The rules of engagement: Ways of increasing student focus through tasks and activities

No matter what you teach, student engagement is a major challenge in every classroom. Learning increases when students are engaged in ways that appeal to them, and everything goes more smoothly for teachers and learners alike when everyone is focused, working on-task and motivated to succeed in your class. So how can we ensure that our students stay highly engaged in our classes? That depends on how we can reach our learners’ passions, activate their curiosity and appeal to their senses. This article will present some different types of engagement, and suggest some ways of targeting these in our learners for maximum impact on our teaching.

What is the difference between motivation and engagement?

First, we need to differentiate between motivation and engagement. Often used interchangeably, these are in fact quite different ideas. Motivation refers to the broad purpose that a student has for studying. Motivation can come from inside the student, from interest or personal goals, or from outside the student, for example to pass an exam and get to university, to gain a promotion or simply to avoid punishment from parents. Despite what we would like to think as teachers, these two types of motivation are out of our control. We cannot directly provide either intrinsic (internal) motivation, or extrinsic (external) motivation for our students - that is up to them and their choices about what is important to their lives.


However, what a teacher can do is help to engage students in the day-to-day activity that they take part in. Student engagement refers to the level of focus, processing and performance evidenced by different types of classroom activity, and facilitated by different methodologies, routines and techniques used by a teacher. Some activity types are more likely to lead to periods of focused, productive performance with certain students as compared to others. Another group of students, however, might respond very differently to the same activity. This shows that engagement varies from group to group, and from individual to individual.


The contrast between motivation and engagement can be shown by considering a student who loves English, wants dearly to visit the UK and find out more about the culture there, and feels highly motivated to learn the language to a high level. However, in class, his teacher relies on dictation activities from outdated textbooks which require very passive processing from students. In class, he (along with most of the rest of the group) is bored. In this situation, the student’s motivation is high despite his engagement levels being low.

How can teachers know what works for their students?

As with motivation, there are many different ways in which students can be engaged (or not) during study activity. This depends on the individual and their learning preferences. The term learning preferences evolved from the more limited and limiting idea of learning styles (historically classed as visual, audio and kinaesthetic). A learner’s preferred way of doing things, however, can originate from any area of their lives, experience, tastes, cultural background, assumptions about education, and many more personal characteristics. The first step to engaging students deeply in what you are teaching is to find out what makes them tick.


When you first meet a group of learners, set yourself the purpose of finding out something which sparks each member of the group. If you need to set them a writing task, have them talk about their favourite thing / sport / game / hobby… Even this can inform you of how they like to work, play and interact. Try out some different activity types: card games, movement-based activities, group projects, film and music… and see which modes of delivery initiate more participation in the group. Use paper-based materials in some lessons, and remove physical resources in another. Only by using a range of approaches can we find out what our students respond best to. After a couple of weeks of this, you will have a much better idea of how to proceed in a way that grabs your students’ attention.


How can teachers engage their students in different ways?


Any learning is a cognitive process, so it follows that flexing the brains of our students will have benefits to their development. Cognitive engagement is a key aspect of any deep learning experience, and there are ways of making thinking more fun, without having to address dry or difficult questions, and without students necessarily knowing that they are being challenged in this way.


Taking an inductive approach to your delivery is one way of integrating cognitive activity into lessons. Rather than explaining the concepts you are teaching directly, give students an incomplete picture of what you are teaching, and ask them to fill in the gaps by predicting content or suggesting ideas which might be relevant to the topic you are presenting. A short period of prediction and suggestion according to criteria can get students thinking more deeply about what you teach, and then they can confirm their ideas once you present the content later in the lesson.


Inductive teaching is all about getting students making deductions based on pieces of information, then confirming or rejecting what they suggested in light of further input. This is a healthy academic habit to get into, and something which will increase their critical thinking skills as they learn.


Cognitive activities for greater engagement


Encouraging Higher-Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) is key to cognitive engagement, and the majority of people enjoy solving problems, puzzles and brainteasers; it’s what our brains have successfully (so far) evolved to do, so as a way of engaging your learners’ (human) brains, these are useful activity types for the classroom.


