. They then continue to solve problems through standard algorithms and word problems that mimic real life.
Start small with one or two hands-on activities a week built into your lessons. Soon enough, you’ll find that new ideas come to you more naturally, and your students’ enthusiasm will be encouragement enough to keep going!
Genuine curiosity is the mother of all learning. Stirring curiosity makes our children successful students in the present and sets them up to be self-directed, lifelong learners. If you’re having trouble engaging your children in meaningful learning, curiosity is the key.
I could spend hours reading and listening to podcasts about rock climbing, but you would have to strap me to a chair if you wanted me to learn about car mechanics. Why? Because I’m curious about rock climbing! It might be the opposite for you – and that’s great! We are all predisposed to be interested in different subjects and thus have different contributions to make to the world. One of the keys to drawing out and engaging the curiosity of your child is to explore and discover what they’re already interested in. You probably know what some of these subjects are; it could be creepy crawly bugs or trains and what makes them run; maybe it’s cooking and baking or Middle Eastern geography. Make a list of these subjects so that you can reference them and keep them at the forefront of your consciousness when planning lessons and activities with your child. For example, if a word problem on your child’s math page talks about combining apples, inject your child’s love of insects and change the problem to talk about bumblebees and dragonflies. Continue your lesson with a discussion on how these insects would react to one another once they are “added together” in the same environment.
It’s also important to keep in mind that we can only be interested in things we’ve been exposed to. Perhaps your kids would love rock climbing, but if they’ve never been, it would be impossible to draw on this curiosity. Continually keep your eyes out for opportunities to expose your children to ideas and activities that are novel and align with your values. This achieves two important things. One, your children will gain more interests and hobbies during their childhood that you can draw on as you learn together, which expands the possibilities for how you can teach them. Your children also learn to see the world as full of possibility and adventure and will become more disposed to expand their horizons, even after they leave your nest.
But do be aware of yourself as you introduce your child to new things. Just because you think an idea is interesting doesn’t necessarily mean your child will – and that is okay! Give them the freedom to draw on their intuition, and they will naturally learn. Pushing and cajoling are often counterproductive.
Some great, cost-effective ways to get started would be:
1. Visit a museum, zoo, or aquarium. Most of these institutions offer free or reduced-admission days, and some libraries even offer free passes that can be checked out by children and parents. Chicago Public Library, for example, has such a program. Click here to learn more about it.
2. Go to the library! Once you have a list of your child’s interests, encourage them by finding engaging books or videos at their level.
3. BrainPop is a wonderful website with a variety of engaging, kid-geared videos on subjects ranging from famous scientists to Hispanic American heritage to the art of debate. They offer some free videos and also a membership to access their full library.
5. Go rock climbing. Ride a train. Dig up some bugs in the backyard. Travel somewhere, even if it’s just a couple of towns away. The best teacher will always be actual experience, so go out and do something fun with your child that gives them the opportunity to see in real life what they’ve been learning with you or through books and videos. It will be immensely powerful for your child and will motivate her to learn going forward.