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Engaging Students in Learning

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Students learn better and are happier when they are engaged with their learning. Teachers, too, enjoy their work more when students are engaged. This lesson offers you some ideas about how best to engage students in the learning process.

What an Engaged Classroom Looks Like

Enter Ms. Soledad's 5th grade classroom in the middle of a Thursday morning, and you will get a sense of what it means for students to be engaged in learning. The class is having a social studies lesson. One small group is working together to build a model of the United States out of clay, while another group is carefully reading travel brochures to decide what a cross-country trip might look like. A few students are playing geography trivia games on the classroom's tablets. Ms. Soledad sits with another few students on the rug, helping the workshop the essays they have written about what makes U.S. geography special. Every student is busy, focused, and working at his or her own pace. Students who get stuck or have questions approach one another and help each other work through tricky patches.

Ms. Soledad has worked hard to engage her students in learning. She finds that when students are engaged, they are happier, more productive, and more successful as learners. She also finds that engaged students are more interesting for her as a teacher to work with. She would like to share with you some of her strategies for engaging students in learning.

Make Sure You are Excited About Your Teaching

Ms. Soledad used to teach social studies via textbooks. She would read aloud or let children read, and at the end of each unit, she would give a quiz. But Ms. Soledad found her own motivation dragging, and she noticed that her students were bored too. Ms. Soledad realized that she was actually part of the problem. She was bored by the way she was teaching, so it was no surprise her students were bored, too!

Ms. Soledad began to search for ways to bring her passions into the classroom, while still teaching to the standards in her state. In her particular case, this meant doing art and clay with students and letting them get creative with craft materials. Each time she devised such an activity, she carefully read the standards for the unit of study and documented which standards she was teaching to via creative projects. She also knows teachers who reignite their own passions by making more room to share the stories they love, by bringing music or movement into the classroom, and even by designing miniature units around the topics they find the most fascinating. An engaged teacher leads to more engaged students, because excitement about knowledge can be truly contagious.

Projects, Field Trips, and Experiential Learning

Ms. Soledad took a workshop on project-based learning that really stepped up her students' engagement level. Rather than teach from textbooks, Ms. Soledad began designing projects of different magnitudes to help communicate the concepts and skills she hoped her students would acquire. Projects tend to garner students' enthusiasm and activate all sorts of collaborative learning skills, as well. Furthermore, learning via projects enhances students' critical thinking skills, ensuring not only that they meet particular standards but also that they gain deep, conceptual understandings of materials. Ms. Soledad tries to make sure that every unit she teaches has at least one project embedded. Often, the process of creation is at least as important as the final product, and she bases her unit assessments on product as well as process. Project-based learning increases student achievement by emphasizing collaboration, conceptual development, and interdisciplinary knowledge and skill.

play as experience

Ms. Soledad also tries to take her students on field trips and offer opportunities for hands-on learning as much as possible. For instance, when her students studied the human body in science class, she took them to a local clinic to meet with doctors and nurses about their work. When her students studied poetic language, she allowed them ample opportunities to sketch the images that came into their minds when reading poetry. Keeping students active, and aware of the external applications of what they are learning, is a great way to maintain their engagement.

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