- Increased student engagement yields better learning outcomes
- Edtech has a lot of potential to help boost student engagement
- See related article: With greater access to devices, teachers are folding more tech into instruction
As a teacher, I constantly wondered how to get students more engaged in my lessons. As an administrator, this question was the guiding force of my coaching. Student engagement can be tough to define and difficult to systematize, but for anyone who’s walked into a highly engaged classroom, it’s immediately apparent.
In my experience, it’s almost a direct path from increased student engagement to stronger learning outcomes. The two combined can often mean improved classroom culture, and in turn, higher teacher retention and other major benefits. There are four key ways that edtech tools can increase student engagement, and when done correctly, be a catalyst for building a culture of learning.
1. Providing a window into student thinking
It’s not always easy for teachers – especially those with higher student-teacher ratios – to dig deeper into individual student answers in real time. Plus, “learning” is a very challenging thing to measure. In education, we often try to approximate whether or not learning is happening by evaluating the answers that students provide to certain questions.
Getting visibility into student thinking throughout a lesson helps teachers see students’ thought processes, not just their answers. Teachers can see ideas develop over time, pinpointing breakthrough (or learning breakdown) moments. They can quickly identify misconceptions at the root, and drive data-driven instruction, providing attention where students need it the most, rather than unnecessarily reteaching whole concepts. The role of the teacher is repositioned to focus more on differentiated and individualized learning, building relationships, and providing support to students, focusing on what drives student engagement the most.
Edtech tools that provide teachers with real-time visibility into student thinking allow teachers to quickly pivot and maximize instructional time. Imagine students are reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, as part of a unit on the Progressive Era, building towards an essay on the author’s purpose in exposing the conditions of factory workers. While reading a particularly challenging passage, students take notes around guiding questions that support the development of their thesis. A teacher utilizing edtech tools to gain visibility into student work can evaluate student annotations and responses in the moment, and discover that many students have missed a key passage in a particularly dense section detailing worker conditions. The teacher can halt independent work if they’re seeing copious misunderstanding, pull the class into a close read of the paragraph, and deconstruct challenging language, all while highlighting students’ exemplary answers. Students stay on track, and the teacher avoids addressing foundational misunderstandings days or even weeks later.
2. Creating a culture where deep engagement is valued
In 2022, 94.4 percent of teachers reported using “soliciting student perspectives and discussion” as an engagement tactic often or very often/always. Engagement, however, is a broad term. Asking students to describe their favorite superhero might lead to a highly engaging discussion, but doesn’t necessarily reflect deep engagement with an academic topic.
On the other hand, classrooms like the one reading The Jungle are examples of those deeply involved in authentic learning. I’ve worked in classrooms like this as well, with the room silent, students working on computers and the teacher staring at his laptop in the center. It was hard to determine whether students were engaging in independent work, and whether they were engaged. Suddenly, the teacher congratulated a student: “Awesome evidence in paragraph two! Can you clean up your elaboration?” A few seconds later, “I love the transition words Katherine used in her writing. Everyone, take a look.” This continued for much of the lesson.
Every student in that classroom was deeply and authentically engaged with their work and with one another. This was only possible because the teacher and students had tools that created visibility into both individual and shared work. It wasn’t the technology alone, though. The teacher created a culture where every student knew that their work mattered, where positive and critical feedback were in the interest of learning, and where an academic mindset was celebrated.
3. Rooting teaching and learning in exemplary work
When students understand what is expected of them, they’re more likely to succeed. A tangible end goal and real time feedback towards that goal is essential to creating a highly engaged classroom. This is just as important for teachers as it is for students. When I was coaching teachers and delivering lesson plan feedback, I could see the amount of time and energy put into designing questions and learning activities. There was often so much thought put into the question, that there wasn’t as much time left for the answer, much less the pathway to that answer.
I worked with a first-year teacher who came to me with a common problem. Despite a really well-thought-out learning activity, students answered inconsistently, and the teacher was stumped as to why. I asked a simple question. “What’s the answer that you would want to see from your students?” The teacher paused and realized they hadn’t considered that. They hadn’t answered the question themselves, and thus had not set an exemplar response. We used questions readily available in the curriculum and an assessment item bank, freeing up the teacher to consider how to guide students towards producing truly exemplary work. Exemplars can serve as important guidance, alongside auto scoring and annotation tools, all of which are available quickly in education technology tools.
4. Differentiating needs for students
Education technology can never fully replace what teachers provide. However, it is built to serve as an essential support and supplement, giving educators time back in their day to do what they’re best at: building important relationships with their students and moving learners’ outcomes forward. With edtech tools, teachers have an opportunity to cater to different student needs in a way that isn’t always possible. Students with different learning needs, interests, backgrounds, and work rates are afforded the ability to participate in ways that are more catered to their own styles.
In many learning tools, teachers are offered the ability to provide different problem sets, building blocks, and data resources that indicate various levels of understanding, which can provide solid resources to move student outcomes forward.
Mixing it up
These four benefits have the potential to be massive for student success. Those benefits are amplified when students are able to use edtech tools to mix up their routine: engaging in interactive presentations, audio, video, and proactive discussion as a result of reacting to one another’s work. When we think about classroom engagement, we have to remove pressure from teachers by providing them with efficacious classroom tools, as well as recognizing that as people, we engage and interact with each other in a variety of ways in the real world. Authentic classroom participation should be no different.
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