Motivating students to become active participants in their own education is often a difficult task. For a variety of reasons, many students suffer from a lack of engagement with the material being covered in class. This lack of engagement translates to low success and high dropout rates as students become more and more disillusioned with the educational system. In order to avoid these negative outcomes, there are a few strategies that teachers can use to stimulate student engagement.  Teaching students what critical thinking is and how it can be used to achieve deeper learning is a key to increase interest.  By increasing student interest in the curriculum, a teacher can instill a sense of pride and ownership in students regarding their success in school.


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1. Assigning Authentic Instructional Work

Research conducted by Helen Marks for the American Educational Research Association shows a direct correlation between the perceived value a student places on the work they are doing and the level to which that student engages with the material. Authentic instruction refers to work assigned in the classroom that is both challenging and relevant. The study showed that the effect of assigning this kind of work is amplified as students progress in grade level. In elementary school a student’s perception of the value of the work they are doing only accounts for 18 percent of the total differential in student engagement. In high school, however, this figure jumps to 21 percent (Marks 2000). This indicates that more advanced students take their own opinions very seriously in determining the value of the work they are doing. If advanced students perceive that the assigned work is inauthentic, i.e., not challenging or relevant, then they are more likely to disengage as compared to their elementary school counterparts.

For example, in a mathematics classroom, a worksheet that students are given 35 minutes to complete individually is not an example of authentic instructional work. Instead, have students assemble into small groups to engage in conversations and ask questions as they solve a problem with real-world implications.  Students might maximize the volume of a cube given certain dimension restrictions, or predict future events by extrapolating from existing data trends. The focus on knowledge application in these exercises increases the authenticity of the instruction, and will more likely motivate students to engage with the material at hand.

Another strategy to create a more authentic practice experiences is to integrate multiple disciplines whenever possible.  As we apply concepts to our world, we seldom have the luxury of compartmentalizing ideas.  The concept of recognizing patterns might naturally be experienced while listening to music or making art.  Organizing supporting details into logical paragraphs could become a sorting exercise.  Any opportunity that helps students recognize the interrelatedness across disciplines will increase the authenticity of the experience and maximize engagement.

2. Fostering Positive Classroom Relationships

Additional research conducted by Adena M. Klem and James P. Connell for the Journal of School Health indicates a connection between teacher-student relationships and student engagement. Fostering a supportive environment encourages students by providing a clear structure from within which students can exhibit autonomous behavior. Students that are able to make their own choices have a vested interest in the outcomes of their decisions. This results in increased student engagement because students realize that their actions have the ability to determine their outcomes. Instead of viewing school as a place where they have no power and must do as they are told, students begin to see school as an opportunity to act in a way that will result in positive outcomes in their lives.


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One of the best strategies for promoting feelings of autonomy in students is for teachers to establish strong support systems in their classrooms. This can be accomplished by explicitly stating your behavioral expectations and even posting them in writing in the classroom. In addition to this, teachers can substitute lectures with discussions in order to provide a resource for helping students reach their own conclusions, rather than telling them the conclusions they should reach. An example of this in a mathematics classroom would be to walk through a proof of a new mathematical concept with students rather than just define the concept for them. Teachers who struggle with low rates of student engagement can try these methods to reinvest students in their own education.

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Tips for Achieving Deeper Learning