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Tips for Increasing Student Engagement and Motivation

I'll never forget my first year teaching (for a lot of reasons!).  I was fretting over my first formal observation when someone joked about them all being dog and pony shows anyway.  I didn't really understand what she was saying until I realized that I was planning a far more extraordinary lesson for my observation than what I would normally do.  In that moment, I really stopped and thought about what I was doing on a daily basis.  Why wasn't my typical day's lesson enough?  I did a lot of soul searching, and finally decided that I wanted most days to be “worthy” of a formal observation.  I wanted to plan with purpose every day and make that dog and pony show not such a show– I wanted it to be real.  That's when I became truly committed to increasing student engagement and motivation in my classroom.

These strategies, tips, and resources for student engagement are a must to increase student engagement and motivation in upper elementary.

Student Engagement: What Does It Really Mean?

You might be familiar with Phillip Schlechty's five levels of engagement.  These show up in a lot of teacher preparation programs, and his research has delineated five specific levels and engagement and what you can expect from them.  The five levels of engagement are…

  • Engagement
  • Strategic Compliance
  • Ritual Compliance
  • Retreatism
  • Rebellion

THIS PDF does a great job of outlining the different levels, and is a must-read as you are considering planning your lessons.

Student engagement is a widely talked about topic, but how can we increase it? It’s a lot to expect our students to devote their full attention to school for eight hours straight, and they naturally lose focus at times, but there are strategies we can use to help. It’s also important to remember that engagement also involves interest, curiosity, and motivation. 

Motivation: How are students motivated to learn?

Speaking of motivation… We can have the most engaging content or lesson in the world, but with a group of unmotivated students, it may be lost on them. So, how do we motivate students to learn? First, we must understand the ways in which students are motivated and second, implement strategies for increasing motivation within our classrooms. 

There are two main ways that students can feel a sense of motivation:  Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from within – it does not require any outside factors to motivate and is a personal drive from within our students.  Some students come with this type of motivation naturally, and with others (many others), it must be cultivated. Opposite intrinsic motivation is extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation involves some type of reward or return for completing work. I believe it’s important to create a healthy balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for students. You can read more about my philosophy about and how I use rewards in my classroom here.

Here are my best tips for creating an engaged classroom full of motivated students, from the very beginning of the school year.

Tip #1: Create Relationships with Your Students

I know I won't be the first educator telling you this! This is probably the number one piece of advice given to teachers when it comes to behavior and student engagement. While relationships with students isn’t going to solve every problem, it’s a great foundation.

As Rita Pierson says, “Kids can’t learn from teachers they don’t like.” At the beginning of the year, and throughout the school year, it’s important to carve out time for relationship building. 

  • Personally, I have always found morning meetings to be essential relationship building in my classroom. Here’s a blog post about how I run my morning meetings, but essentially this is a time for us to come together and start our day on a positive note. One key aspect to our morning meeting is the greeting. I never skip this part of the meeting, no matter how hectic the day is! 
  • Our morning meetings are also a place where we discuss and share. Sometimes academic content is incorporated into our meeting, and other days we just discuss why double chocolate chunk ice cream is the best ice cream! It leads to a lot of fun, and helps me get to know them as people.
  • Angela Watson shared another strategy for relationship building. On her blog, she wrote about the 2 x 10 strategy. That means spending two minutes a day for ten days in a row talking to at-risk students. Think about those students who seem disengaged in class or are struggling with behavior. Through this strategy, you are able to build a connection with students.
  • Recently, my students have developed a love for acrylic stickers (for water bottles, notebooks, etc.) I wanted to find a way to tap into that extrinsic reward they were all craving, so I implemented success stickers. You can read about my success sticker procedures, but in short, it requires students to come chat with me for a minute each week and tell me a success. It’s an AMAZING relationship builder.
  • Setting clear expectations helps students understand what to expect each day and know how they are expected to do those things.Setting clear expectations is key to nailing down classroom management. When students know the parameters of their limits and what's expected of them, they will rise to meet them. So set ‘em… set ‘em high…and hold your students accountable.
  • Showing your students the same level of respect you expect from them is crucial to building a strong relationship with them. By being mindful of how you are speaking to them and taking the time to teach them from their mistakes AND acknowledge your own mistakes shows them that you care deeply about their success.
  • Be relatable. No, this doesn’t mean you have to get up in front of your class and do the latest TikTok dance! Let students know WHO you are – share with them funny little tidbits about your family, your dog, and your interests (Yes, yes, my students ALL know how I feel about the Titanic!). Build trust with them and it will do wonders in breaking down barriers that can hinder learning. If students enjoy being in your classroom and feel like they are part of a safe classroom family, they will want to learn!

