Engage Your Students with Effective Teaching Strategies

Engage your students in their learning. Don’t just stick your toe in the water! Jump right in with effective teaching strategies. Let’s take a look at some ways you can improve your craft.

To thrive as a teacher, engage your students - and yourself! Use effective teaching strategies to keep kids on track.

Ms. Sneed Discusses Effective Teaching Strategies

Our favorite fourth grade teacher, Ms. Sneed, sat at the side table with her student teacher. “As I explained before, six steps help me enjoy teaching. To survive, I keep organized, plan ahead of time, and try to maintain healthy work-life balance. Then, to thrive, I learn something new every day, engage my students, and strive to become a master teacher. Today,” she said, “we’ll talk about the fifth step – specifically, effective teaching strategies.”

Mr. Grow nodded, and Ms. Sneed continued. “When I was a new teacher, I pretty much just followed the textbook. As I became more experienced, I tried new teaching strategies. When were students most engaged? Surprisingly, not during crafts or games. Instead, they focused best when presented with active, challenging activities.

“Additionally, I realized that what I learned in my college courses held true. The best lessons include a complete learning cycle.”

“Ah,” Mr. Grow replied. As he dug around in his backpack, he continued. “One of my professors just discussed this with us.”

He pulled out a reference guide entitled “Research-Based Instructional Strategies That Work.” Then he laid it on the table so Ms. Sneed could see. “A recent meta-analysis by Bryan Goodwin and Kristin Rouleau supports what you just said.”

Ms. Sneed’s eyes twinkled. “Well, leave that on the table. I’ll talk about my experiences today, and we can compare them with these new findings.”

1. To Engage Learners, Focus Their Attention on the Concept

“Before anything else,” Ms. Sneed began, “you have to get kids’ attention. Lately, that seems to mean reading the standard, which is posted on the wall. Well, that’s pretty boring. I have a few other ideas to engage them:

  • Deconstruct the Standard – Instead of just reading the standard, let kids deconstruct it. First, they find nouns that explain the content, or what they’ll be learning. Second, kids locate verbs to figure out what they’ll do. Finally, the class analyzes everything else to determine the finer points in the lesson. Of course, after this, they’ll carefully compare your teaching to what they’ve discovered. If you forget something, they’ll let you know! That will engage learners – and make it fun.
  • Present an Overarching Question – As an alternative, you can simply present a universal question – something big that they’ll answer during the course of their unit. For example, ‘How are speed and energy related?’
  • Activate Prior Knowledge – Another way to get their attention is to draw on their background experiences. For the same science lesson, you might ask, ‘When you swing a baseball bat, what makes the ball travel faster?’ Of course, this will light a fire under them. You’ll get all kinds of answers and anecdotes. Additionally, they’ll focus on what they already know about this concept.
  • Do Something Unexpected – As an alternative, you can plan something surprising. If my students entered the room to see me hitting a Nerf ball with a bat, they’d be hooked! And that’s the point. You must hook your learners and introduce them to the concept.”

Mr. Grow looked at the front cover of the McREL/ASCD reference guide. “Your suggestion matches with their research,” he announced. “However, you’ve combined their first two phases of learning: become interested and commit to learning.”

At that, his mentor polished her knuckles on her sweatshirt and grinned. “Okay, I guess I’ve still got it!”

Engage your students with effective teaching strategies. First, hook them - maybe with something surprising!
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2. Use Direct Instruction

Then she turned and looked directly at Mr. Grow. “Next, kids need high quality direct instruction. I can’t emphasize this enough. If the teacher flies by the seat of their pants, students suffer. Before you teach anything, make sure you research the finer points and reflect on how you will convey them to students.

“For example, before yesterday’s lesson on prepositional phrases, I looked at several online articles and videos. That helped me review and focus on phrases that modify verbs, which was the concept of the day. Without that review, I would have forgotten to mention the way these phrases move around in the sentence. Additionally, while I was eating my breakfast, I thought about how my instructional sequence would go. That way, when I got up there to teach, I was totally prepared.”

Mr. Grow looked a little stunned. “Wow. No offense, but I thought that after teaching for decades, you’d have it down.”

With a little smirk, Ms. Sneed responded: “Well no. Sure, I have a good idea of the concept. But every day I teach at a half a dozen or more new concepts. After a year goes by, I need to brush up and focus. It doesn’t take long, but it makes my teaching so much better.

“In any case, let’s discuss effective teaching strategies for direct instruction:

  • Review – First, provide just the right amount of review. For example, I know that our students are just beginning to understand prepositional phrases. So I began with a definition and discussed how the preposition always ends with a noun – but can have other words in between. Of course, I also discussed last week’s concept: prepositional phrases that modify nouns.
  • Scaffold – Second, carefully sequence instruction. For yesterday’s lesson, I began with an example of a prepositional phrase modifying a verb. Then I explained how I knew: it tells how, when, or where. Next, I showed how the phrase could move around in the sentence. Finally, I modeled the process with a bunch of other sentences.
  • Reinforce Key Vocabulary – In addition, we must focus on terminology. In this lesson, the terms modify, adjective phrase (which modifies a noun), and adverbial phrase (that modifies a verb) were important. Maybe you noticed that I used and defined these terms over and over in the lesson.”

Again, Mr. Grow looked surprised. “Actually, I didn’t notice that you used the terms so much. But now I remember that you did. It seemed so natural.

“And I can’t believe that all of that effort went into one short lesson. You’ve given me some food for thought.”

Ms. Sneed looked pleased. “Glad to hear it. Now tell me, how did I stack up to the research-based practices?”

