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  • Writer's pictureScott Cameron

How Students Learn: 7 Engagement Techniques

Updated: Jan 15

When we ask our students to pay attention, we’re competing with five to ten second video clips on television and social media apps designed to be super funny and entertaining: the magical, extraordinary, and provocative moments from everyday life that millions of people agree should be instantly spread around the world. Then we come in and hand them a novel with hundreds of pages of text and hope for the best.

Since I spent so much time teaching online last year, I’ve been trying to remind myself of the basics of how our students learn. Just like all natural laws begin with physics, we need to remember some of the fundamentals of learning if want to keep our students immersed and engaged. Some techniques work better than others, but to keep an upbeat and energetic classroom, we need to switch up methods that help students take in information, and then think for themselves.

Last year, we were swamped with new tech tools and at some point, I felt like I was juggling virtual websites. This year, I’ve been insisting on pencils and erasers, and good old conversation. The year of the screen is finally over.

Here are my seven effective learning techniques:

1. Reading and taking notes.

There are many ways to learn now with video and audio technologies, and the content keeps getting better and better. But serious knowledge about a topic will always come from reading long texts that tell the whole story. When I assign a novel, I simply ask my students to do the thing they should do in real life, read and take notes. I give them one due date so they can find the right place and time to read. This way they can take notes as they read, after a chapter, or after they finish reading the book, and they can take their notes with them in life – they are a document of their thoughts about the book and the most meaningful moments that will literally stick with them forever. I still have the notes I took on all the novels I read and I can revisit them and make sense of them. Notes are the foundation of independent thinking. We write down summary, interpretation, and quotations as we read.

2. Listening and taking notes.

Students should also write down (not type) their thoughts as they listen. Writing by hand takes mental effort and even better, there’s no Facebook on a piece of paper. If the lecture, conversation, or podcast moves logically from one idea to the next, then students will pay attention and write down snippets of what they think is important. I constantly emphasize that notes should contain informal ideas, questions, or topics, and does not need to be a clear argument. Just today, my students took notes on a part of a podcast that also had a transcript; they could both listen and write down important quotations. Some podcasts last an hour, so I typically play clips, but I’m always amazed at how students want to keep listening.

3. Looking at visuals and taking notes.

Many students can process information when they can both listen to a lecture and see the main points outlined in a PowerPoint or see the text, graph, or other visual on a projector or piece of paper. We don’t want students writing down the information on a slide word for word like a sponge, we want them to think about what they hear and listen. If they occupy their time trying to write down as much information as they can, they’ll get distracted and most likely not be able to make sense of their notes later. PowerPoints should be similar to guided notes, an outline of the essentials so that our students can fill in the spaces with their own thoughts. When a student writes down what they think in an organized way, they will be able to revisit it later, before an essay, when they can formalize their fragmented and incomplete thoughts in a clear and logical manner. An educated mind takes in information and then transforms it into easily digestible words.

4. Reading, conversation, and taking notes.

Even in a regular conversation, it’s easy to lose interest and check to see what’s happening in the imaginary world of virtual friends and strangers on a phone. However, students will stay focused during a long group or whole class conversation if we ask them to answer complex questions or interpret a bunch of evidence, anywhere from ten to twenty passages. Students can tune out one person quickly, but if they are in a conversation with a few people, they have to respond to different points of view if they want to help find the answer to a question. It’s important that they learn to read for long periods of time, and converse for long periods of time. Like anything else we do, the conversation should have an objective and students should be prepared to share their findings with the class.

5. Creating visuals.

When students work together or independently, instead of taking notes on handouts or creating annotations, they can create all kinds of visuals to organize their ideas and extend their own individual thoughts about the text. This includes mind maps, sketch notes, graphic organizers, PowerPoints, posters, Google drawings, Padlets, and one-pagers. I still enjoy asking students to get up and write on the blackboard. When students imagine the connection between two ideas, symbols, quotes, or topics, they learn how to expand and support the main idea or argument.

6. Making sense of notes (informal).

Once students create a document of their individual thoughts about a text, their understanding of their teacher’s thoughts, and their interpretation of their classmates ideas, they can then sit down with all the evidence they gathered and … study. They can read their own notes and look back on their thought-memories. They have a record of their ideas and then they can brainstorm. They look over pages and pages of notes and pull out the essentials. I always tell my students that when I read their essays, I can tell how much they’ve thought about the topic. I also tell them that writing should be easy if you put the work in before sitting down to write.

7. Making sense of notes (formal).

Once the essentials emerge from their notes, our students can finally take their ideas, package them up, and deliver them with logic and reason. Formal writing could be a single sentence, a paragraph, or an entire essay. With technology that is now easily accessible, our students could also create a podcast or video essay using their ideas. If we want them to have complete freedom and truly think for themselves, they could create their own story or film. It’s also fun to ask them to interview someone and have a conversation about the ideas they first encountered by reading. I never want them to sit tight with their ideas; I want them to put them out in the world somewhere. To not be afraid of them, to be proud of them because they did the serious mental work required before unveiling their thought.

Scott Cameron

English language arts teacher

Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers

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