5 Strategies To Improve Student Engagement (With Less Technology)

  • Alanna
  • 16 July 2017
  • 05:26 PM

In the modern classroom, keeping students engaged comes with new challenges that past eras of teaching did not have to face. More specifically, digital distractions — incoming texts, alluring social media, and irrelevant web-browsing — are pulling attention away at a rate unparalleled by passing notes, whispering to your neighour, or simple daydreaming.

What's even greater cause for concern is that studies have shown the average attention span of humans is officially shorter than that of a goldfisha mere 8 seconds!

But considering fleeting attention spans and myriad distractions, active and enthusiastic engagement in the classroom is still achievable without heavy technology implementation. Here are 5 low-tech strategies teachers can use to engage their students:

1. Tell More Stories

Teachers are already amazing storytellers. My most memorable lessons were delivered by teachers who'd tell a story about how what they were teaching had applied in the context of their lives. In science, math, business, art, or any field of study, telling stories can improve student engagement by giving greater context to the material, helping students imagine and visualize how each lesson will relate to the real world.

Telling stories can improve student engagement by giving greater context to the material, helping them imagine and visualize how each lesson will relate to the real world.

Fortunately, today, students are more interested in stories than ever before. Consider this: Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter each have features which invite users to share their story on social media, of which more than 150 million people do every day on Instagram alone.

Though sharing a story means something different on social media than it might in the real world, taking the time to plan and share a vibrant and relevant story can help illuminate what might feel like a flat lecture or lesson.

2. Encourage Participation in Different Ways

The discussion around class participation has changed dramatically in recent years. Grading students based on their propensity to ask more questions or speak up during class has been faced with controversy, much of it due to its implication that shy or introverted students are worse off. But the truth is that many students who listen and take notes in silence are as engaged and committed to the lecture as the student who enthusiastically shoots her hand in the air when you pose a question.

Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, suggests grading students based not simply on the quantity, but the quality of students' contributions as well as other valued characteristics they express. She suggests:

"Character-based grades would reward students who contribute meaningfully to class discussion. They would value other personal characteristics such as empathy, courage, persistence, listening skills, and respect for others."
- Susan Cain, author of Quiet

Another strategy I learned was from professor Dr. Doug Duncan at the University of Colorado. Every class, Dr. Duncan handed out a single sticky note to a student who contributed to the discussion. He would give a sticky note for any type of contribution — whether a question, an answer, or comment — and he would not give more than one sticky note to a student at a time, even if they'd spoken up more than once that class.

The activity encouraged students to contribute and engage in the ways that they were most comfortable with: those who knew answers would use an opportunity to answer a question, and those who had questions would use it to ask. Students would rarely jump in to seem more participatory than others; instead they would encourage their fellow students without a sticky note to contribute. It was wonderful to see students across the large lecture hall collaborating as a group to help one another get a sticky note

3. Embrace Competition, Not Comparison

Comparison among peers can significantly lower self esteem and hurt a student's willingness or enthusiasm to perform at their best. That can easily happen in the classroom if students are only ever compared to one another based on grades, rather than recognition for other achievements or merits. 

In Malcolm Gladwell's book, David and Goliath, Gladwell articulates the advantages a big fish has in a smaller pond. For example, a high-achieving student at a small rural college, Gladwell says, will likely fare better in her academic career than attending an Ivey League school where she will drop to the middle or bottom of the pack and become discouraged.

A strategy to reduce the implications of comparison is to bring to each lesson an opportunity for healthy competition among students that does not impact their grade but can positively impact the self-esteem of a lesser-performing student. Creatively incentivizing students to reach a personal milestone or achievement, without implicating their grade, is a great way to achieve this.

4. Encourage Failure

Promoting positive competition can also give way to a healthier classroom ecosystem of failure. Education is meant to arm students for a real world that exists beyond their studies; but today's students are much less prepared to face this type of failure if everything they do is worth a grade.

Failure is healthy; some of the greatest success stories have risen from experiences in which significant failure occurred or obstacles were faced. Students who believe that the best way through their academic career is to achieve the highest grade point average are missing out on the essential learning opportunity that failure provides.

Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.
- John Dewey, early educational reformer

The story about the sticky-note-rewarding professor exemplified healthy and competitive failure in his class. Although he gave all students a sticky note for their contribution, he was quick to challenge their input, whether right or wrong. What this strategy achieves is that students are encouraged and more likely to contribute knowing they'll be recognized for it, even if it's incorrect.

5. Unplug From Technology

The average student uses their laptop, smartphone, tablet, or a combination of all three for everything that they do at all hours of the day. As a result, devices have crept into the classroom to help improve student engagement; but, unsurprisingly, they have also introduced many of the challenges student engagement is now up against.

Leading professor and brain-science expert, Dr. Brynn Winegard, advocates for less technology in the classroom by limiting laptop use and encouraging students to be present in class. Considering there's evidence suggesting paper note-taking is better, creatively switching to analog is one strategy to keep students engaged in a way that's different from everyone elseFor example, ask students to pull out a piece of paper to brainstorm collaboratively with their peers rather than typing their ideas on a screen, or suggest students write their answer down and compare it with their neighbor's rather than using a polling app.

Using technology can certainly facilitate some learning activities, but enhancing classroom conversation and enabling creative collaboration need to stretch well beyond the boundaries of technology. Teaching students the benefits of unplugging from technology is an opportunity you shouldn't ignore.

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