6 Authentic Ways to Increase Learner Engagement in Science

August 23, 2023 No Comments

Learner engagement is a vital part of the classroom. If students aren’t engaged, learning suffers. But, increasing engagement is an art form. Also, its difficult for teachers to recognize why participation is low in class.

In this blog post, I’ll talk about the top problems I see in the classroom. And, I’ll discuss how to increase student participation. If engagement is low in your classroom, its likely that you benefit from one or more of these tips.

This post contains affiliate links. That means that if you choose to make a purchase using one of the links provided, I’ll receive a small commission at no additional charge to you.

What is learner engagement?

We all dream of a classroom where learners are actively engaged. But first, let’s dive into what learner engagement really is. Essentially, it’s when students are actively involved in their learning process. They’re not just passively listening; they’re questioning, discussing, and participating.

Engaged learner looking in a microscope
Authentic engagement requires and active learning environment.

Engagement Misconceptions

Ultimately, we want to create an environment where the engagement is authentic. When engagement is authentic, student growth is evident. And, in these spaces, learning is the primary focus.

However, many teachers believe that their lessons are engaging. But, in many cases, students are being compliant. In other cases, superficial engagement is occurring.

Engagement vs. Compliance

It’s crucial to understand that engagement is different from mere compliance. Sure, a classroom full of quiet, obedient students might seem ideal. However, just because they’re quiet doesn’t mean they’re engaged. Compliance might look like students dutifully taking notes or completing assignments without enthusiasm. While engaged learners are driven by intrinsic motivation, compliant learners often do the minimum, driven by the desire to avoid negative consequences. Often, classrooms with high degrees of It’s the difference between a student who dives into a topic because they’re genuinely curious and one who just wants to get the assignment done.

Superficial Engagement

Superficial engagement is similar to compliance because there is a lack of intrinsic motivation present. However, classrooms with superficial engagement don’t rely on negative consequences. Instead, teachers tend to use rewards. Or, engagement strategies unrelated to the content are used.

Different type of candy in white bowls.
Lessons such as modeling activities that use candy are exciting to students. But, these are often low-level activities. Instead, strive for authentic engagement.

For example, some teachers decorate the classroom to increase interest in activities. And others provide students with candy for correct answers. In both cases, students are probably very excited to be in class. However, that engagement isn’t related to their desire to learn material on a deeper level.

6 Ways to Increase Authentic Learner Engagement In Science

Now we have a clear picture of what authentic engagement is. And, we know what it isn’t. So, here are several easy ways to help you improve engagement in your classroom.

Bonus: Most of these strategies will ALSO decrease your workload in the classroom.

#1 Create an emotionally safe space.

If you ask most teachers, they’d say that their classrooms are emotionally safe. But, this isn’t possible without specifically targeting structures that make our most marginalized groups feel insecure within the space.

Its important to recognize that all humans feel social threats in the same way that we perceive physical threats. And, when students feel unsafe, it is extremely difficult for them to learn.

Culturally Responsive Teaching

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There are countless resources to help you learn to create an emotionally safe space for all of your students. But, Zaretta Hammond’s Book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain is my absolute favorite. She does an amazing job of explaining brain science and how it relates to learner engagement. And, its a short, easily digestible read.

More Resources for Creating a Culturally Responsive Classroom

Here are other resources to help you create an inclusive classroom space:

#2 Use phenomena.

Phenomena are vital for creating authentic engagement in your classroom. Phenomena provide relevance and context for all of your science content. Without it, your lessons will likely fall flat.

Phenomena Resources

I’ve talked about Phenomena A LOT on the blog already. So, I’ll redirect you to those posts to help you find exactly what you’re looking for.

#3 Minimize teacher talk.

A classroom full of teacher talk is almost never engaging. Yes, even if YOU are SUPER interesting. Remember, learning is active. So, an overabundance of teacher talk hinders learning.

Too much teacher talk comes in many forms. But, there are two types that I see most often. First, teachers tend to get lost in logistics. Often, we over-explain how or why we are doing something. Or, they discuss student behavior at length. While these things are important, its not helpful if the students stop listening because its taking too long.

Girl looking bored and staring out window.
Too much teacher talk is a guaranteed way to reduce engagement.

Secondly, there is far too much whole class discussion. This takes many forms. I usually see it when the teacher is eliciting responses from students. In this scenario, the teacher engages in a short conversation with one student while the other students sit and listen. This is not an uncommon way to check for understanding. But, it’s not particularly effective because one student participates at a time. So, its best to make sure that these activities don’t take up too much of your class time.

Revising Lessons to Reduce Teacher Talk

Recently, I updated one of my Teachers Pay Teachers products because I realized it was far too teacher driven. I made some minor adjustments to make it a less passive activity for students. Check out how I updated it.

Providing Additional Support

Recently, I’ve talked to several teachers who say that their students don’t talk. There are many reasons why this happens. But, providing additional structures and supports is the key to improving this dynamic.

Well known activities like think-pair-shares are a good place to start. This strategy gets students talking in a small group setting. And, this activity only requires students to talk for a short period of time.

Also, card sorts are great activities to increase discourse in the classroom. Generally, they don’t require a lot of background knowledge. But, students need to work together in order to accomplish the task.

#4 Speed up your lesson pace.

Have you ever been to a movie or read a book where the plot just dragged? You were likely squirming in your seat, hoping for it to end. Lessons that are too slow have the same effect on your students.

Chunking Lessons

Teachers tend to plan their lessons in large blocks of time. For example, they’ll allocate 10 minutes for a warm up, 10 minutes for lecture and 20 minutes for work time. But, even 10 minutes is a long time to sit and do the same thing.

Instead, break your lessons into smaller pieces. For example, using turn and talk strategies throughout a lecture break up the content and give students verbal processing time. Or, ask students to do part of an activity and check in rather than having them complete the whole assignment.

#5 Make the work more challenging.

It not uncommon to see teachers dropping the level of rigor in their classes. Often, this happens in response to student behaviors or in places where there are high degrees of student need.

The problem is that lesson challenging work isn’t engaging. In fact, the brain releases reward chemicals when challenging tasks are accomplished. So, providing students with easier tasks is preventing this reward response from taking place.

Scaffold, scaffold, scaffold.

If students struggle to accomplish tasks, provide necessary scaffolding. This might be sentence frames, graphic organizers or technology assistance. Its important to provide necessary supports to help students complete grade level tasks.

More Resources

#6 Avoid spoilers.

Using a discovery-based approach is a great way to increase student engagement. When teaching for student discovery, teachers give student the opportunity to discover information through structured exploration activities.

Explore Before Explain

Creating discovery-based lessons used to be incredibly challenging for me. But, using an explore before explain approach has helped a lot. Using this approach, lessons are flipped from their traditional form. For example, instead of doing a lab activity to confirm what students learn during lecture, student do the lab first. Then, the teacher fills in gaps with an additional explanation.

To learn more about this, click here.

Resources for Explore before Explain Activities

Erin Sadler

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