The following is a book excerpt from William Bender’s

20 Strategies for Increasing Student Engagement

20 Strategies for Increasing Student Engagement

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About the Author



Section I

Instructional Organization for Increasing Engagement

Differentiated Instruction


Student Engagement and Learning

Teachers have long realized that student engagement is absolutely essential for student learning; if students are not engaged with the content to be mastered, they will not learn it. I wrestled with this reality during my teaching days, working with eighth- and ninth-grade students with mild to moderate disabilities. I saw students with learning disabilities or emotional problems struggling to pay attention for more than two or three minutes to their assignments. A few years later, my dissertation focused on the attention skills of students with learning disabilities in high school (Bender, 1985), so student engagement is one issue on which I have a long-standing interest. In many ways, this book stems from that work.

However, this book is not just a theory on attention or student engagement. In this book, I’ll not present brain structures that facilitate arousal or attention, nor will the attention–memory connection be discussed herein. Rather, this book is focused on specific strategies for engaging students in the classroom, based on the simple fact that as student engagement with the educational content increases, academic achievement also increases.

What Is Student Engagement?

Definitions of student engagement vary somewhat and have changed over the years, as have the methods for measuring student engagement. For example, engagement or attention used to be measured in terms of eye contact. That is, if a student’s eyes were directed toward the academic content in the book or on the board, the student1 was believed to be paying attention and engaged with the learning content (Bender, 1985). However, this eye contact definition of engagement was never satisfactory because, with a moment’s thought, all teachers will quickly realize that students can easily stare at a book without being engaged with the content.

More recent thought on student engagement has identified particulars, and even included emotional reactions, in the definition of engagement. For example, engagement is frequently defined today as students’ cognitive investment in, active participation with, and emotional commitment to learning particular content (Zepke & Leach, 2010). A limited body of research investigates student engagement by measuring actual brain activity during various tasks, but this type of research is rare.

Engagement may be defined as students’ cognitive investment in, active participation with, and emotional commitment to learning particular content.

In my workshops with teachers around the country, I often use an example from an old movie called Teachers. That movie presented a teacher in the late 1970s who “taught” exclusively using worksheets. The students and other teachers all called this worksheet-crazed teacher “Ditto,” a name derived from the ditto machines that were used at that time to make copies of worksheets. Students came into Ditto’s class, took the ditto worksheet copies off one side of his desk, passed them out, and worked on them all period. Meanwhile, Ditto himself sat at his desk and read the newspaper, never making eye contact with a student or talking to anyone! At the end of each class when the bell rang, the students collected all the completed worksheets and put them on the other side of Ditto’s desk prior to leaving the classroom.

As presented in the movie, Ditto died one day in third period, still holding his newspaper, seated behind his desk. No one noticed!

His fourth-period class came into the room, collected their ditto worksheets, completed them, put them on the other side of the desk, and left, as did the fifth- and sixth period classes. Ditto merely sat there, dead, behind his newspaper. The janitor found Ditto, cold as a stone, later that night, still seated behind the desk holding up the newspaper. In the context of this book, Ditto, this fictional teacher, can provide a useful lesson:

If a dead guy can do it, it ain’t teaching!

There is at least one important corollary to that guideline that is somewhat more relevant for this book:

If a dead guy can do it, it ain’t learning!

Learning must be active. For students to be engaged with their learning, they must be invested, they must be involved. As both the definition and this movie example illustrate, student engagement is more than merely a passive response to a lecture or even a halfhearted attempt to pay slight attention and complete a worksheet. Rather, student learning—student engagement—is an active, involved, cognitive, and emotional investment in the content to be learned. While teachers have long understood that cognitive involvement was necessary for learning to take place, the more recent insight herein is that students must be emotionally invested in their learning activity. Teachers who plan their lessons with that in mind might find that they begin to plan different types of lesson activities.

In fact, using this concept of student engagement provides teachers with a goal for lesson development, a general direction for planning lesson activities. For student engagement to be maximized, it becomes the teacher’s task to delineate learning activities that will foster cognitive involvement in and emotional connection with the learning content. To the degree that we educators can provide such activities, students are much more likely to be engaged and also more likely to learn.

