15 Student Engagement Strategies to Increase Learning

Engaging students at every age requires intentionality but the strategies don’t need to be complex. They can (and should) even be fun! Here are 15 classroom engagement strategies that will help increase whole class commitment and interaction with your curriculum. 

Connect lessons to real life

  1. Real-World Writing - Every subject area can utilize real-world writing skills like writing a good email, a well-worded letter to a company, or even how to use a journal to process a question. Real-world applications increase engagement because students how this information might be used in everyday life.
  2. Problem Solving - Ask students to think about the question, “what problem does this solve?” Have them answer it before, during, and after a unit of study. Finding the real-life application of concepts helps students of all ages see the “why” in their learning and keeps them engaged.
  3. Real-Life Lineup - Creating a “class lineup” is a great way to engage learners from the first day and learn something about them at the same time. Challenge students to line up along a wall, without talking, in order with a designated number or letter. Give them one minute to work together to line up, for example, alphabetically by the first letter of their last name or by the number of their birth month. As they complete the exercise, you can observe which students stay engaged, which helps others, and who seems to need more help.

Teach with color

  1. Rainbow Reflections - Assign one of four colors of sticky notes. Students can use color to represent the type of response they are giving to the material, whether they are asking a question, making a personal connection, finding new vocabulary words, or analyzing an author’s purpose. Have students get in groups and share, making sure all the colors are represented.
  2. Red/Green Cards - Give every student a set of laminated red and green cards at the beginning of the year to keep on hand (and have extras ready for when they get lost). This is an easy way to gauge if students are ready to move forward or if someone needs to stop and ask a question. Ask them to do a quick vote after you’ve taught a new concept. You can even have them put their heads down before they hold up the card to save face for those who might otherwise be embarrassed to admit they are stuck. Add in a yellow card and you can ask for opinions: agree, disagree, and need more information.

Get moving

  1. Role Playing - Assign students a role and they have them role play and work together to solve the problem. For example, you could assign students bones of the body and have them work to put themselves together by introducing themselves to each other, sharing their role in the function of, say, the arm and getting lined up correctly. For younger students, assign them the roles of characters in a favorite book and have them act out a scene from the story.
  2. Move and Talk - The simple act of standing up and walking to another part of the classroom to read a passage with a small group or discuss a question together can increase engagement. Display articles and illustrations related to your content area and do a gallery walk, having students jot down observations as they go.
  3. Scavenger Hunt - Post ten “stations” of colored paper around the room.  Each paper has an answer at the top of the page and a new problem to solve at the bottom of the page. Have students take scratch paper with them to keep track of answers. Give each student an initial problem to solve (give students different starting problems or stagger start times so stations don't get overcrowded). They search the stations to find the correct answer for their initial problem on the top half of the page. Once they find that matching answer, they solve the new problem that's on the bottom half and search for that answer on the top half of another station. If they don’t see the answer on the top of another station, they need to rethink their answer. They are finished when they go back to the station where they started and complete the “hunt.” 

Game on

  1. Two Truths and a Lie - You may have played this as a party game, but how about using it to actively engage your learners? Ask students to select a word from a vocabulary or concept list and write down three statements about the word (challenge them to think about related words, parts of speech, etc.) One of the statements should be a lie. The goal is to stump their table partners or other small groups to figure out which is the untruth about the concept or vocabulary word.
  2. Head’s Up Seven Up - Play this simple childhood game but assign the seven people to be “it” and play the role of putting down thumbs of other students. Those seven students will have a vocabulary word assigned to them. The rest of the kids put their heads down and thumbs up on their desks. The “it” students then walk around the room and select students by putting their thumbs down. When students guess who put their thumb down, they guess the person by naming their assigned vocabulary word but also must give the definition of the word. If they get it right, they change places with that person and are assigned a new vocabulary word to keep the game interesting. As an option, you can let students have their vocabulary sheet out or open notes as a help. 

Level up note-taking 

  1. Cornell Notes - The Cornell Note-Taking System was originally developed by Cornell education professor, Walter Pauk and allows not just note-taking, but allocates a place on the student’s page for writing down questions and writing a summary to help synthesize what they’ve just learned. Students might even find it fun to draw pictures in the cue section in order to create visuals that summarize the information.
  2. Listening Notes - With this strategy, students are challenged to just listen and when the teacher pauses, students write down everything they remember (a brain dump of sorts). At different intervals, students share with a partner and write down one thing they learned from their partner that they didn’t have in their original notes.
  3. Exit Notes - Number students off and give them a sticky note to write their number on. At the end of class, ask students to write something new they’ve learned or a question they still have on the sticky note and leave it on a poster board with numbered squares designated for their exit note.
  4. Cut and Paste - Not just for preschool anymore! Give students, for example, a text or series of quotes or related illustrations and allow them to cut and paste according to different categories or chronological order. This engages their brain and their scissors!
  5. Pause, Star, Rank - This technique is one of many suggested in an amazing engagement resource Total Participation Techniques by Himmele and Himmele. In this strategy, students stop and look at their notes or a text, star anything they feel is important, then rank their top three starred concepts.  Students can then share in a small group or write it on the whiteboard, allowing them to see connections between their learning and helping teachers gauge if key concepts are being grasped.   
Student engagement happens best when a class routine is balanced with creative learning activities that keep students interested and anticipating what’s next. Incorporating a few of these strategies will help you create a classroom where students know their participation is welcomed and valued.

Julie David is a freelance writer, educator, and worship pastor's wife from the Midwest who likes warm hugs.