Increasing Deep Student Engagement and Motivation


Students must engage in lessons at a deeper level more than ever before. However, many educators are left wondering, what does deep engagement look like, how can I increase the level of student engagement within my classroom, and how can I do this in a way that is easy to manage, timely, and, most of all, meaningful to students.

What does deep engagement look like, how can you increase the level of student engagement within your classroom, and how can you do this in a way that is easy to manage, timely, and, most of all, meaningful to students.

Student engagement is something that many admit is difficult to easily define because it deals more with a set of behaviors and a state of mind that students must reach when interacting with classroom content. Often, student engagement is defined by learner characteristics and non-examples.

When constructing our own definitions and understanding of student engagement, we have to think about a student’s state of mind and the level of interaction that students have with the content under study.

Think about a time when you were really engaged in something, the kind of engagement where you lose track of time and experience feelings of joy and satisfaction. You may have felt acutely focused, physically, mentally, and emotionally absorbed in a task. I’ve felt this most often while writing, reading, teaching, and coaching — always signaled by the moment when I notice the clock and, feeling dazed, wonder where the hours have gone.

How can we create moments like these for our students?

So, how do they know if a student is engaged? What do “engaged” students look like? In my many observations, here’s some evidence to look for:

Teacher-Directed Learning

You will see students…

  • Paying attention (alert, tracking with their eyes)
  • Taking notes and/or doodling images or diagrams
  • Listening (as opposed to chatting, or sleeping)
  • Asking questions that are content related and extensions for the topic being discussed.
  • Responding to questions with details
  • Following requests and directions
  • Reacting (laughing, crying, speaking more force, conviction, etc.)

Student-Directed Learning

You see students individually or in small groups…

  • Reading critically (with pen in hand)
  • Writing to learn, creating, planning, problem-solving, discussing, debating, and asking questions
  • Performing/presenting, inquiring, exploring, explaining, evaluating, and experimenting
  • Interacting with other students, gesturing and moving

To boil down the above descriptions and get at the essence of student engagement, whether for teacher-directed learning or student-directed learning, engaged means students are active. Is that surprising? I shouldn’t think so. If true learning is to occur, then students have to be, at the very least, participants in the process, and not merely receptacles for collecting information.

Student Lead Activity and Ownership

I believe that the majority of teachers pick up on the audience cues as they direct-teach, and can tell if a student is not interested or not engaged. Most teachers act on what they see and adjust their instruction to try to engage all of their students. However, no matter how hard teachers work at making it interesting, a lecture is still a lecture, and having students simply listen is still a passive action. The solution is simple: If a teacher wants to increase student engagement, then the teacher needs to increase student activity — ask the students to do something with the knowledge and skills they have learned. Break up the lecture with learning activities. Let them practice. Get them moving. Get them talking. Make it so engaging that it will be difficult for students not to participate.

The ultimate engagement is to put the learner in charge of learning. Create a rich learning environment and a motivation to learn, and the students do all the hard work of learning, while the teacher merely facilitates. It sounds so easy.

I do not minimize the hard work involved in creating those rich learning scenarios, custom-made motivators, and engaging learning content. And it is a bit risky. Sometimes it works like a charm, and other times it would have been better to assign seatwork. But we keep trying, improving, and enhancing until we get it right.

I would like to urge the education community to move beyond a discussion of “engagement”, with its vague definitions and murky attributes, to a conversation which focuses on providing an active student-centered learning environment.

Teach n’ Kids Learn (TKL) provides an online course which provides educators with the strategies and tools for understanding how to increases the level of student engagement within every lesson, every day.

CourseIncreasing Student Engagement: Planning Outside the Box