What does it take to engage all students? How feasible is it for a teacher to have a classroom full of diverse students all actively engaged and paying undivided attention? As a prior high school teacher, my inclination is to say that it can be done—but it takes lots of planning. Here are three strategies that I found successful in engaging students as a mathematics and physics teacher at Lawrence High School (through MATCH Education) and UMass Boston Upward Bound, respectively.

First, make the content relevant to students’ lives. Whether working with small groups of three to four students or teaching a full class, I quickly realized that students love to learn about things that relate to their own lives. For example, instead of giving my students a math word problem about an auditor in New York trying to check a firm’s financial statements, I replaced those details with scenarios that would have more relevance to my students. As many of them loved baseball, I would tweak obscure word problems to reflect innings, number of pitches, and runs to better engage my students. As another example, at Lawrence High, many students I worked with were from the Dominican Republic and had limited English proficiency. Although I was required to teach my classes in English, I often translated and described key math concepts in Spanish to more effectively engage my students. Being able to communicate with students in a language or dialect they are familiar with, and convert obscure math problems to topics of greater interest to them, not only lowered disengagement but also made my students feel appreciated and valued.

Second, put the student in the role of teacher. At MATCH, we read Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, and one of the book’s techniques the organization emphasized was the teacher-to-student speaking ratio. Teachers were not encouraged to speak more than 25 percent of the time to encourage student participation. I found that all of my students loved to explain concepts to their peers, and actively involving them in class discussions kept them from zoning out. Apart from asking students to lead discussions or explain their math solution to their peers, I often incorporated technology and mathematics manipulatives (such as triangles, squares, and cubes) to help students visualize surface areas or volumes of objects. While student-led teaching may not work with classes of all sizes, I personally found it very effective for small-to-medium sized groups of students and classes.

Third, foster a positiveyet challenginglearning environment. Some teachers love to decorate their classrooms with inspirational quotes and college memorabilia. Others depend on their positive energy and nature to create a welcoming and positive environment for students. Both can help make students feel safer and supported in class. Furthermore, teachers should promote various students’ interests and cultural perspectives through simple acts such as learning their language and culture, chatting with them about their extra-curricular interests, or just showing concern for their wellbeing. All students must feel that they belong before they can engage critically. To truly engage students critically, teachers must provide challenging material and content to students. When I was teaching, I quickly learned that high achieving students often finish their tasks faster than other students. In order to keep them actively engaged and thinking, I started preparing extra “challenging questions” which they could attempt after finishing their original assignment. Students began to compete in order to see who will get to the challenging questions first. In my experience, a competitive learning environment is a positive learning environment and can produce great results.

Based on my own experience in the classroom, I believe there’s much educators, school administrators, and policymakers can do to help create engaging classroom content; encourage effective or even untraditional delivery methods; and foster positive learning environments. Research has consistently shown that high student engagement leads to improved learning. For more on how high school students are engaged in their schools, check out our latest report, What Teens Want From Their Schools: A National Survey of High School Student Engagement.

Chris Yaluma is a research intern at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in education policy at Ohio State University. He has a Masters’ degree in transformative education with a concentration in leadership, policy, and research from Miami University, OH. Chris graduated with a physics degree from Berea College and spent two years teaching and tutoring high school math and physics in Boston…
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