Four Strategies that Foster Student Engagement

November 19, 2020 Jean Sharp, Chief Academic Officer By Jean Sharp, Chief Academic Officer
A sixth-grade girl works on a project alone in history class

Keeping students engaged in learning has proven to be one of the biggest challenges schools face in this season of virtual learning. As districts moved to remote learning at scale in the spring and as they continue to respond to local infection rates with remote learning in the fall, concerns over how to keep students engaged in online learning have risen.   

We’ve come to understand that there are reasons—some beyond our students’ control---that impact engagement in learning:  access to devices and connectivity, a workspace in the home to connect and complete assignments, the responsibility to care for siblings while adults are working, the need to get a job to help the family financially, are just some of those very real factors.

There are students who are simply disengaged with learning and struggle with attendance in ordinary times.  But, instead of assuming that students who are disengaged don’t want to learn, we need to ask, “What is preventing students from engaging in learning and what we do to help them reengage?”


1) Invest in building relationships.

Back in March, Tyrone Howard, an education professor at UCLA said that the relationships teachers have with students before school closures could affect whether some students show up for remote learning. Indeed, we have seen this play out.  Teachers who had strong relationships with their students and families were best able to make the transition to online learning. 

As the new school year began with students now promoted to the next grade, it became more important than ever for teachers to invest in building relationships with their students.

Teachers placed priority on connections before curriculum and they consistently designed opportunities to get to know their students and for their students to get to know them.  It all begins with relationships. 


2) Listen more and talk less.

Recently, Angela Duckworth was asked, “What can we do to make sure our students are learning?”  Her answer was simple, “Listen more and talk less.”  In a synchronous online learning environment where students move from class to class through Google Meet or Zoom, they spend hours each day on mute. 

If we start asking our students authentic questions, questions that begin with “why” and “how”, questions to which there is no single, simple answer, we provide the opportunity for them to think, to express themselves, and to actively engage in learning.  


3) Eliminate assumptions.

Our students are consumers of technology, but we should not assume they know how to use the tools for learning.  If we ask our students, “Do you know how to join a class meeting on Zoom?”, they are likely to offer every non-verbal indication that they understand what to do and how to do it, when in reality they don’t. 

And, if we make the assumption that they can figure it out, many students will simply be confused.  Instead, adopt the “Show me” mantra. In other words, when you ask your students if they know how to join a class meeting on Zoom, let them know there is a link to a Zoom meeting on our class page and direct them to click on the link and join our meeting now.  Practice when you are together so students will know what to do and how to do it when you are apart.  This “Show me” mantra will help build their confidence and eliminate assumptions.


4) Communicate expectations and make learning matter.

Due to the rapid transition to emergency remote learning in the spring and the reality that equity of access issues prevented some students from attending class or handing in assignments, many districts moved to a no grading policy. 

Without the incentive for showing up, however, many students stopped doing the work.  Teachers now find themselves resetting expectations for learning. So, let me ask you:

  • Do you expect students to participate in class, and are you looking for evidence each day that they have logged on?
  • Are you posting assignments that you expect students to complete, and are you confirming that they have completed the work?
  • Are you covering new content, and do you expect to hold students responsible for learning it?

The role of school is to foster student learning.  Reestablish expectations that lead to the behaviors you expect to see in your students.  We must make learning matter.




About the author: Jean Sharp has more than 25 years of leadership and management experience in the education and software publishing industries. Her expertise includes product development, curriculum strategy, instructional design and development, project management, and effective implementations for digital learning solutions. Among her credits are numerous award-winning educational software products published for both school and consumer markets. Jean currently serves as the chief academic officer at Apex Learning.


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