There is one additional caveat to this discussion of student engagement. As shown previously, engagement is very hard to measure in an academic setting. Further, student engagement is not a targeted or direct goal of education. Rather, engagement is most frequently discussed as a precursor and essential cause for increased student achievement. For that reason, there is not a great deal of research proving that any given instructional strategy increases student engagement. Rather, most efficacy research involves documenting how a strategy impacts students’ achievement, rather than student engagement itself. Therefore, in each following strategy, the research discussed will emphasize improving academic achievement.

Engagement Strategies and Teaching Tips

At the outset, I should describe the distinction between a strategy to enhance student engagement and a simple teaching tip. A teaching tip involves a simple, easily implemented practice or teaching habit that will typically enhance the instruction for all teachers. For example, Ripp (2015) recommends a number of teaching tips that teachers might employ to keep students engaged. These include things like:

  • Change it up—varying instructional practices from time to time
  • Find a new way—seeking ways for students to present their knowledge
  • Get up and move—using movement in class to keep students from getting bored
  • Stop the train wreck—stopping and discussing educational activities on which students lose interest and then discussing why they lost interest while seeking another way to do the same thing

All of these teaching tips are effective ways to increase student engagement, but they are merely teaching tips, suggestions on how to teach. These are not highly involved strategies to implement in the classroom. A quick look at the literature on student engagement reveals many articles that provide teaching tips or suggestions of this nature (Cochrane Collegiate Academy, 2014; Marzano, 2015; McCarthy, 2015; Ripp, 2015; Tizzard, 2010; Zepke & Leach, 2010), and many of these suggestions have merit. A list of tips from these sources, along with a very brief explanation of each, is presented in Box 1.

Box 1: Teaching Tips to Enhance Student Engagement
  • Hold a meaningful conversation: When students are not engaged, stop the lesson and ask why. Talk about what might interest them more, and let them know you are willing to try activities they suggest.
  • Turn on some music: Sometimes playing soft background music can help motivate them. However, take care to note the impact of background music on every student; for some students, any noise merely creates a distraction.
  • Make learning content personal: Personalizing the learning by showing how content is meaningful and relevant to students will help them remain focused on the content.
  • Use technology: Students today use technology in almost every aspect of their lives, and integrating this into learning will help hold the attention of many students.
  • Give students some choices: By making different choices among lesson assignments available to students, we are sharing control of the class with them. Students will often focus on the content more when they have chosen one of several activity options.
  • Create collaborative learning that fosters relationships: Students will often engage more in collaborative working situations than in individual situations.
  • Create challenging activities: Students will often engage more when working on activities that challenge their knowledge, particularly in team or learning- pair types of activities.
  • Use movement to make learning active: High-energy activities always seem to increase retention compared to more passive types of learning activities, so teachers should create learning environments that build energy.
  • Make it a game: Games and competitive activities foster higher student engagement more readily than simple practice-the-learning activities.
  • Focus on clearly stated goals: Teachers should identify specific essential questions or lesson objectives and stress the importance of them for
the students.
  • Use an activating task: A brief high-interest activity at the beginning of a lesson will help students focus actively on the content. Competitive activities or interesting brief video clips can add interest to the content.
  • Limit the lecture: Teachers have long recognized that lectures make students passive learners, and as a rule, the only lectures used in classrooms today should be brief highly focused mini-lessons (eight to fifteen minutes, as suggested by research on brain functioning; Sousa & Tomlinson, 2011).
  • Use graphics and illustrations: Graphic organizers or simple student drawings that highlight aspects of the content can greatly aid in remembering that content. Having the students create these graphics and illustrations using either simple drawings or digital creative tools will enhance learning.
  • Focus on higher-order thinking: Questions that focus on the bigger picture or the more complete task will often engage students more than simple factual or memory questions.
  • Summarize the work at the end: Summarization is a great closure activity for the end of a lesson, and having students discuss the summary in partners for the last five minutes of class will increase memory for the content.

