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Keeping Students Actively Engaged

Strategies for actively engaging students so they have opportunities for success

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Active teaching helps students learn because it keeps them motivated and attentive by allowing them to succeed at academic tasks. No matter what your instructional style or how much experience you have, you must actively engage students and allow them plenty of chances to succeed.

Active Teaching

Call it direct instruction, explicit instruction, active teaching, structured learning, or any other phrase. But when it means teachers organizing and clearly leading learning activities, it works. Direct instruction means that teachers carefully structure academic tasks. They tell students how to accomplish these tasks, and they guide them through exercises leading to mastery. They give students frequent opportunities for practice, and they assess whether re-teaching or more practice is necessary.

First-grade teachers directly instructing reading groups, for example, introduce new words to students, pointing out important phonetic features. They talk about what a word means and give examples of how it is used. They let students practice words in oral reading and ask questions to make sure students understand what they read and can analyze the words.

To actively teach fractions, a teacher introduces the topic, explains what fractions are, gives concrete examples, works problems on the board, guides the class in working problems together, makes sure children understand the lesson, then gives them opportunities to practice independently with problems they can handle.

While the current thinking favors more student-centered, individualized approaches, most researchers and experienced teachers agree that there is a time and a place for active teaching. Certain topics, concepts, and skills are better taught directly by the teacher. Researchers also caution that many of the individualized or student discovery approaches rely on high degrees of learner independence, concentration, and self motivation not always evident in all children. Further, the research suggests that students even need explicit instruction in becoming independent learners (how to work alone, how and when to seek help, seeking solutions to problems that might arise, knowing what resources are needed).

Active teaching clearly works. But like other strategies, it works best when adapted to particular students and situations. For example, many teachers describe the "mini-lessons" they give on English usage or mechanics as problems occur while students are writing. These lessons are examples of active teaching. The need for active teaching also varies with grade level. In the upper grades, teachers can spend more time presenting and less time directing practice.

Active teaching also works best when cognitive achievement (as measured by standardized tests) is the goal. Other approaches, researchers suggest, may be more appropriate for growth in non-cognitive areas, such as attitudes, emotions, interests, and social development.

It's your judgment call. Use your professional knowledge of students and situations to decide when and where you'll actively teach.

  • Subjects:
    New Teacher Resources, Teacher Tips and Strategies
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