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By Tatum Travers • March 7, 2016

Understanding Student Engagement

Effective 21st century educators are less concerned with running quiet, orderly classrooms, and more concerned with meeting the needs of every student and inspiring a lifelong love of learning. More and more teachers are turning to real world activities and digital content to motivate and excite students. During our recent webinar on student engagement, Chris McCormick, eSpark’s Senior Curriculum Director, broke down what student engagement look likes and why it’s sometimes so challenging to achieve. Read on for takeaways, strategies, and resources to take back to your district.

Student Engagement

What does student engagement look like?

Student engagement can take many forms, but engaging activities, lessons, and projects share three characteristics: choice, interaction, and purpose. 


What it is: Students are more likely to be engaged in their learning when given some say in what they’re studying. When teachers are able to tap into student enthusiasm, interest, or passion, levels of engagement can skyrocket. A key component to effective differentiation, choice gives students both agency and accountability, building student self-esteem and investment.

Examples: Students are allowed to choose between writing a paper, recording and editing a video, creating a website, or building a diorama. Students vote on what books they’d like to read as a class.

Guiding Questions: What are my students interested in? How can I tap into this interest?


What it is: Learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum, especially since 21st century students need excellent social and emotional skills to thrive in an increasingly global world. Engaging classroom activities will allow students to work with others to create something new or answer a complex question.

Examples: Students poll their classmates to create a graph for a research project. Students interview a local politician and write a paper using contextualized quotes. Your class could volunteer and summarize their experience in a group presentation. Students participate in a writing workshop.

Guiding Questions: How can my students provide peer feedback? Can my students share their work with an expert in their field of interest? How can technology build these connections?


What it is: Before embarking on an activity or project, students should have a clear understanding of what they’re being asked to do and the consequences of their work. Real-world context can lend urgency to learning, effectively motivating students to be the best that they can be.

Examples: Students work together to solve a community issue. Students write and submit a short story to their favorite literary magazine. Students write a script for a public access television show. Students present on a local issue at a town meeting.

Guiding Questions: How are students supported throughout the learning process? Are students given a clear timeline and encouraged to set personal goals within that timeline? How can student work relate to a real-world situation?

Why is student engagement so challenging?

Inspiring a lifelong love of learning is perhaps the greatest challenge that teachers encounter in the classroom, and it can be discouraging to encounter students who demonstrate little to no interest in their education. Differentiation can be a tedious, time consuming process, and most teachers simply don’t have enough time or energy to write personalized lesson plans and provided face-to-face targeted support for students who are struggling to learn state standards or disengaged from the rest of the class.

Digital content can be a great resource for teachers who are strapped for time and want to provide students with cost-effective resources that spark interest, are aligned to age and ability, and push the limits of learning and engagement. However, the vast majority of educational apps and videos are riddled with advertisements and inaccuracies, and pose the risk of distracting students from the task at hand. For a taste of what high-quality digital content looks like, take a look at a few of our favorite resources below.


Student Engagement App

This online library of video content uses hip-hop to teach students about everything from astronomy to grammar. Aligned to K-12th grade, these videos are great about providing real-world examples and using catchy songs to lock-in foundational skills.

National Geographic’s The Underground Railroad: Journey to Freedom

Student Engagement App

This chose-your-own adventure app uses an engaging real-world storyline and blend of informational text and literature to teach middle school students about Harriet Tubman, Thomas Garrett, and Frederick Douglas.

Gracie & Friends Birthday Cafe

Student Engagement App

This app is great for early learners and uses modeling, interactive graphics, and audio support to teach students about the relationship between quantities and written numerals.



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