Teachers should certainly employ some or most of these teaching tips, but again, these are not specific instructional strategies designed to increase student engagement. In contrast to the brief teaching tips, a strategy in this context is a more involved instructional procedure that will be more likely to foster student engagement. Strategies will take some time for teachers to plan and implement and may involve in-depth modification of long-standing instructional practices. Strategies to increase student engagement may involve how instruction is organized or how teachers facilitate students’ taking personal responsibility for learning. Alternatively, some strategies involve learning about and employing new teaching tools, many of which involve modern teaching technologies, in the classroom.

Teachers who have chosen to purchase this book typically have explored and implemented many of the teaching tips that one can find in the literature or in Box 1. However, many teachers, having implemented those teaching tips and habits, are still seeking substantive ideas to increase engagement. These teachers need practical, proven strategies that engage the students we find in the classroom today, the tech-savvy students who know and utilize all of the most modern phone apps and in their spare time focus on highly engaging computer games with sophisticated graphics, games that are highly interactive and demand near-instantaneous responses. These students routinely engage with their friends in various social networks.

Today’s students are not likely to be highly engaged in a traditional “lecture, discuss, test” type of instructional format. These students demand and expect intensive, attention-grabbing instructional practices. This book is intended to fulfill that need.

How to Use This Book

Specifically, this book is intended for teachers across the grade levels who are seeking ways to meaningfully engage students with the curricular content. Herein, I present a variety of instructional strategies that are known to foster high levels of student engagement. These are presented in four broad areas—instructional organization strategies, technology strategies, collaborative strategies, and personal responsibility strategies—with multiple strategies shared for each broad area.

In various strategy sections, I have included classroom examples and case studies, which include examples in various subjects across the grade levels. In order to ensure the practicality of this work, I have also invited several educators to write teacher contributions in which they note how they use specific strategies to enhance student engagement in their classes. In various sections, I’ve included some specific related information in boxed form that should generally be considered as sidebar information. I’ve also included various figures and data charts throughout the text to show how teachers might evaluate the efficacy of the strategies described.

This book also provides many specific instructional guidelines or step-by-step instructions for various strategies. Each of these text features is clearly identified in the book and should help the reader in understanding the strategies.

This book is structured such that teachers should feel free to skip around. While research evidence is cited throughout the book, the primary purpose here is to provide teachers with practical, effective, and time-efficient instructional strategies, and given that teachers’ time is always at a premium, teachers should feel free to select individual strategies that they wish to consider for their own classroom and read those sections of the book first.

Teachers should realize that, for most of these strategies, there are a variety of ways they may be implemented, and guidelines for implementation presented are exactly that—guidelines. I realize that the primary audience for this book is veteran teachers just like you! You are probably already an effective teacher who is exploring ways to become more effective. Thus, you should feel free to adapt these ideas, to merge these strategies, or to modify them in any reasonable or ethical manner that works in your classroom. Talk with your colleagues and reflect on these teaching strategies in order to make them your own.

With that noted, I would also make one additional request: drop me a line or two via email (my direct email is [email protected]) and let me know how any of these strategies worked for you. Let me know of your modifications, adaptations of these ideas, and how and why they worked, if they did, in your classroom. Please understand that this is more than merely a polite invitation. I truly enjoy interacting via email with teachers who have used my work to further their own, and I seriously invite you to contact me about the topics included herein. I sincerely hope that this work is useful for you, and as a classroom teacher myself, I understand your time constraints, as well as the job you are doing. Further, I recognize the importance of that job.

Finally, with that in mind, let me join the many parents and students who, I’m sure, have told you in the past: Thanks for what you do! You are making a difference!

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Instructional Organization for Increasing Engagement

Student engagement, as defined previously, involves many facets, but one of the most important involves structuring the curriculum and delivery of instruction specifically to maximize engagement. When the traditional “lecture, discuss, test” instructional approach is considered, an effort to increase engagement will be, in essence, an effort to decrease lectures and whole-class discussion. This does not mean that these traditional teaching approaches have no place in the modern classroom; it does mean that these instructional activities should be fairly rare, since it has long been recognized that lecture is one of the least effective ways to teach, forcing students into a passive role. Student engagement is often quite low during lecture types of classes. This section focuses on several ways to organize instruction to minimize those traditional forms of teaching.

