Before we jump into specific ways to combat student disengagement, those of you who haven’t read Part One: Why Student Engagement Matters may want to take a look for background on the crisis of student disengagement and why engagement is so critical to education. Read on for evidence-based ways to help your students engage more fully with their education.
Opening the door: The keys to engagement
Whether teaching in the classroom or remotely, combatting disengagement begins with identifying at-risk students and helping students make connections between their studies and personal lives.
1. Identify at-risk students
First and foremost, be on the lookout for students who are at most risk for disengagement. Some of the most common risk factors include:
• Family and community factors. Students from low socio-economic backgrounds are most at risk. This includes poverty, homelessness, parental unemployment or low educational attainment.
• Personal factors. Physical or mental illness, disability, substance dependence, and learning difficulties often make it difficult for students to engage with school, as do disruptive events like divorce or a death in the family.
• School-related factors. This can include anything from a student having negative relationships with peers or teachers to a toxic or unsupportive school culture and limited subject options.
More than 46 studies have shown that strong teacher-student relationships result in more positive student outcomes. Use your connection with students to help pinpoint potential engagement risk factors, then keep an eye out for tell-tale signs of disengagement like erratic attendance, decreasing grades, aggression and social withdrawal.
2. Help students connect studies to the world and their own lives
When it comes to boosting engagement, one of the most effective teaching practices is “connective instruction.” This technique involves helping students make links between their studies and their lives, as well as encouraging them to share their thoughts on this connection.
Whether presenting Shakespeare, World War II, or World Religions, ask your students questions like:
• How is this relevant today?
• What parallels do you see between it and something happening right now in the news?
• What lessons can you learn from it that can be applied to your personal life?
Consistently using this technique helps students make personal connections between what they learn in class and what they’re experiencing in their personal lives. This sparks greater interest and attention (aka engagement), and helps lead to greater mastery of the subject matter.
Now that you have understood the two most important ways to combat disengage, you are probably wondering how you can engage students specifically during Covid times. Keep reading to find out!
How to increase engagement when teaching remote learners
Researchers have been hard at work analyzing how best to keep students engaged during remote learning. (See citation links at the end of the article.) Below are some of their top recommendations. You may already be familiar with many, but a quick refresher can help you refocus on the essentials of building student engagement.
1. The student-teacher relationship is critical to engagement
You probably know this intuitively, or perhaps you’ve seen articles on the numerous studies that show the benefits of a strong connection between teachers and students. Now is the time to double-down on your commitment to building rapport with your students. Your efforts can make all the difference. Even after controlling for differences among the students studied, those with a strong connection with their teacher had higher academic achievement, more consistent attendance, fewer disruptive behaviors and lower dropout rates. In short: they were more engaged. (By the way, this effort is likely to benefit you, as well. As shown by a study in the European Journal of Psychology of Education, “a teacher’s relationship with students was the best predictor of how much the teacher experienced joy versus anxiety in class.”)
2. Hold live lessons and provide clear ways for students to easily access your help
Strive to use your class time for live teaching as much as possible. Synchronous (real time, live) teaching replicates the feel of an in-person environment, at least to some extent. Students can be seen, heard, and held accountable and they likewise can see and communicate with one another. Of course, just as in the classroom, not everyone will be eager to participate. Establishing and reinforcing class rules can help, such as requiring that cameras be kept on and using a system to prompt participation. Limiting lecture-format lessons further boosts engagement. If you do choose to present lecture-based lessons, make sure to pause frequently to do an activity together or break into small group discussions. Instead of going asynchronous when students work on assignments, do them in real time together or in small groups.
3. Focus on active learning
Another tried-and-true axiom of 21st century K12 education, focusing on active learning is even more important when teaching remotely. It’s another intuitive pedagogy reinforced by research: of course students are less likely to stay engaged when they passively watch videos online, read material with no written follow-up, or fill out worksheets absent-mindedly. Stanford researchers have found that teaching methods that emphasize student effort engage students more effectively. Instead of delivering content, try assigning activities that keep students active, such as working in groups to solve a problem, breaking into smaller group discussions, playing interactive games, or working on an involved project.
4. Help students navigate online course structure, lessons, and assignments.
Even when an online lesson is engaging, it can seem inaccessible to students if they are overwhelmed and confused by its setup and functionality. To sidestep this frustration, create assignments and lesson calendars as well as video tutorials that help students navigate the online resources in case they get stuck. Setup your modules so that each lesson or chapter has a clear objective -- ask yourself what a student should understand after each lesson and make that goal visible at the beginning and end of each lesson. Make sure each module or unit of learning is sequential and easy to find. Furthermore, make sure to outline rationale for assignments, explaining what it will help students learn and why you have set it up this way. (Bonus engagement points for tying it to their own experiences and/or current events!)
5. Get creative and do project-based assignments
Studies have shown that lecture-based lessons are not effective in keeping students engaged during remote learning. Instead, try introducing more creative and project-based assignments. This helps to give students more autonomy and ownership of their own learning, which helps keep them engaged and active. For example, you could give students the assignment to interview a professional over Zoom and present their findings in class, or perhaps they can interview their relatives and write a report on how their family coped with the pandemic. The options are endless!
6. Remember: tech is your best friend, not your enemy
Lack of technology and software training for teachers can be detrimental to keeping students engaged. Take time to learn the tools that are available to you, testing out different platforms to see which suit your teaching goals best. If you and your colleagues want more training from your school district -- ask for it, and keep asking! In the meantime, think critically about what works best for you, and share your findings with other teachers. Reach out to your colleagues and share tips about what hardware or software works best for different types of lessons. Research has also shown that with the many tech options available, students can have a hard time navigating all of them. Instead, think of how you can use one or two platforms instead of relying on multiple different technologies.
7. Get student feedback over and over again
Most likely, you’ll be experimenting with many different methods to keep students engaged. The best way to gauge the effectiveness of your strategies is to simply ask your students. Set up a bi-weekly survey and ask what works for them and what doesn’t, what they want to see more of, and any suggestions they might have. (It’s also a great way to foster strong connections between you and your students!)
8. Engage with students on their level
What tik-tok video is going viral this week? What are the political and cultural implications of that video? If there is a particular song that is currently popular? Discuss how these things are relevant to today’s issues and hold a debate. Can you go through extra-credit questions on Instagram live? The key is to get students to learn how to think critically. What better place to start than with the things they are already interested in and ready to explore?
It’s a marathon, not a sprint
Just about everything related to teaching is best viewed as a marathon. Taking the long view can help you combat your own burnout and help you have the energy to build relationships with your students and implement strategies to keep them engaged and involved in learning. We salute your efforts.
Looking for more? This article offers 25 terrific (and doable) tips and tactics for boosting engagement while teaching students on the other side of a computer screen.