Student engagement and motivation increases and negative behavior decreases with stronger relationships because we treat people we like and know differently than complete strangers. So let students know you, and get to know them too.

Tip #2: Student Choice

This is another popular teacher tool for increasing student engagement and motivation. I have found my students are much more focused and enjoy their time in class when they get a choice. In fact, sometimes I am even surprised by the assignments they choose!

There are lots of ways you can incorporate student choice into the classroom. My first suggestion is choice boards. These are super easy to create. You can download the free choice boards I have for Vocabulary and Writing and Novel Studies to get an idea. Essentially, you create a chart and fill in each box with a different activity students’ can complete.

The idea is that every option on the choice board challenges and pushes students' thinking, but students do not need to complete each activity to demonstrate their knowledge.

Another way to promote student choice is through how you ask students to display their knowledge. For example, I might want students to create a plot map for a recent book we read. I can give the option to do it digitally, fill out a worksheet, or create a poster to map it out. This way, all students are demonstrating the skill I want them to practice, but the way in which they demonstrate it differs.

Lastly, give freedom and flexibility where you can in the classroom. This might be allowing them to choose books for literature circles or book clubs, letting them select their unique writing topics, allowing them to work in a location of their choice, or giving students free reign with the topic of their research project. As long as students are working within the parameters that you have set (a fiction book or research on a national monument), then they are still demonstrating the knowledge you want them to have.

Plan for time to check-in with students (as groups or individually), set class goals (today you will have XYZ done), and sign off on items periodically (when you finish two assignments on your choice board, I will initial it).

By allowing students to have choice, we increase engagement because we allow them to follow their own interests and curiosities. This also promotes student motivation. Let’s be real – are you more motivated to do something you have to do, or something you want to?

Tip #3: Learning Styles

Another way to increase student engagement and motivation is by incorporating various learning styles into your classroom. If you’ve heard that learning styles aren’t real or accurate, that’s because they have been used incorrectly for a long time. There isn’t one way that a student learns information.

Rather, research about learning styles help us see the variety of ways information can be presented to students. By presenting information in various formats, we make things more engaging and increase the likelihood that students will retain the information.

For example, let’s think about a multiplication lesson. You may demonstrate a problem on the board and model how you solve it (visual and auditory). Then you can have students explain a problem to their shoulder partner (social and verbal). Lastly, students might move around the room and solve problems (kinesthetic). Students need these different learning styles to fully process information. Additionally, it increases engagement because students aren’t doing only one activity, such as listening or moving, the entire class.

Of course students may favor one type of learning over the other, and it never hurts to know this information. One thing I like to do at the beginning of the year is have my students fill out an interest survey. You can do this in any content area, but I have a free student interest survey for math.

By getting to know your students interests, you can utilize activities and projects that your students enjoy most, and we know student interest and choice leads to higher motivation! For instance, some students may prefer working digitally, while others may like standard worksheets. Some students may need silence when they work, others are okay with some background noise or music.

Knowing what students enjoy and the type of environment they need to be successful is critical. Also, it shows students that you care when you ask them what they enjoy.

Tip #4: Expect the Unexpected

Years ago, I went to The Ron Clark Academy. During one of the sessions, one of the presenters told us to make sure our students never knew EXACTLY what to expect each day. Now, that doesn’t mean we should lack routine or make our classrooms uncomfortably different from day to day. It means that we should throw in at least one unexpected, different, and super engaging activity into our day. It doesn’t have to be something incredibly intricate! 

The unexpected could be something as simple as

The unexpected might be something slightly more intricate, like…

Tip #5: Setting Goals

Lastly, setting goals with students can help increase student engagement and motivation. The sweet spot is to make sure the goal challenges and pushes students, not frustrates and deters them. In order to hit that sweet spot, goals should be individualized for students and created by students.

Setting goals is where motivation and relationships can intersect. Consider setting aside time each quarter to meet with students individually and set goals for various content areas. This gives you time to check in with students, and also helps them set reasonable goals that will inspire them.

While rewarding students who meet a goal is great, it can leave other students feeling defeated when they have worked hard and don't quite make it. Instead of rewarding students for meeting goals, I would suggest providing positive affirmation in your individual conferences. And for those who didn’t meet the goal? Celebrate the little wins along the way!

Ask any teacher, and I’m sure they’d tell you student engagement and motivation is a big deal to them. We know our students are most successful when they are invested and passionate about their learning.

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