Differentiated instruction is one instructional approach that fosters varied instructional activities. This concept is now nearly two decades old, and we educators should give credit where credit is due. The concept of differentiated instruction developed by Carol Tomlinson (1999) represents one of the first, and certainly one of the most effective, efforts to vary how instruction was delivered in order to address individual learning styles and the needs of specific students and to increase their engagement with the subject content. As such, a discussion of differentiated instruction is warranted here.

In addition, several more recent instructional organization approaches have likewise been developed in recent years, including project-based learning, the flipped classroom, and genius hour / makerspace. The impact of each of these instructional organization strategies on student engagement is presented in this section.

Strategy 1

Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction is an excellent instructional strategy for keeping students engaged in an intensive, meaningful way with the learning content. Differentiation involves varying the instructional activities in the class by selecting specific types of activities for each individual student, based on his or her individual learning characteristics and learning style preferences (Bender, 2013a; Sousa & Tomlinson, 2011; Tomlinson, 2003, 2010). Tomlinson originally developed this teaching strategy in 1999, and since then, much work has been done to further this concept, with Tomlinson herself leading this effort (Sousa & Tomlinson, 2011; Tomlinson, 2003, 2010).

Differentiated instruction involves varying the instructional activities in the class by selecting specific types of activities for each student, based on his or her individual learning characteristics and learning style preferences.

Over the last decade, the differentiated instruction approach has moved away from a dependence on only one learning style theory to embrace a variety of student differences and appropriate curricular modifications (Bender, 2013a, 2013b; King & Gurian, 2006; Lee, Wehmeyer, Sookup, & Palmer, 2010). Further, the concept has been applied in a variety of subjects and a variety of ways across the grade levels (Bender, 2013a; King & Gurian, 2006). Because student learning differences are more directly addressed in differentiated classes, students are more likely to be engaged with the learning content, and limited research evidence does show increased academic achievement resulting from increased differentiation (King & Gurian, 2006; Lee et al., 2010; Sousa & Tomlinson, 2011; Tomlinson, Brimijoin, & Navaez, 2008).

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Four Models for Differentiation

At least four different models for differentiation have been developed and promoted (Bender, 2013a, 2013b; Tomlinson, 2010; Tomlinson, Brimijoin, & Narvaez, 2008), including: modification of a traditional lesson plan, learning centers, project-based learning, and the flipped classroom. All of these teaching approaches are, in essence, various ways to differentiate instruction, because each of these approaches fosters use of a wide variety of lesson activities and also allows students to use their preferred learning style to maximum effect (Bender, 2013a).

Because the differentiated instruction concept has been around since Tomlinson’s initial work in 1999, many teachers have already explored various approaches to differentiating instruction. Still, because differentiation does increase student engagement and provides a very viable alternative to more traditional approaches, such as lectures in content classes, it must be presented here. This section focuses primarily on the original approach to differentiated instruction, modification of the traditional whole-group lesson plan.

Modification of a Traditional Lesson Plan

The traditional lesson plan format was developed in the late 1960s and is typically described as phases of instruction within a single-day whole-class lesson. The five phases of instruction are presented in Box 1.1. Of course, variations of the phases in that traditional lesson plan vary from one author to another, but in most cases, that plan looks something like this.

Box 1.1: Phases in a Traditional Whole-Class Lesson Plan
  • Orientation to the topic: Teacher gives a three- to five-minute orientation using an essential question, objective, or real-world example.
  • Teacher-led instruction: Teacher presents additional examples and shows the content as the students’ first exposure to the topic.
  • Teacher-led practice: Students practice a few problems, under teacher supervision.
  • Independent practice: Students practice problems independently, often as homework and sometimes as small-group work.
  • Check and reteach: Teacher checks student understanding on a few problems and reteaches the content as necessary.

