Student Engagement Strategies

Instructor: Brian Morris
Students learn information in many different ways, which makes engaging diverse student populations challenging. In this lesson, we will define what it means to be actively engaged and explore several best practice strategies for engaging students.

Active Engagement

No two students are alike, and it is this reality that often creates a difficult task for teachers with regards to engaging students. How engaged the students are in learning has a direct correlation to student outcomes. For the purpose of this lesson, active engagement is defined as both the amount of time that students spend on-task during a lesson and their level of participation during that time. This varies from student to student and lesson to lesson, but there are a number of factors within the teacher's locus of control that can increase opportunities for students to fully engage. Engagement strategies must fulfill the following criteria to ensure the greatest chance for students to process and retain information:

  1. Students must be active participants (as opposed to passively receiving information)
  2. Activities must be relevant and meaningful
  3. Some level of critical thinking must be involved

The research efforts of notable educators such as Dr. Robert Marzano, Charlotte Danielson and many others have sought, for decades, tangible methods to create and measure student engagement. The strategies explored in this lesson represent a small sample of those years of educational research and are most common in elementary and middle school settings. Adaptations of the techniques are equally effective for engaging students through college level.

Teacher-Student Engagement Strategies

Getting and keeping students' attention leads to accountability in the classroom. Students must believe that they are required to participate, yet they must also feel comfortable taking risks. The following strategies can be used by the teacher to gain and sustain student attention:

  • Do-Now/Bell Ringer: The tone for class should be set the moment that the bell rings or when students transition to an activity. This can be accomplished using the Do-Now/Bell Ringer strategy. One effective way to create this structure is by having an engaging short assignment (quick write, challenging math problem, controversial question, etc.) that is ready for students to work independently on prior to beginning the lesson. While these assignments are not often graded, the teacher can circulate to check in as a means to make sure students are on task during the activity.
  • Chunk and Chew: This strategy is often referred to as '10 and 2,' which simply means for every 10 minutes of content or information delivered by the teacher, the students should be allowed 2 minutes to process that information. Breaking up the content into chunks allows for a greater level of engagement with and retention of information. This is similar to memorizing a telephone number, where the ten digits are broken into chunks of 3-4 digits. The 2 minutes of processing creates opportunities for students to think critically about the information based on questions or tasks that the teacher gives during that time.
  • Non-Verbal Cues: Time on-task is a major component of active engagement. Maximizing the time allotted for lessons requires teachers to develop quick and efficient ways to regain student attention if they become off-task. Non-verbal cues, such as rhythmic clapping, hand signals, chimes and other creative techniques, create a way for teachers to discretely and respectfully regain the attention of individual students and groups. One example would be Give Me 5, where the teacher raises an open hand and waits for students to respond appropriately to signal they are ready to learn (see image below for details).


  • Cold Calling: To create a culture of being ready and accountable, teachers randomly call on students during the lesson whether their hands are raised or not. This is done in a respectful way, and effort is validated even if the answer is incorrect. Teachers must safeguard against making this an I gotcha moment, which may cause embarrassment.
  • Phone a Friend: Even the brightest students need assistance at times. This strategy empowers students to seek the help of a classmate when they are called on to answer a question or solve a problem. The power in phoning a friend is to forge interdependence and collaboration in the classroom. The student seeking help hears the correct answer, and the teacher returns to that student to repeat the correct answer so that he or she is still fully participative in the process and accountable to the information.
  • Higher-Order Questioning: With a primary goal of education being to encourage critical thinkers, the types of questions being asked of students can impact their level of critical engagement with the content. In alignment with Benjamin Bloom's taxonomy (levels of questions), the goal of higher-order questioning is to move students beyond basic remembering and understanding to more rigorous thinking (e.g. asking the student to create an analogy for the cell wall in an animal cell, versus simply labeling the organelles).

Engage Bloom

Student-Student Engagement Strategies

These strategies are structures put in place by the teacher that enable students to collaborate and interact around academic content:

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