5 Tips for Getting All Students Engaged in Learning

What’s lesson one for teachers who want students to successfully grasp, retain, and apply new material? First—say Whitney Rapp and Katrina Arndt, authors of the inclusion book Teaching Everyone—you need to recruit their interest. And that means finding ways to make learning “relevant, authentic, and valuable” in students’ lives.

In today’s post, we bring you 5 steps you can follow to actively engage your students and help them feel personally connected to their learning.


Connect what you’re teaching to real life

One key way to involve students in their learning is to make sure the material speaks to them. These strategies, adapted from Teaching Everyone and Systematic Instruction for Students with Moderate and Severe Disabilities by Belva Collins, will help you connect your lessons to students’ real-life experiences:

  • Choose culturally relevant materials. According to the National Council of Teachers of English, students who don’t find representations of their own cultures in texts are likely to lose interest in school-based literacies. (Read how one new teacher learned this valuable lesson in this excerpt from Teaching Everyone.) Have your students complete a short survey on their outside interests and use that information to assist in building your lesson plans. This will help your students see the connections between what they’re learning inside and outside the classroom.
  • Use specific everyday examples. An easy way to help students feel personally connected to what they’re being taught is to talk about how they can apply the material in real life. In Systematic Instruction for Students with Moderate and Severe Disabilities, Collins suggests teachers demonstrate how students can apply math concepts to help them manage their personal finances, nutrition, and daily schedule.
  • Link routines to learning. You can also promote learning through classroom routines. For instance, a child learning to wash hands during bathroom breaks can also be taught science concepts (body parts, hygiene and disease prevention, water conservation), reading (bathroom signage), antonyms (hot/cold, left/right), and math (counting).


Use students’ interests and fascinations

Find out what your students are passionate about and then use those interests as natural motivators to increase engagement. Whether a child is fixated on one thing or has a few areas of intense interest, there are many simple strategies you can use to work those fascinations into your instruction. The result? Happier, more motivated students.

In “Just Give Him the Whale!”, Paula Kluth and Patrick Schwarz offer these and many other suggestions on how to use student interests to boost learning in key areas:

  • Literacy. Allow a child to integrate their most-loved characters and possessions into your classroom reading time. One student was able to participate in reading circle when his turn came once he was allowed to speak through a favorite puppet.
  • History. Find creative ways to adapt standards-based content to the fun things your students are excited about. For example, one history teacher explained the U.S. role in the UN and its relationship to other nations by drawing an analogy with Super Friends characters.
  • Math. If you’re working on a math lesson, consider asking a student to write a problem, diagram, or pattern that relates to her particular area of interest. Sometimes, the best way to combine academic material with a student’s interests may not be immediately evident—but your students may see connections that you don’t!

To help you discover what your students are passionate about, download these student surveys from “Just Give Him the Whale!” And read this excerpt from the book to learn more about innovative ways to use student interests in the classroom!


Give students choices

As Rapp & Arndt note in Teaching Everyone, engagement increases whenever students are empowered to make their own choices about how they learn. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Group students. Breaking the class up in groups increases the likelihood that everyone will contribute to class discussion and problem solving. Poll your students about their working preference, or experiment with breaking them up in different ways. Divide the class in half, group students in small teams of three or four, or put them in pairs.
  • Allow them to set the pace. Let your students choose their own starting point on an assignment, and they’ll stay comfortable and challenged. For example, try giving your students tiered math problems, with increasing levels of difficulty. From least to most sophisticated, the tiers could be: determine the surface area of a cube; determine the surface area of a rectangular prism; determine the amount of wrapping paper needed to cover a rectangular box; determine how many cans of paint you’ll need to buy to paint a house with given dimensions. Once students choose a starting point, the teacher can guide them through increasing levels of mastery.
  • Try homework menus. Instead of having all of your students complete the same homework assignment, why not offer a menu of options that tie in with your lesson plan? A little variety and choice go a long way toward relieving the sense of drudgery some students experience when completing their homework. Take a look at this math menu for an example of how to give students a choice of homework problems to complete.