In this lesson plan, students’ attention often wanes either because the content is too difficult and they cannot keep up or they are advanced and get bored listening to initial instructional examples that they do not need. Thus, traditional lessons typically lose students at both ends of the ability spectrum—gifted students and students with learning challenges. Still, in traditional classes, the whole class proceeds through all of these steps simultaneously, and if small-group instruction is provided, it comes following the initial instruction led by the teacher.

In order to increase student engagement with learning content and to optimize achievement, Tomlinson recommended varying the instructional activities for different class members, based on their individual learning styles. While her first book (Tomlinson, 1999) was based largely on Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory, most of her later books have moved beyond that one theory to focus on many learning style preferences and achievement differences (Tomlinson, 2003, 2010; Sousa & Tomlinson, 2011).

After teachers became familiar with Tomlinson’s work, many began to modify the traditional whole-group lesson plan to allow for more differentiated activities. The differentiated classrooms of today present a much wider array of activities, targeted at individual learners, in order to address the issues of more varied learning styles, learning preferences, and the wider academic diversity in today’s schools.

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A Classroom Example: A Differentiated History Lesson

Imagine a traditional history lesson in Ms. Kimball’s fifth-grade class, a class of twenty- four students, five of whom are students with special needs. Several of those five students have learning disabilities or ADHD, and five students, including one student with ADHD, are academically advanced. In other words, Ms. Kimball’s class is a typical fifth-grade class. Ms. Kimball is teaching a history lesson in a one-week history unit concerning Manifest Destiny and the Texas Revolution. Box 1.2 (page 14) shows the phases of a traditional whole-group lesson plan on the left and a series of differentiated lesson activities on the right for the same lesson.

Box 1.2: Traditional and Differentiated Lesson Plan
Traditional Lesson Differentiated Lesson 
Ms. Kimball introduces the Alamo. Same activity for all students.
Teacher-Led Instruction
Ms. Kimball begins discussion of what caused the Texas Revolution with eighteen students in the mainline group who receive increased teacher attention. Ms. Kimball assigns a group to write a role-play on causes to fight. The Omega group is formed to begin that work.
Teacher-Led Practice
Ms. Kimball gives student groups an assignment to look up how their chosen character perceived the fight. Ms. Kimball is now working with eleven students in the mainline group. Omega group continues its work, while Ms. Kimball forms a second group—the Beta group—for another differentiated assignment, perhaps seeking online information on the Runaway Scrape in the Texas Revolution.
Independent Practice and Check Reteach Phases
Whole group comes back together for further activities.

To begin this lesson with an attention-grabbing orientation activity, Ms. Kimball shows a three- to ten-minute segment of the movie The Alamo and asks students to identify their favorite historic figure from among five figures. That movie presents many historic figures (Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, Colonel William Travis, Juan Seguin, General Santa Anna). She then asks them to list three reasons for their choice. She announces that there will be a popularity vote on who is the best-loved historic character at the end of the week-long unit but that each student has to know the history of the whole Texas Revolution. After that brief introduction activity for the whole class, the students are interested in learning more about their choices.

At that point, Ms. Kimball has captured the interest of the students and set up a competition among them for that week. In a traditional whole-class lesson, she would proceed to the next phase—teacher-led instruction—by saying, “Let’s look at why these men fought in the revolution,” and in many cases, that is exactly where many students lose interest in the lesson.

Students with disabilities or limited attention simply wander away mentally, and while interesting orientation activities can hold students’ interest for a brief time, moving into teacher-led instruction is often where they mentally check out. Further, some of the more advanced students may have already understood the idea and maybe looking in the text for information on their chosen historic figure. Thus, like their less successful classmates, they too have mentally checked out. In this example, both advanced students and students with learning problems have become unengaged with the lesson content during the whole- group lesson format. Further, when five students with disabilities and five advanced or gifted students cease to pay attention, Ms. Kimball has effectively lost ten of her twenty-four students. In this example of a traditional lesson plan, ten students have stopped participating in the lesson simply because Ms. Kimball taught the traditional whole-group lesson plan, just as recommended in the teacher’s manual!

