How Student Engagement Impacts Teacher Confidence
The following statement served as the tagline for a session at the recent 2019 ISTE Conference: "Students are actively learning when they are engaged with the content. Increasing student engagement will help build confidence in educators to put the responsibility of learning into their students' hands."
In other words, when you successfully engage students, a virtuous cycle is created in which your students respond with more intrinsic motivation and dedication, giving you more confidence to entrust them with their own learning.
What does Student Engagement Look Like?
Student engagement is all the rage right now, but what does that mean? What does it look like? Phil Schlechty has one of the best explanations going, defining engagement as "active" and "requir[ing] the students to be attentive as well as in attendance." Schlechty's Levels of Engagement progress along an attention/commitment continuum from student rebellion (active disruption and no commitment) to student engagement (high attention, high commitment).
Think of a high school science classroom. On the rebellion end of the spectrum, the student would be totally disengaged, messing around at the lab table (or refusing to participate in lab at all), and/or acting in an unsafe manner, actively disrupting the learning of others in the classroom.
At the engagement level, a student might be deeply committed to an independent research project, developing her own hypothesis, experimental procedures, and data collection methods in response to a self-directed research question. These states are worlds apart. At the rebellion level, with literal spitballs flying, what teacher wouldn't feel demoralized? At the engagement level, the educator feels like the second coming of John Dewey.
Increasing Student Engagement
Hook them every day, all year long. Some educators like to take the first five minutes of class to talk with students about non-academic matters. Don't underestimate the power of a proper lesson introduction, however. A short video clip, an anticipatory activity, a quick think-pair-share, and other warm up exercises get students interested and prepare them to meet the day's learning objective.
In the meat of the lesson, there are many ways to address engagement: be enthusiastic, prepare authentic tasks that are meaningful for your unique population, and plan assessments that measure what students should know, understand, and are able to do as a result of their learning. Even direct instruction can be very engaging if done with the student's perspective in mind. To channel John Hattie, see the lesson through the eyes of the students, and help them see themselves as teachers.
EdTech tools and your learning management system (LMS) present myriad ways to increase student engagement. For example, you could "flip" the introductory video clip via your LMS to the night before and start class with student reactions. During the lesson or as "exit ticket" activities, student response apps make gathering formative feedback easy and fun. Want more engagement? Give the data right back to the students and ask them what they think and what goals they should set as a result.
Ultimately, students want relationships, choice, and the chance to demonstrate mastery of what they have learned. When you tend to these items every day from the perspective of the students, their motivation and engagement will increase exponentially.
Student Engagement and Teacher Confidence
A master Spanish teacher, instead of mailing it in and hosting a class party for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), decides to "flip" a clip from Disney's "Coco" to whet appetites for her Spanish 1 learners, then begins the lesson by asking students to share a digital photograph or memory of a dear departed relative via the class LMS.
Early in the year, the class had expressed a desire to improve their oral communication skills, so the teacher uses this hook to lead into the day's objective: By the end of the lesson, students will be able to use at least three vocabulary words to describe their departed relatives. The class then does this by constructing dialogue sentences to speak with each other with teacher assistance.
Imagine being that teacher. Instead of throwing a party (probably high attention but low commitment) or teaching Day of the Dead and/or descriptive vocabulary in a more rote fashion, such as from a worksheet or packet (varying levels of attention and commitment depending on the student population), you have hooked students the night before, created a festive and welcoming environment, made the learning personal by having students share their lives with you and the rest of the class within the context of the lesson, and provided an opportunity for students to learn and grow in the target language per their feedback. That's a recipe for high attention and high commitment. How could that not make you feel more confident in your classroom practice?
The Sweet Spot
When students are deeply engaged in learning, you have found the sweet spot where classrooms come alive with the pure joy of learning for learning's sake. Your students will demonstrate both high attention in the classroom and high commitment to task. Your confidence will soar as you grow as a professional alongside your young charges, and your students will remember you as their favorite teacher; not just because you were "fun", but because you took the time to structure your lessons to show how much you value engagement - and how much you value them.
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