Hook their interest with fun transitions

As Julie Causton and Chelsea Tracy-Bronson point out in their book, The Educator’s Handbook for Inclusive School Practices, “all students are more engaged when they enjoy classroom life, laugh, and connect with peers.” Transitions between activities can be the perfect time to infuse more joy and fun into your daily routine–and get your students energized and excited to learn. Here are a few suggestions from Causton and Tracy-Bronson:

  • Take 45 seconds to have a dance party.
  • Find out which songs students are singing in chorus or music. Sing them as you’re cleaning up and making the transition to the next activity.
  • Start a new activity with a fun and interesting way to physically enter the space (such as a crab walk or backward walk).
  • Lead a firework cheer (rub hands together, make a sizzle sound, then clap hands and say, “Oooh, ahhhh”).
  • Organize a walk-and-talk activity (give the class a question related to the content, set a timer, and tell them to discuss the answer while walking around inside or outside for 4 minutes).
  • Play a short part from an energetic song to cue your students to a new task or activity.
  • Take 5 minutes to do whole-body stretches.
  • Pump students up with a “45-second challenge,” such as jumping jacks, yoga tree pose, or another physical activity.
  • Use musical instruments to signal transitions—a clap of the tambourine can signal freeze, a light shake can mean start moving, and a repetitive tap can mean get stepping!

(Want more suggestions on how to infuse joy into your classroom routines? Read this post.)


Teach students self-monitoring skills

An advanced way of involving children so they stay engaged in their learning is to help them develop greater self-regulation skills. Children sometimes struggle with self-awareness, so they may not even realize when they’re straying off task or acting in disruptive ways. When children are taught to regulate their behavior and work independently, they develop habits to help them succeed and you are freed to operate more flexibly in the classroom.

Try these strategies, outlined in the book Building Comprehension in Adolescents by Linda H. Mason et al., to assist students with self-regulation:

  • Self-monitoring of attention (SMA). Instruct students to evaluate whether or not they’ve been paying attention at random intervals throughout the school day. This is usually accomplished with an auditory cue like a chime or tone, which prompts each child to reflect on questions like Am I at my desk? and Am I listening to the teacher? Students record their answers on a simple SMA tally sheet.
  • Self-monitoring of performance. Students log on a chart or graph whether they’ve been able to complete a pre-defined problem or task. Viewing an explicit graphical representation of their performance can have a highly motivating effect on students.

Read how one science teacher was able to motivate her students to assess their own performance and significantly improve completion of group projects by following these specific steps of self-monitoring outlined in Building Comprehension in Adolescents.



When you make a concerted effort to engage students in their learning, they’ll be better able to maintain focus, sustain positive behavior, and grasp and retain the material you’re working so hard to deliver—a positive outcome for everybody!


A different version of this article appeared in the Brookes K-12 Education newsletter. Sign up for it today if you haven’t already!

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Student says

Who is the author of this?

jlillis says

The article was written by the editor of this blog (who chooses not to have bylines) and was adapted from several books from Brookes Publishing, as noted within each section of the article. Thanks!

sophia cyrus says

Make review process engaging & fun with Factile. So that children can learn & remember long-lasting with the engaging review process.

digital storytelling says

I always try using everyday examples when I’m teaching something to my children. It helps them understand everything in a better way. And yes I give them short breaks during class to keep their minds fresh.

Levi Armstrong says

I agree with what you said that children are more engaged in the classroom and learn more if they're having fun. That is why I plan to suggest at the next PTA meeting at my daughter's school that they do school science assemblies to pique their interest in the subject. Hopefully, the teachers and parents will like my idea. Thanks for this!

jlillis says

Thanks for commenting, Levi! Great idea re: the assemblies!

Smith says

Good info for Engaging Students

Menachem Moscovitz says

We only require a teaching style that could make teaching interesting and inspire students to think out of the box. Thanks for sharing useful and inspiring ideas to make teaching more engaging. Respect for the writer of this post!!!.

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