Forming Differentiated Groups

The differentiated lesson plan on the right side of Box 1.2 provides a set of modified lesson activities that are much more likely to keep all or most of these learners actively engaged with the lesson. Rather than begin the second phase of the traditional whole-group lesson, Ms. Kimball selects a group for a different activity while she continues the traditional lesson with the other students. To do this, Ms. Kimball identifies several students at the end of the orientation activity who can work independently and several who can’t in order to have a heterogeneous ability group. She selects students who work well together and have a similar learning style—perhaps learning through collaborative role-play and movement. She then forms a differentiated instructional group for a different learning activity on these characters that is directly tied to their learning style preference.

For example, she assigns an activity of planning a one-act role-play in which three or four of the historic figures debate their perspective on the Texas Revolution. There is considerable debate on what the defenders of the Alamo were fighting for. They may not have known that Texas independence had been declared by other Texans at the time of the battle, and most, like the Mexican Juan Seguin, who fought with the Alamo defenders, were probably fighting for the restoration of the Mexican constitution, which Santa Anna had defied. Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett were both rough and tumble Americans and were probably fighting for total independence, while the Alamo commander, Colonel Travis, may have been fighting for the restoration of the Mexican constitution. Clearly Santa Anna perceived all the defenders as “pirates” or revolutionaries with no legal basis for their claims.

Thus, these students are assigned to present a role-play of these historic figures meeting in a frontier tavern and discussing their perspectives before the fight. The students work relatively independently, while Ms. Kimball works with others in the class in a traditional lesson plan format, as shown in Box 1.2. We’ll call that differentiated group the Omega group.

Ms. Kimball knows that as long as some students in the Omega group get the overall concept of what is needed, the group should be able to work on its own in this differentiated learning activity, while Ms. Kimball continues the traditional lesson format with others in the classroom. Note that while small-group instruction in traditional lessons is typically used much later in a traditional lesson plan, after the teacher has taught the content, in a differentiated lesson plan students are doing different activities within five or ten minutes of the beginning of the class, even before the teacher-led instructional phase of the lesson. Thus, fewer students get mentally lost during instruction, and fewer get bored than in a traditional lesson.
The names used for differentiated groups in the class should be nonsequential and should not indicate a quantitative or qualitative judgment on the skills or the intellect of the group. However, as teachers differentiate more, the class will grow to understand that different groups are frequently formed to complete alternative learning activities and that not all students in the class do the same activities.

In this example, Ms. Kimball has previously developed an assignment sheet for the Omega group presenting a scenario for a secret meeting in a neutral place, a guarded frontier tavern, where participants gather to discuss their positions and hopefully prevent the coming battle. The Omega group students are instructed to explore the perspectives of these historic figures using the text and Internet sources and then begin to write dialogue formulating these positions. The final step is ordering and structuring the dialogue such that each participant speaks in response to the others. Thus, rather than merely listening to Ms. Kimball discuss the Texas Revolution, these students are engaged at a deeper, more creative level. As the Omega group students work, they become one with their characters, which is why role-play can be so effective in history classes.

Of course, Ms. Kimball and other teachers rarely have to create these alternative differentiated activities. Most modern curricula include instructional alternatives in the teacher’s manual, so Ms. Kimball need only preselect an appropriate activity and provide any necessary materials to the Omega group.

The Mainline Instructional Group

In this example, Ms. Kimball has provided an orientation and then differentiated the lesson activities based on individual learners’ characteristics by forming two groups: the Omega group and the mainline group. As the Omega group does its work, Ms. Kimball engages in the next phase of the lesson, teacher-led initial instruction, for the mainline group. She makes certain that the activity provided for that group is at least as engaging as the work the Omega group is doing. However, we should note that, with fewer students working directly with Ms. Kimball, the efficacy of her teaching is likely to go up. In a smaller mainline group, she can make better eye contact with the students and give each student more attention than in a whole-class lesson. This tends to increase the engagement of both groups, which is why differentiated instruction is very effective; more students are more highly engaged with the history content. Also, in order to focus the attention of the mainline group, Ms. Kimball considers reorienting the class. For example, if the Omega group is working in the right front of the classroom in a small-group workspace, she has the mainline group turn their desks to face the left rear corner of the room. In that way, Ms. Kimball can increase student engagement in two critical ways:

