Boost Student Engagement and Effort in 6 Simple Steps

student engagement brain-based

You may not have big challenges getting your students to work hard in school, but many of your colleagues DO have a tough time. At least that’s what they tell me! This is the first of a 4-part series on the real “how to” for student engagement and effort.

The first six steps you should know about are…

The Research

There are countless reasons why students do not engage or work hard in class. Many of the reasons are invisible to a teacher. Just to get you started, here are 25% of the reasons students might not be working at “full-throttle” for you. Remember, these are just the first six.

1. They do not like their teacher or don’t think the teacher is on their side.
Cornelius-White, J (2007). Learner-Centered Teacher-Student Relationships Are Effective: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 77,113-143.

2. They are distressed and the distress freezes up their actions.
Schwabe L, Wolf OT. (2009). Stress prompts habit behavior in humans. J Neurosci.29, 7191-8.

3. They do not feel their culture is respected.
Long TB. (2012). Overview of teaching strategies for cultural competence. J Cult Divers.19, 102-8.

4. The tasks are too easy or too hard.
Merzenich MM, Nahum M, Van Vleet TM. (2013). Neuroplasticity: Introduction. Prog Brain Res. 207: xxi-xxvi.

5. They are not affirmed nor encouraged to take risks.
d’Ailly, H. (2003) Children’s autonomy and perceived control in learning: A model of motivation and achievement in Taiwan. Journal of Educational Psychology. 2003 Mar Vol 95(1) 84-96.

6. The feedback they should get is absent or useless.
Hattie, J.A., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77, 81-91.

Getting Started with Actionable Strategies

Relationship (Do you care, listen, support?)
Share something personal about yourself (to students as well as other staff) at least 1X/wk. Do 1 favor or show of empathy SO powerful, that the students remember it well. Connect for 2’ each day for 10 consecutive days with a student most “needing” a connection. Discover 3 things (other than a name) about one student a day, every day of the year.

Feeling of Control (decisions & choices)
Learning is done as either Compliance or Choice. Compliance is done because students feel like they have to, because the teacher says so, or they do it to stay out of trouble.

With Choice Learning, students work hard because they want to, it moves them towards their own goals, they feel good about it and they choose it. Give control (then “sell” the choices; who, when, where, how, etc.). Encourage input (1-on-1 time, side talks, suggestion box or ask for it!). Provide leadership (help groups, partners and team function better). Use students doing self-assessment for feeling of control.

Cultural Responsiveness (value each student’s personal history and culture)
Start noticing where there are differences. Use the moments of your annoyance or criticism as a chance to learn. Here are some examples you can learn from. It is a chance for you to learn about their world when: 1) students are late to class, 2) your students yell and swear, 3) students do not participate, 4) students do not make eye contact, 5) students do not use “politeness” words.

First, there is no secret. It is not a “to do list” for today’s class. It is a way of being. Second, start with listening, learning and giving respect. That’s the opposite of telling, being arrogant and demanding that you get respect from your students first. Third, ASK far more than you assume. Become a beginner to learn about others different from you.

Challenge level (worth the effort?)
Break learning tasks into smaller chunks of 3-9 minutes for a content chunk or skill. Give students control over speed of learning. Before moving on, ALWAYS do a quick check for understanding. If there is close to 100%, move on quickly. When numbers drop below 90%, listen and switch strategies. The sweet spot is: 1) being an ally, 2) the right speed and strategy with 3) the student having some control over when to move forward.

Appreciative Inquiry (affirming for risks)
Take what students are already doing that you like and: 1) appreciate and reinforce it, plus 2) now invite students to apply the same (effort, insights, strategy, attitude, etc.) to deepen the results. “I like how you put some of your personal life in the story. Can you add even more detail, so I can get a better idea of what you’re trying to say? It will strengthen your message. Thank you!” “Thanks for your answer. You seemed to calculate it quickly. Tell me how you came up with that, please.”

Smarter Feedback. Avoid the following: Rewards “Do this to get that (reward).” Punishment “Do that and here’s what will happen…” Non-specific praise like “Good job” is not helpful. Peer Praise is better, as in, “Turn to your neighbor and say, ‘That was dope!’”  

The best feedback answers the 3 big Qs. Where am I at? Where am I going? How do I get there?

One last thing; if you mess up and don’t have a great day, DO NOT beat yourself up over it. Do not make up an excuse as to why you are unable to “do” a certain item or process on any given day. Guilt is a terribly unproductive emotion. Forgive yourself and recommit to the next day. Do not expect perfection of yourself; expect constant effort.

Every day, do something. Every day, put one foot forward.

Tennis legend Arthur Ashe said, “Start where you are. Do what you can. Use what you have.” You can’t get any more profound (or useful) than that. So… you are about done reading. Go ahead and select the strategy to start NOW!

Congratulations! You’re on the way to a great day!

Your partner in learning,

Eric Jensen
CEO, Jensen Learning
Brain-Based Education


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