As Mr. Grow studied the reference guide, he replied. “Although they call it focus on new learning, what they describe is essentially direct instruction with modeling.”

Ms. Sneed nodded. Then, once again, she looked at Mr. Grow intently. “While educators orchestrate all learning processes, this is the most important. As teachers, we must understand the concepts. Then, we must figure out a way to convey them clearly to our students. In other words, the class should be able to see what’s going on in your brain.”

High quality direct instruction is the most important of all effective teaching strategies.

3. Provide Guided Practice

Ms. Sneed launched into the next phase of instruction. “Now kids need guided practice. Unfortunately, this is one of the most underused effective teaching strategies. Before you jump to worksheets, give kids some time for ungraded practice. In other words, let them explore without any real pressure.

  • Keep It Social – Learning is social. But if the teacher does all the talking, it’s ruined. Let kids work in groups or pairs to practice.
  • Make It Active – Sure, you can flash some practice activities up on the screen and work on them. But doing helps kids process new skills much better. For example, in yesterday’s lesson, I let the kids cut prepositional phrases out of sentences. Then, in pairs, they moved the phrase around in the sentence, read it aloud, and considered how it sounded. Active learning will engage the class more effectively.
  • Include Formative Assessment – Find out how they’re doing. Maybe you’ll use an exit ticket or survey. Maybe you’ll just walk around with a clipboard. But in some way, shape, or form, you need to figure out who’s got it – and who doesn’t.
  • Reteach and/or Remediate – If some or all kids don’t quite get it, you must take the time to go over it again. In most cases, however, teaching it the same way won’t work. Instead, you’ll need to find a new way to present the concept. Then, as they say, try, try again.”

At this point, Mr. Grow squirmed in his seat a bit. Furthermore, he looked uncomfortable.

Ms. Sneed gave him a questioning look. “What’s wrong?”

“To be perfectly honest, after direct instruction, I would have just handed out the worksheets.”

“No worries. Many teachers do. However, today we’re discussing best practices. If you add a little guided practice, simple formative assessment, and remediation, your kids will master the content. Otherwise, maybe not.”

Mr. Grow nodded. “I promise to add this to my bag of tricks.”

Then he looked down at the reference guide. “Hmm. They call it make sense of learning. And hey – they say that kids should ‘process new learning with peers’ – just like you suggested.”

Before you ask them to practice independently, engage students with guided practice - the more active and social, the better.

4. Give Kids Plenty of Practice

“Now,” said Ms. Sneed, “it’s time to hand out the worksheets. Although that’s not always my preferred kind of practice, it fits here – and does engage learners. After kids practice concepts in isolation, they should also get the opportunity for mixed practice. We won’t delve into this much. You get it: independent practice.”

Mr. Grow looked at the reference guide. “Practice and reflect is what they say.”

“Ah, you got me there. I’ll have to reflect on how my students can reflect in the future!”

5. Assess Learning – Yes, It’s Actually an Effective Teaching Strategy

“All good learning cycles include some sort of assessment after practice,” Ms. Sneed continued. However, they don’t need to be long. For example, this week, I’ll take a grade on students’ daily language to see how they’re doing with prepositional phrases. Later in the year, they’ll take a summative assessment as well.”

Once again, Mr. Grow studied the reference guide. Then he opened it and looked inside. “As far as I can tell, these researchers don’t mention testing.”

“That’s okay. I’m sure there’s not a lot of data that show that summative assessments improve student learning. They are, however, effective teaching strategies. Without tests, we’d never know if we need to reteach.”

6. Reinforce Learning

Mr. Grow stuffed the reference guide into his backpack and began to stand up.

“Where are you going? We’re not done yet,” said his mentor. “As I mentioned, after the assessment, we may need to do some remediation. Furthermore, we must hit the concept again – and again and again.

  • Apply – New skills should be applied in more and more complex activities. For example, this week, we’re working on writing informative paragraphs. But soon, kids will write paragraphs with different text structures. Furthermore, we’ll use this skill when reading informational texts – like our science and social studies books.
  • Extend – You should also extend the concept. In the second semester, for instance, kids will extend their understanding of nonfiction text structure to write five-paragraph essays.”

Mr. Grow rubbed his chin. “Goodwin and Rouleau say that students should extend and apply by creating something new.”

Again, he rubbed his chin, deep in thought. “I get it. In this case, something new would be their writing.”

Ms. Sneed nodded. “Exactly. Too many times, kids are only engage with worksheets. Instead, they have to create something of their own.”

Give kids opportunities to apply and extend learning. Ask your students in creating something new.

What About Inquiry?

Mr. Grow sat back in his seat. “I’m wondering about inquiry. How does it fit into this learning cycle?”

“Good question! We can’t forget inquiry when discussing effective teaching strategies. This practice will really engage your learners. Additionally, it takes the place of direct instruction. From their investigation, kids make generalizations to discover the concept themselves. Afterward, teachers present vocabulary, reinforce concepts, and address misconceptions. In some ways, it’s the same progression – but with a different twist.”

Effective Teaching Strategies Work

“In closing,” Ms. Sneed said, “I believe you can learn a lot about instructional practices when you learn something new yourself. For example, Zumba taught me a lot about teaching and learning.”

Mr. Grow giggled.

“Laugh if you want to,” Ms. Sneed smiled. “But here’s what happened when I started taking Zumba. My instructor:

  1. Made learning fun. (Engage!)
  2. Introduced each move from easiest to more difficult.
  3. Modeled the dance.
  4. Stopped to reteach.
  5. Let us practice together.
  6. Asked us to apply what we learned with new songs and dances.

“Effective teaching strategies can be found everywhere. They work. And when I use them, I love my job more than ever!”

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