5 Easy Tips for Increasing Student Engagement

Do you want to get your students more engaged and excited to learn? Well, you’re in luck. You can boost your students’ engagement with a few tips that worked for me!

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If you are seeking to improve student engagement without making major changes to your curriculum or creating a mountain of work for yourself, here are a few small tips for big change in student engagement.

Student engagement

Help students take ownership
of their learning:

1. Games

You can call almost any activity a "game," change nothing about it, and suddenly find that students are more eager to participate. That mindset makes a huge difference for kids.

A unit becomes a game when completing tasks gives students points towards “winning.” In my class, I have a unit called “The Game of Life” that teaches audience and genre writing. Students receive the first task, and once they complete it, they also have to present their work to me or an aide, who gives them a "classroom check" (like money), and only then they can move on to the next task.

This goes on. Each task gives them more money, and if they don’t get enough money on a task, they have to do it again for a new check. They can only cash in one check for each kind of task. Eventually, there is a winner, and the reward is simply bragging points, but they love it. They don’t need an expensive incentive to enjoy the game.

Of course, the points in a game like this are grade points, but XP or money is so much more valuable to a tween than grade points. Even though they’re doing the same thing they would normally do during a lesson, the vernacular makes a huge difference.

You can also design a classwide behavior plan as a game, and that works wonders, too. In my classroom, each class gets points every day. Each class period has a clipboard where we keep track of points, and once the class gets 100 points, they get a reward. I assign a student to mark the paper each day, and they also are in charge of reminding me to give them class points at the end of each class period. That way, I can set the system up and then do very little work to keep it going and keep it effective.

They get to pick from a list of rewards that they’re working toward as a class. They can work toward a work day with music, 10 minutes of free time, 10 minutes of class game time, or whatever else we come up with together that seems reasonable.

It’s important that they only ever gain points each day; I never take points away from them for being naughty, otherwise that can defeat the purpose of the game: student engagement. I like to give at least one point every day because there’s always at least one student who gave good effort that day, and even if I didn’t notice it, they deserve a point for it.

2. Use a Mic and a Theatrical Voice

So often teachers who have access to mics will say things like, “I have a loud voice” or “I don’t really need that,” but it makes a huge difference in student engagement if you use a mic.

When you use a mic, you’re better equipped to use a theatrical voice. I use different characters in my presentations to keep things interesting. I have a mock “student voice” that I use that asks questions and has all sorts of problems (what if my printer breaks? I forgot to write my essay!), and then I respond in my regular teacher voice, though I usually pretend to be a lot sassier than I really am. Why? Because it’s interesting, and it keeps them listening. If they weren’t listening before I started talking like a Muppet, they certainly tune in when it starts.

I have quite a few character voices that I use in my classroom. I do bits about angry parents, concerned principals, sassy students, other teachers, and even my spouse has his own pretend voice. I’m not a great actor, and the voices aren’t entertainment quality, but my students love it. They laugh at the bits and say things like, “You should be a cartoon voice!” or, “You sound like Moaning Myrtle!” A few times I’ve even been told, “You should be a comedian! You’d make so much money!” (Which is flattering, but not true.) They don’t like it because it’s good; they like it because it’s interesting, and I commit to the characters when I use them.

I also use timing like nobody’s business. A careful pause, an inflection of pitch, or a drawn-out syllable can emphasize something just so to make it really funny. It also breaks up the monotony of the presentation and calls everyone back to focus on my words.

3. Use Nicknames

I like to make up fun nicknames for a few kids in each class. I try to pick kids who I know won’t be scared by it, and I pick nicknames that aren’t in any way offensive. Even though not all the kids get nicknames, they all like to join in the fun and engage in the class by using the nicknames for the kids who have them. Some classes really get on board with it and come up with something for everyone. It’s as easy as using everyone’s last names (Jones! Peterman!) or first and last initial (AJ! HB!)

4. Use Catchphrases

I also use catchphrases in my classroom. A lot of them are borrowed from dear teachers I’ve had in the past, like, “Capiche? Giddyup!” from my high school English teacher, and “You don’t write like you speak,” from one of my 7th grade teachers. One of my favorites is when students ask me, “Can I use the bathroom?” “I don’t know,” I respond, “Can ya? That’s a country in Africa!” I got that one from a science teacher.

I also like to say, “Hm, that sounds like a personal problem!” when they say things like, “I forgot my pencil,” or “I don’t have any paper.” They like to use that one back at me, and that’s always fun. Once I said, “Oh no, I can’t find the spelling words!” and a student said, “That sounds like a personal problem.” We all laughed.

5. Tell Stories

Human brains are wired to tune in to a good story. When they’re struggling to focus in on a topic, I find telling a short story is extremely effective in refocusing the whole group. What’s great is that the story doesn’t need to be epic; it can be two or three sentences and have the same effect. It also can be pertinent to the content, and that can help students make brain pathways to the lesson.

For example, if I’m teaching them about creating the possessive of a singular noun by adding an apostrophe and the letter “S,” and I notice that several noses are being picked simultaneously, I can tell a short story about a text message I received where this was done wrong, and I can theatrically express how outraged I was. Or, I can tell a story about when I, to my own mortification, realized I had printed 100 Christmas cards with this error on it.

Stories don’t always have to be about yourself. In a science class, you might tell a story about cells splitting and the way DNA reproduces. You might tell a story in math class about bidding for an item on eBay and getting the decimal place wrong, and instead of bidding $10.00, you bid $1000. Oops!

Ready to boost engagement in your classroom?

None of these tips are difficult to implement. Some take a little more start-up work than others, but then they run pretty efficiently on their own. Pick things to add to your classroom that speak to you and will be a natural extension of who you are as a teacher, and always remember: if you’re bored with your class, your students probably are, too.

Start increasing engagement with our 10 tips for new teachers or learning how veteran teacher Amy McKinney builds a supportive classroom community.


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Author Bio:

Heidi Hood has been teaching for 7 years. She has a degree from Brigham Young University in secondary education, English teaching emphasis. You can find her on Twitter as @MsAdelheid.

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