3 tips for boosting student engagement in your classroom

3 tips for boosting student engagement in your classroom

By Leslie Aaronson

Starting a new semester can be just as nerve-racking for teachers as it is for students. How do you engage a roomful of young people both in the learning and as part of a broader class? Check out these 3 tips for how to build a student-centered professional environment that strengthens student confidence and builds community.

1. Make it Professional! Greet students by shaking their hand as they come into the classroom.

Reason: This gives each student a chance to be seen and noticed and feel important in the class. It also gives them basic professional training that is relevant outside the classroom.

How: Greet each student at the door on the first day. Ask them to give you a firm handshake, to say their name clearly, to smile, and to make eye contact in order to gain entrance into your classroom. If students don’t get it right the first time, send them to the end of the line to try again. It takes some students multiple tries to gain entry — a lesson they won’t forget.

Once every student succeeds at the professional introduction and makes it into class, lead a discussion about the process they just went through. Highlight the essential elements of a professional introduction, 1) a solid handshake, 2) eye contact, 3) clear voice, and 4) a smile.

ProTip: Practice with the first student and then bring them into the classroom to distribute any handouts or seating instructions.

2. Mix up student pairings, thereby building community and trust in the classroom.

Reason: Students often pick the same person when you ask them to find a partner — someone they already know. This is no way to build a classroom community. Plus, students need constant re-energizing! Moving them around the room to share ideas is a great way to keep energy up.


Strategy 1: Clock appointments: Students draw a clock on a paper and make spaces next to the face numbers to make “appointments” with other students. To fill the appointments, students walk around the room and write each others’ names into the appointment slots, usually next to 3, 6, 9, and 12, but you could use all 12 spaces.

Example: If I’m partnering with you at 12, I write my name on your page at 12, and you write your name on my page at 12.

As you want students to partner up, you announce that they need to find their “3 o’clock partner,” etc. This one exercise can be used for one lesson, or revisited and reused throughout a week or entire month.

Strategy 2: Color Cards: Give students different colored 3×5 index cards by handing them out or leaving them on desks or seats. All students with the same color card become a group. This strategy is an easy way to mix up students into new groups quickly.
Add on: Put different attributes (shape, number, letter and picture) on each colored card. This gives you many options for setting up groups (e.g., a group of four with the same picture, a group of five with all different shapes, a group with the same number or a group with all different numbers).

3. Create time and encouragement to get students to talk and build out their understanding and confidence through discussions.

Reason: Spending time talking about a topic or lesson in small groups strengthens students’ understanding and allows time for them to articulate and develop a memory of the concept.

How: Use sliding groups for a variety of loose discussion formats. This strategy involves “sliding” the structure of the classroom up and down levels of interaction from 1) individuals reflecting on a topic, 2) to pairs sharing their reflections, 3) to four-person groups synthesizing their concerns, 4) to general class discussion, and then back down the chain whenever one format stops eliciting productive discussion.

Keep your eyes open for students who don’t naturally get into groups. Make it clear that it’s impossible to be successful if you’re always working alone. These students may just need extra help getting into the collaborative spirit. Problem-solving is a key component in life and career, and these students need to let down their guard and engage with others.

Leslie’s students at Foshay.

Leslie Aaronson is the Director for Career Pathway Connections at the LA Promise Fund, where she manages the Strong Workforce grant from the state of California to create comprehensive career academies in high schools in South Los Angeles. Prior to joining the LA Promise Fund, Leslie taught at Foshay Learning Center’s Technology Academy, where she was awarded Teacher of the Year by LAUSD for her work.

Additional Resources for Pairing up Students:
8 Tips to Organize Group Work in the Classroom
Several additional options for pairing students in groups