In today’s modern environment, educators have their work cut out for them, from staying on top of adaptive learning technologies to navigating new student requirements. But one of the most crucial concerns for today’s educators is student engagement.
While most educators recognize that student engagement is core to their mission, there are many indications that this is becoming harder to achieve. This article briefly describes the changing picture of student engagement and offers some tips to address it.
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A growing disconnect
Numerous surveys indicate the increased fragility of student engagement in recent years.
It was already softening before the pandemic. Thus, the so-called “school cliff” was already entrenched, where engagement seemed to decline steeply as students got older.
The pandemic had an erosive effect. One 2021 survey found that 50% of students felt less motivated than before the pandemic (87% of teachers agreed that it had negatively impacted student motivation).
And engagement levels have not recovered. According to a study by Kahoot!, 59% of teachers surveyed in 2022 felt students were still less motivated.
There will be huge variations (between ages, subjects, and setting, for example) to these broad brush findings. But the big picture seems clear: there is a significant disconnect between many students and their learning.
Of course, this disconnect is not exclusive to students and the education sector. Businesses try to engage disenfranchised clients with unique corporate gifts (some of which may be a good way to grab the attention of higher-education students), social media is built on the back of grabbing attention of those who feel disconnected from the real world. There is an overall sense of disconnection sifting throughout age groups.
Why the disconnect?
The pandemic had a visible and momentous impact, which seems to be rumbling on in one way or another. But there is a huge diversity of other factors and issues at play—a detailed assessment of which is certainly beyond the scope of this brief article.
It is a question every educator should consider in their particular setting. What broader changes in student behavior and experiences may be impacting their engagement? What role might broader economic, cultural, and technological forces play?
Whatever the causes, most educators agree that connectedness is crucial for achieving positive outcomes. For example, in one 2021 survey of K1-12 educators, 92% saw engagement as the primary driver of student success.
There are also reasons to be positive. During the pandemic, educators discovered powerful tools to support their work and are keen to keep using these. Take the sophisticated class presentation and conferencing tools now available and better known to educators. These facilitate engaging content sharing and communication (especially if you compare to apps like magicJack, which set the standard for such things previously).
Just as the challenges are contingent on the context, so are the solutions. However, many general ideas can help educators enhance the connectivity of their students.
1. Constantly nurture your “withitness”
Back in 1970, the educational theorist Jacob Kounin asserted that positive classroom experiences depend on the behavior of teachers, even more than the behavior of students. Indeed, the former greatly decides the latter: a student’s learning experiences and outcomes are directly linked to the approach of the teacher.
Although decades old, this fundamental insight is still highly influential and relevant. One key characteristic of successful teachers that he set out was “withitness.” A with-it teacher knows what is going on across their class and—crucially—is also perceived by students to do so.
Stay highly connected with your students, anticipating their needs and difficulties. For example, students must be crystal clear about expectations for the lesson—whether behavioral, academic, or motivational. They know that their learning engagement matters. The teacher will address and diagnose issues swiftly.
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2. Offer achievable difficulty
One of the biggest drains on student engagement is learning that is either too easy or too hard—mismatched to the student’s needs. This can often get swept up into an all-pervading sense of student ennui over their learning: “It’s just boring!”
Learning must be pitched at the right level: difficult enough to pose a challenge (giving students a sense of onwards with their learning) but accessible enough to be achievable. Students need to experience not only success but also progress.
In recent years, Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) has offered more insights. It can help educators to understand how our brains hold information—particularly how short-term, ‘working memory’ (critical to learning) functions. Educators can target their teaching and activities to stretch students into an appropriate zone of challenge, difficult for them but not too difficult.
3. Foster collaboration
Engaging students in the classroom means making them active participants in a lesson. Students should be given opportunities to work together on tasks.
When carried out in a highly purposeful manner, with close teacher monitoring, such collaborative learning can yield many benefits. It can promote higher-thinking skills, boost self-confidence, build friendships, and nurture social skills. And, as it does those things, it can also ramp up engagement.
By connecting learners purposefully, a with-it teacher can better connect them to the learning at hand. Try to get all students to participate—there are lots of great brainstorming techniques to empower all to feel valued, for example.
4. Involve students more broadly
Student feedback can yield insights about what helps them learn. For instance, one survey showed that 61% of students felt they learned better when “fun” activities were used. But what exactly might that mean in your lessons, with your students? Perhaps use polls to get feedback on what works.
Giving students more responsibility in their learning can also help. According to the survey by Kahoot!, 7 in 10 educators felt students remember more when given a choice of activity. And the next step may be to encourage students to keep reflecting on their progress. How successful were they? Are they ready to move on, or do they need more input at that level?
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5. Use technology
Technology had already become an everyday part of education well before the pandemic, with many educators utilizing tools like master schedule software to make administrative tasks more efficient and productive. But Covid certainly ramped up technology’s role.
Overnight, face-to-face lessons were replaced by remote learning, and a wide range of new tools was introduced to support this. Educators found themselves getting to grips with conferencing software and business phone systems.
For many educators, remote instruction—or at least a hybrid model—is still a part of life. And even for those now predominantly back to a class-based model, the new tools and approaches adopted can augment great teaching.
Homework and assignments can be managed via online portals, endowing visibility and ownership.
Live instruction or video tutorials can be provided—a library of extra support.
Online platforms provide personalized learning, using AI to adjust to an individual’s needs. The use of gamification can make these especially motivational.
Instead of print books, an ebook can be used to engage students in the classroom and encourage discussions points and interactive games and questions.
When used appropriately, such TechEd can help connect students more deeply with their learning.
Building engagement takes effort
Although many tools can help, there is no magic bullet that re-energizes disconnected learners. It requires a high expectation that learners will stay connected and then a relentless drive to ensure that happens. However, achieving this—and fostering a student’s enthusiasm for their learning—is one of the most impactful things a teacher can do.
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