Reading texts can be turned into puzzles easily by finding ‘transition points’ such as linking words (however, nevertheless, consequently, for example, etc.) and cutting the text up by chopping sections before these important markers. Students are given cut-up paragraphs, each of which start with a linking word, and they have to put the text back together based on the relationship between the information which appears before and after each of these markers. This ‘jigsaw reading’ activity can be used in any subject area which uses text as a teaching tool, and can be made more communicative (for students who enjoy speaking and sharing their ideas) by giving different sections to different students and asking them to come together to find the correct order of information.


A writing task can be cognitively boosted in a similar way. Take an essay question and ask each student to write an introduction, stating their idea, opinion, or the points they want to mention in answer to the prompt (a subjective essay topic such as an argumentative or reasoning essay works best for this). Each student finishes their introduction and passes it to the student on their left, continuing from the point where their predecessor left off. This requires students to think from the point of view of another opinion, set of points or arguments, thus prompting them to work with the topic more deeply to continue from the introduction writer’s thesis. Again, this technique can be used in any subject discipline that requires written essays on a range of topics, and increases mindfulness of others’ approaches to a given topic.


Visual engagement

When asked the question ‘How do you learn best?’, most people would reply that they are ‘visual learners’, and work best with things they can see, watch or process by looking closely. This is reflected by the sheer amount of the human brain which is taken up by processing visual input, and the language we use to communicate knowledge and understanding (I see / do you see what I mean / Let’s look at this topic more closely…). It follows that visual stimulus is an effective tool for engagement. When thinking about how to grab students’ attention in a specific topic area, think about how that content can be represented visually. Do you know of a painting, cartoon strip, video clip, movie scene or music video which addresses this topic? The visual arts are incredibly diverse, so it is likely that whatever you are teaching, there is a visual cue to access it easily.

Some visual prompts which can also engage the minds of learners include: prediction tasks, where the teacher plays the first part of a video clip, presses pause and asks students to predict what will happen next. If you’re teaching about the cold war, a 2-minute clip from the Simpsons comes to mind (Itchy and Scratchy having a high-speed arms race ending in world destruction); if you are teaching fashion design, a montage of Madonna videos would work well. Both of these can be paused and predicted, and during the pause it is likely that a long list of topic-appropriate language and concepts will emerge, leading into deeper discussion and discovery around the topic you are teaching.

Personalised engagement

Another feature of human psychology which can be harnessed for engagement into learning is our obsession with self. We naturally like to talk about ourselves, and most people find it easier to talk about topics which we love and know about, as compared to new and unfamiliar ideas. We can exploit this for student output by stepping back and getting less prescriptive with our questions. Asking students to give a presentation, produce a project poster or write an essay about an aspect of the content you teach which is relevant to them, which they love, hate or dream of, is more likely to generate deeper engagement, reflection on what is being learnt and therefore more informed output as a result.


For example, think about the following questions, designed for an assessment task in the subject area of geography:

1) What are the main threats for farmers living in the Sahel Zone of Africa. Outline the environmental and economic problems and the effects on population in the region

2) Imagine you are a cattle herder OR arable farmer in the Sahel Zone of Africa. What are the main aspects of the local environment and economy that worry you and other farmers in the area, and what can you see for your future as a result?


Although the objective topic focus of question 1) may be more authentic to the type of prompt found on high-school assessments, the more empathetic, personalised focus of question 2) may be more helpful for students to engage with the issues which are the topic of both questions. Reformulating tasks to have personal impact can harness the thoughts and feelings of students as they work through challenging concepts and develop their view of the content you teach.


In summary, cognitive, visual and personalised engagement are just three ways of grabbing our students’ interest, and it all depends on what makes your learners tick, and whether you take that into account when you plan how to teach. However we plan to deliver what we teach, the greater the chances of stimulating the preferences of our learners, the greater will be the potential for our learners to grab what we teach with both hands, consider it more deeply and give us more in return.


Tom Garside is the founder of Language Point Teacher Education Ltd., the first training provider to be validated to deliver a blended Trinity CertTESOL in existing schools and centres as a ‘floating’ provider.


If you are interested to know more about hosting a blended CertTESOL or to host a professional development project at your centre, contact Tom on tom.garside@languagepointtraining.com, or go to www.languagepointtraining.com to find out more about the sustainable training activity that we lead in centres around the world.

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