  1. She has oriented the mainline instructional group to have their backs to the Omega group, and both groups are more likely to pay attention to their own assigned task.
  2. She has placed herself in a position to lead instruction for the mainline group and still visually monitor the Omega group with ease.
The Beta Group

At the end of the teacher-led instructional phase, several things happen at once. First, if the students in the Omega group happen to finish their assignment, they are told to rejoin the mainline group. Otherwise, they simply continue their group work. Next, prior to beginning the next phase of the traditional lesson, the teacher-led practice phase, Ms. Kimball selects another group for a second differentiated activity. We’ll refer to it as the Beta group. Again, Ms. Kimball takes care to include both students who have grasped the content and a few who haven’t. The Beta group is then given some type of assignment on the history lesson. As shown in Box 1.2, this involves seeking information on the Runaway Scrape, which was the second part of the Texas Revolution. Note that when the two differentiated groups are doing separate, small-group assignments, Ms. Kimball is instructing a group of only ten or twelve students in the mainline group, resulting in even more direct teacher attention for every learner and increased student engagement.

In this classroom example, Ms. Kimball is providing highly fluid differentiated instruction, targeted at individual students based on their learning styles and individual needs. In a differentiated class, small groups are frequently formed from the very beginning of the lesson and then rejoin the mainline instruction, as appropriate. Not all groups do all the activities, but all receive small-group work tied to their learning preferences and direct teacher attention in a smaller mainline instruction group. Meanwhile, during almost all of the class, Ms. Kimball is working with smaller numbers of students and instructional efficacy is very likely to increase.

As this example indicates, rather than lecturing to the whole class, differentiated lessons offer an option to all teachers for replacing lecture with brief, intensive small-group and teacher-led instruction. In the differentiated class, students tend to be much more engaged with the learning content, and therefore, learning is likely to increase.

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Guidelines for Differentiated Instruction

Know Your Students

The concept of differentiated instruction has always focused on knowing the learn- ing styles and abilities of each student in the class. Some students learn best through movement-based instruction; others learn verbally or from reading texts or from computer-based study. Some students learn best in small-group discussions. Knowing the individual learning characteristics of every student, along with that student’s overall achievement level, will allow teachers to form effective small groups virtually instantly, and matching the instructional activity to individual learning characteristics is the very essence of differentiated instruction.

Take Time to Plan Differentiated Lessons

When teachers first consider differentiated lessons, they are often very concerned with the time it takes to plan multiple activities. Clearly, relying on the traditional lecture-based lesson plan is easier than planning a dynamic, differentiated lesson. However, teachers must understand that the main emphasis of differentiated instruction is the presentation of lesson activities that actively engage the learners in new and dramatic ways. At least initially, such lesson planning will take a bit more time.

We should also note that effective differentiated instruction takes place well before the class begins. Differentiation is based on well-planned, highly focused, small- group lessons for learners with similar learning styles and needs. Teachers will need to select these activities in advance of the lesson and prepare for them. In the previous example, Ms. Kimball might have continued to differentiate the lesson throughout the period by forming additional groups as necessary. In most cases, however, differentiated lessons rarely involve more than three small groups in the class, because as students finish a differentiated assignment, they frequently rejoin the teacher-led instruction for a brief time.

Prepare Students for Differentiated Group Work

Increased collaborative work and small-group work are emphasized in most state curricular standards, so teachers are seeking ways to increase these learning activities. Differentiated lessons provide an excellent vehicle for doing exactly that. However, effective small-group work doesn’t just happen! To prepare students for these small groups, all teachers moving into more differentiation should also plan to teach small-group learning skills such as brainstorming, active listening, timelining, and providing constructive criticism. Of course, these skills are also critical in the modern world and directly transfer to later life experiences.

Invite Students to Plan and Prepare Differentiated Activities

As shown in Box 1.2, it is possible on many occasions to have one small group prepare an educational activity for the class. In this example, the role-play should be performed for the whole class, followed by a discussion of the differing perspectives of these historic figures. With a strong focus on the specific historical content, students can often prepare an activity for others to subsequently use.

