Creating Engaged and Motivated Learners

By Laura Robb

Throughout my career, I’ve observed that the more teachers talk, the less students learn. To help me explore alternatives to teacher talk from students’ perspectives, I recently surveyed students in grades four to eight with this question: What do you think teachers should do to engage students and make the learning more interesting? Below is a summary of their responses:

  • Let us choose books for independent reading.
  • Have us solve problems and do research with a partner or in a group.
  • Let us discuss books in small groups.
  • Use podcasts, book talks, journal writing, fan fiction, pamphlets, readers’ theater, and dramatic monologues for grades—not always tests.

Traditional Teaching Methods

Recitation, discussions in which teachers ask questions and students provide the correct answers, and lecturing are instructional practices that are prevalent in middle and high school. Occasionally, student-centered practices are mixed in, but in my opinion not often enough.

When I surveyed the same fourth to eighth graders about traditional practices, they described lectures as boring and claimed to “stop listening after fifteen minutes.” They gave low ratings to recitation and to completing worksheets. Their comments raise an important question: How can districts  transition teachers from traditional methods to student-centered methods?

Changing Practice

Even though research suggests that engagement and motivation increase when teachers use student-centered units that invite collaboration and active- learning, there is resistance to change. It may have something to do with the message administrators send to teachers: students’ achievement should be teachers’ primary goal. Too often, achievement means that students score high on standardized tests. In this era of accountability, I find that many teachers fear shifting instructional practices will lead to lower test scores.

Here are suggestions that can fuel positive change and prompt district leaders to rethink the message they’re sending:

  • Get the principal and other administrators on board; their support is crucial for success.
  • Ask teachers who have developed student-centered units to coach peers during planning times.
  • Have teachers design and implement one student-centered unit, adding one to two new ones each school year.
  • Schedule ongoing professional development at the building level that includes how to plan units in which students actively learn and collaborate.
  • Provide technology support that shows teachers how using digital devices can enhance student-centered learning.
  • Enlist the support of a coach or resource teacher to boost the confidence of a teacher embracing change.
  • Familiarize teachers with the research on independent reading. Help them understand that when students choose and read thirty-to-forty books a year they can ramp-up their reading achievement.

One Teacher’s Changeover

The student-centered independent reading project described in this section and launched by Ms. James and me dramatically improved students’ engagement with books. By trusting in students’ inherent desire to learn when they designed their independent reading curriculum, we also increased their motivation to read.

Sixth-grade students swarmed the hall, talking as they retrieved books from lockers for their next class. I noticed Diego handing a book to Ben, pointing to it as he talked. (All names are pseudonyms.) Quickly, I jockeyed myself into a position where I could hear the conversation.

Ben:                         Did you finish the book about Merlin yet?

Diego:             Yeah. It’s yours. We gotta talk about it–maybe after the first four chapters.

Ben:             Sure! What are you reading next?

Diego:            The last [book] in the Merlin series. Then, I’ll read the Percy Jackson series. Richie says they’re great.

Independent reading is not a typical between-classes topic for middle school students, but it was for students in Ms. James’s classes. Ms. James teaches two sections of sixth grade English, each with sixteen students, at Powhatan, an independent K-8 school in Boyce, Virginia. Sixth graders experienced a solid instructional curriculum, but students were not required to read independently. In my role as consultant, I invited Ms. James to help me organize a student-centered independent reading curriculum, and she agreed to adjust her teacher-centered style.

Specifically, we transferred the decision of how much independent reading to complete from teachers to students. After surveying students for their reading interests, we gave booklists to the school librarian so she could support students.

Two words describe the new curriculum: choice and trust. Four times a week for thirty minutes, students read or discussed books with a partner or in a small group. Students opted to create PowerPoint presentations about genres or authors and complete a journal entry on a book. Everyone chose one book and composed and presented a reader’s theater script or dramatic monologue. Ms. James and I were always available to listen, confer, and provide tech support.

Students created a classroom culture where they were reading and sharing beloved books in ways that were meaningful to them. Because they had choices and interacted with peers, and because we teachers valued their ideas and decisions, sixth graders were involved in their work! By the second month, everyone was reading at school and at home and recommending books to one another. From January to May, each student logged between twenty and fifty books into their notebooks.

Concluding Thoughts

With the kind of support Ms. James had, teachers can create a coherent vision of student-centered learning and gain the skills and experiences that enable them to transform a class of disengaged and unmotivated learners into engaged and motivated learners.

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