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September 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 1

Engaging Students: What I Learned Along the Way

An educator shares what she wishes someone had told her about students when she was a beginning teacher.

When I was a first-year teacher, I was concerned with survival. My attempts to control students led to many power struggles from which both the students and I emerged discouraged or defeated. These feelings were not conducive to teaching or learning.
I wish someone had told me then that knowing my students was as important as knowing my subject. I didn't realize until much later that to motivate and engage students, teachers must create a classroom environment in which every student comes to believe, “I count, I care, and I can.”
The best advice I could give to beginning teachers now is the secret of the fox in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince (1943): “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” What teachers need most to know about students is hidden; unless they develop a trusting relationship with their students, teachers will not have access to the knowledge they need either to solve classroom problems or to motivate students.

I Wish I Had Known ...

As a novice teacher, I didn't realize that a seemingly logical response to tardiness—detention—did not take into account students' reasons for being late, some of which were valid. If I had allowed students to explain why they were late before telling them to stay after school, I might have prevented hurt feelings and hostility. A 6th grader who hides from an 8th grade bully in the bathroom until the coast is clear shouldn't be treated the same as someone who chats too long with a friend in the hall.
I wish I had found out sooner that simply asking students to tell me their side of the story could make such a positive difference in their attitudes. When I tried to understand situations from their points of view, students were willing to consider them from my vantage point. These conversations opened the way for us to jointly resolve problems and did a great deal to build trust.
But, most of all, I wish someone had told me that understanding students' perspectives was the best way to foster engagement and learning. Like other novice teachers, I wasted a great deal of time searching for recipes to make learning more fun. Only much later did I find out that the most effective veteran teachers reflect on their classroom experience (Dodd 1994). Instead of thinking in terms of making learning fun (extrinsic motivation), they look for ways to make assignments and activities engaging (intrinsic motivation). Although they may express these ideas differently, effective teachers know that to become engaged, students must have some feelings of ownership—of the class or the task—and personal power—a belief that what they do will make a difference.

From the Student's Perspective

Because beginning teachers often focus on what they will do or require students to do, they often overlook some important principles about learning.
First, learning is personal and idiosyncratic. Thus, it helps to view students as individuals (Marina, Hector, and Scott) rather than as groups (Period 1 Class, Sophomore English). Consider that even when there is only one right answer, there are many ways students can misunderstand. Thus, teachers need to find out how students individually make sense of any lesson or explanation.
Second, every student behavior—from the most outrageous classroom outburst to the more common failure to do homework—is a way of trying to communicate something the student cannot express any other way or doesn't consciously understand. Punishing the behavior without learning its possible cause does nothing to solve a problem and, in fact, may intensify it. Because the student may interpret detention or a zero in the gradebook as additional evidence that the teacher is uncaring, he or she may become less inclined to do future assignments.
Third, teachers should never assume, because too often they can be wrong. Low grades on tests do not necessarily mean that students haven't studied. Some students may have been confused when the material was covered in class. Incomplete homework isn't always a sign that students don't care. A student may be too busy helping care for younger siblings to finish assignments. The student who sleeps in class or responds angrily to a teacher's question may be exhausted, ill, or unable to cope with personal difficulties.
By inviting students to share their feelings and perceptions, teachers can establish positive relationships with them and thus minimize classroom problems. But even more important, they will discover how to modify their teaching methods and personalize assignments in ways that engage students in learning.

Getting Students to Open Up

  • On the first day of class, give students a questionnaire to complete, or invite them to write you a letter about themselves. The sooner you learn something about your students, the better equipped you will be to build personal relationships and address their concerns. By knowing which students consider themselves math phobics, poor writers, or reluctant readers, you can find ways to make sure they have a chance to feel good about a small success right away.
  • Ask students who have not done the homework or who have come late to class to write a note explaining why. Establish this requirement on the first day of class, but don't present it as a punishment. Students should see these notes as an opportunity to communicate privately with the teacher. As trust is established, students will feel freer about sharing personal concerns that affect their classroom performance. Even if you can do nothing to solve a problem a student has at home, you may be able to suggest better ways to deal with it.
  • Ask students to write learning logs from time to time. Logs are especially useful at the end of a class in which new material has been introduced. For example, “Briefly summarize what you learned today, and note any questions you have.” Don't grade the logs; just read them quickly to note common problems to address in the next class, and list names of students who may need extra help. Taking the time to write a short comment or just draw a smiley face on each student's log before returning them also shows students that you care about them as people and want them to learn.The same kind of assignment can be added to a homework paper or as the last question on a test: “What did you find confusing about this assignment?” or “How do you feel you did on this test? What would have helped you do even better?”
  • Invite students to help you solve classroom problems, such as a lack of classroom participation or students' constantly interrupting one another. Even if you wish to discuss the issue with the students, having them write their ideas down first will make the discussion more productive. Although students may not suggest any workable solutions to the problem, their comments can often lead to a strategy for solving the problem. Perhaps even more important, students will feel empowered.Writing works because every student gets to share what he or she thinks, misunderstands, or needs to know. Teachers who depend on students to say aloud what they don't understand may be fooled into thinking that everything is okay when there are no questions. Many students, however, are reluctant to speak up in front of their peers for fear of looking foolish. Unfortunately, teachers don't have time for individual conversations with each student, but writing can be an invaluable substitute.

How to Personalize Assignments

All of the information teachers gather from students will be of little use if students do not have any opportunity to personalize their learning. While the idea of having students doing a variety of things at the same time may appear chaotic, there are some easy ways to try out this approach to see how it works.
  • Give students some choice of topics for research, books for reading, and planning methods for projects or papers (outlining, webbing, or focused free writing).
  • Let students prepare a lesson and teach their classmates. (If teachers want students to be exposed to several aspects of the Civil War or three different novels, small groups of students learn about one aspect of the war or one of the novels in depth and the others in less detail. This approach is one way of solving the depth vs. coverage dilemma all teachers wrestle with.)
  • Encourage students who understand a concept to help those who don't understand. This is a productive way of channeling students' desire to be social.
  • Allow students to choose how to demonstrate their understanding. (One student might draw the solution to a math problem or the plot in a novel; another might write about it; someone else might videotape a real-life connection for it.)
  • Give students permission occasionally to work on homework or routine assignments together. They can learn from one another, and a test will show what each has learned.

Reflection Is the Key

Trying out a practice offers fertile ground for reflection even if the trial fails. As teachers look for new ways to engage students in learning, they are likely to find that the search itself will re-energize their teaching.
Recipes are useful for beginners who haven't yet had time to analyze how and why students engage in learning, but reflection is the key to understanding why some recipes work better than others. That understanding depends on knowing more about students' perceptions. As teachers learn more about how students think and feel, they will be able to create classes where students have fun because they are engaged in learning in diverse, purposeful, and meaningful ways.

de Saint-Exupéry, A. (1943). The Little Prince. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Dodd, A. W. (1994). “Learning to Read the Classroom: The Stages Leading to Teacher Self-Actualization.” Northwords 4: 13–26.

Anne Wescott Dodd has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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