Trust Students to Learn From Each Other

Differentiated instruction is working in classrooms because students can and do learn from each other, and teachers must learn to trust that. Some students might even learn more effectively from each other than from a teacher, because some students pay more attention to their peers than to the teacher. If the small groups are selected carefully by the teacher, students will learn from others in the class.

Replace Lectures With Differentiated Lessons

Educators have long realized that lecture is the least effective way to teach, and for that reason, many teachers have already moved to differentiated lessons rather than exclusive use of traditional, whole-group lecture-based lesson plans. However, not every whole-group lesson needs to be highly differentiated. There are many whole- group activities that can and do actively engage almost all learners. These include gaming activities, project-based work, video/computer-based presentations, debates and role-play, interactive simulations, and other whole-class activities. When a teacher is using these types of high-engagement activities, little differentiation will be necessary to keep all students focused on the learning content, and many of these are discussed later in this book. As an initial goal for teachers moving into differentiated instruction, I suggest that teachers use those types of whole-group activities for one or two periods weekly and implement a highly differentiated lesson on other days.

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Research on Differentiated Instruction

The research support base for differentiated instruction is neither particularly strong nor extensive, and this lack of a strong, broad research base may stem, in part, from the assumption that differentiated instruction is a broad instructional approach rather than a specific teaching strategy. Nevertheless, teachers have responded quite strongly to the differentiated instruction concept, and many teachers report improved student satisfaction and increased academic performance resulting from increased differentiation (King & Gurian, 2006; Lee et al., 2010; Sousa & Tomlinson, 2011). In fact, educators generally seem to believe that differentiated instruction represents an expectation for all teachers in the future. Marzano, as one example, includes differentiated instruction in his book on excellence in teaching (Tomlinson, 2010).

Further, case-study research does suggest increased academic performance when differentiated instruction is widely employed at the school level (Bender, 2013a; King & Gurian, 2006; Tomlinson, 2010; Tomlinson, Brimijoin, & Navaez, 2008). Tomlinson, Brimijoin, and Navaez (2008), for example, describe the implementation of differentiated instruction at two schools, an elementary school and a high school. These researchers documented rates of proficiency in core subjects of reading, writing, and mathematics prior to and after implementation of differentiated instruction. The faculty was provided an implementation period of one year, which included significant professional development focused on the differentiated instruction concept. Those proficiency-score pre/post comparisons showed that after differentiated instruction was implemented schoolwide, students’ proficiency jumped up in each subject, between 10 percent and 30 percent. That is a very significant jump in achievement scores schoolwide!


Teachers who are not already providing differentiated instruction should certainly begin to do so, because this instructional strategy will increase student engagement rather drastically. Further, while research results here are limited, this teaching strategy does represent the future of instruction simply because of the increased academic and learning style variance in the typical classroom today. At the very least, replacing most lectures with differentiated instruction assignments will increase academic engagement and performance. Also, this emphasis on differentiated instruction will provide an opportunity for both students and teachers to enjoy learning in new and novel ways.

Personally, I’ve become committed to this differentiated instruction strategy. This strategy represents a drastic improvement over the “teacher in front lecturing” approach, coupled with little to no classroom activity and resulting in very bored students. For that reason, I like to see highly fluid, differentiated groups in every classroom in the school.

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Library of Congress Control Number: 2017947359

Publisher’s Cataloging-in-Publication Data provided by Five Rainbows Cataloging Services

Names: Bender, William N., author.

Title: 20 Strategies for Increasing Student Engagement / William N. Bender.

Description: West Palm Beach, FL: Learning Sciences, 2017. | Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: ISBN 978-1-941112-79-3 (pbk.) | ISBN 978-1-941112-89-2 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH: Engagement (Philosophy) | Learning, Psychology of. | Students–Psychology.| Classroom management–Psychological aspects. | Teacher-student relationships. | BISAC: EDUCATION / Educational Psychology. | EDUCATION / Classroom Management.Classification: LCC LB1065 .B43 2017 (print) | LCC LB1065 (ebook) | DDC 370.15/4 dc23.