Assessing Student Engagement Strategies? Give Your Students a Say

Assessing Student Engagement Strategies? Give Your Students a Say

Student engagement benefits students in multiple ways. This is no longer debatable as numerous studies including this one have proven. The only question that educators are grappling with now is how to get authentic student engagement. While much has been written on student engagement methods, one stands out: Give students a say.
And this makes complete sense.
In an article from MindShift which is part of KQED and NPR, Zac Malamed said, “Students want to achieve in school. They want to find purpose being in school. They want to discover their talents. Without students having a voice, we cannot collectively ensure that this will all happen for every student.”
Students want to be participants in the learning process rather than recipients.
Student engagement can come in the form of class direction and participation in the classroom. While the amount of say and how it is rolled out will vary based on many factors, putting the onus on them increases student engagement.
An Edutopia article notes there are multiple reasons to elevate or increase student voice including, “The amount of talk that students do is correlated with their achievement.” It also creates an active classroom which many studies including this one from Harvard leads to an atmosphere where students learn more.
Engaging students improves the learning process. And allowing every student a say in the process is the key.

Goals of the Modern Classroom

Today’s students are not interested in sitting back while a teacher drones on – their curiosity and excitement deadened. Student engagement strategies that induce passiveness such as chalk and talk (or the technological equivalent)  should be limited in today’s academic institutions.
Just like chalk and talk is passe, so is having a classroom that is excessively teacher-oriented. In such a scenario, students are expected to follow a rigid list of expectations.  This can easily lead to an adversarial relationship between teacher and student. Teachers are regularly put in a position of having to be classroom enforcers. Class strategies are limited as discipline takes on an elevated level of importance.
In addition, students may gain little in such a class other than the ability to follow instructions. While this is an important skill, if it’s the only one the students leave a class with, they have lost out.
In order to give students the best opportunity to succeed in today’s professional world, schools need to employ strategies that help students to develop critical thinking skills.
According to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers
There are more real-world benefits for students beyond school and work that come with critical thinking skills. Scientific American< describes critical thinking as “a collection of cognitive skills that allow us to think rationally in a goal-orientated fashion and a disposition to use those skills when appropriate.” They also note it “predicts a wide range of life events” and studies “have found that critical thinkers experience fewer bad things in life.”
How can students be expected to think critically if they are in a classroom with little student engagement?  A teacher’s toolbox must include strategies that empower students to be part of the process and encourage them to think about their future goals.
Professor and author Russell Quaglia said to MindShift, “that the student voice in education is ‘the elephant in the room’—the missing piece to the puzzle of how to reform schools.” Although Quaglia notes school reform as the end goal, student engagement is clearly part of reform.
Further, education authors, Arthur Chickering and Zelda Gamson said “students do not learn much just by sitting in class listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.”
There are many strategies to motivate and engage students, but it starts with letting them have some say in the process. Further, it helps students develop other important skills that will positively impact them throughout their lives.

Engage Students: The Benefits of Good Student / Teacher Relationships

Just as employees are more motivated to work at a job where their opinions and concerns are appreciated and respected by management, students feel a desire for their effort to be appreciated by their teachers.
A successful learning process requires many elements to be in place in the classroom including a positive relationship between teacher and student. Part of developing this relationship and, ultimately motivating students, is giving students a say.
Yet some teachers may be reluctant to offer students more say in the learning process and other classroom management activities. After all, with a curriculum in place that’s worked, it can be challenging to pave the way in another direction.
And such a scenario may be easier in the short run, yet less effective in the long run. Engaging the students in the process makes for a more productive classroom and can improve the teacher-student relationship. Plus, it does not mean a teacher has any less authority in the classroom.
Consider this quote by Earl Nightingale as a way to view a teacher sharing say. “A candle is not diminished by giving another candle light.” By considering what students feel and giving them a say, teachers are not giving up their role, but altering it. They still need to act as arbiters and guide in the classroom.
Another way to view the teacher-student relationship is through a real-world lens. In the classroom, teachers and students are partners. And just like in the real world, for a partnership to work and thrive, each partner needs to have a say.
Finally, top-down rulings not only impact learning and achievement but also impact the teacher-student relationship. In some systems, teachers themselves are simply following instructions from the administration and have little opportunity to adjust.
“…he [Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education] speculated that when teachers are enforcers of rules made by others—and they might not agree with—it may erode their relationship with students,” said to EducationWeek. “When teachers have discretion and authority, they can tailor discipline to individual students.”
In a study that Ingersoll wrote for the New Teacher Center’s Teaching, Empowering, Leading, and Learning based on a survey, a belief by teacher-empowerment advocates was supported: “Teachers are closest to students and know what students need to improve.”

Motivating Students

Ever have one of those days where you just lack the drive? You’re not sick or even all that tired. Something is just missing, and you can’t put your finger on it.  One word that may summarize the feeling is a loss in motivation. Without it, most of us would see our accomplishments plummet.
If the question “What’s the most difficult part of being a classroom educator?” came up on the game show Family Feud, many possible answers could be number one. An answer that many educators and those familiar with the challenges of teaching students would surely put near the top is motivation. How can teachers engage students in the classroom so that they are motivated?
Why is it so important to motivate students? A motivated student is much easier to teach than a disinterested student. “Motivation is … an important predictor of learning and achievement,” says  FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. “Students who are more motivated to learn persist longer, produce higher quality effort, learn more deeply, and perform better in classes and on standardized tests.”
A Gallup poll of students in grade levels 5-12 showed that motivation declined as students move into high school. And they found just 53% of students as engaged while nearly one-fifth (19%) are actively disengaged. This shockingly low number screams for educators to reevaluate the education process and demands they alter their strategy, particularly for middle school and high school students.
Once again, the answer to the engagement question is a classroom that allows students some say. By partnering with students, they feel a sense of ownership of the classroom and their learning. School is not just another place where they are told what to do but it’s a place where their opinion is valued and considered.
A classroom that encourages students to speak freely is where more authentic learning will take place. Real world concerns and applications that relate to the students and current lives and their future will take center stage in the class. By infusing such topics and real-life applications into a class based on what students themselves say they want, engagement, as well as motivation, is bound to increase.
When this happens, many of the typical student excuses for their disinterest in school– does this matter, I don’t care, etc, – fall by the wayside.  And engagement and learning rise.
And the way to chart that path forward in the classroom is to ask students what matters to them. Get the students talking, and then listen to what they have to say. Engage students and the motivation will follow.
There are many student engagement strategies. However, it all starts with giving students a say in the process, asking and considering their opinions, and having a student-centered class. This motivates students and leads them to learn more and develop skills that will truly benefit them in the real world.

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