It’s often said that today’s kids have shorter attention spans than ever before. Whether this is true, or simply a wistful case of the “good old days”, sharing strategies for keeping students engaged and on task in the classroom can only be of benefit to student and teacher alike. Enter active learning strategies.
We chatted to three teachers who shared their experiences of the active learning strategies they use to get the best out of their students.
1. Be flexible with your space
Different spaces can evoke vastly different reactions and feelings, depending on the environment around us. Simply changing students’ perceptions of the classroom can have a huge impact.
By creating a new environment, we’re able to change students’ thinking and behaviour in that space. Some students say this actually gives them the confidence to apply for a part-time job.”
“When teaching employability skills, we turn school spaces into interview rooms where students participate in mock job interviews one by one,” says Beverley Paskin, an Art and Careers Teacher. “Students wear corporate attire and get a chance to practice at school before they do it in the real world. By creating a new environment, we’re able to change students’ thinking and behaviour in that space. Some students say this actually gives them the confidence to apply for a part-time job.”
2. Incorporate tech
There are so many digital resources available which offer new ways to engage students. For senior students, incorporating technology into project-based assignments can really drive engagement.
“We give students a brief from which they undertake self-directed, personalised learning projects,” says Nazemin Meharg, a multidisciplinary High School Teacher. “They use a range of online, hands-on and real-life resources to complete the project. Students are then able to choose the subject matter, research and delivery mode depending on what interests them most.”
3. Use group work
Meharg finds using self-organised learning environments (SOLE) to be particularly useful. In the case of group work, the key to success might be in matching team members and assigning roles.
“We have students working in teams, and assign different duties to each student. Everyone has a role, so no one sits out, and everyone exchanges the information they’ve found. This way, students get lots of information and different viewpoints, and they’re always really keen to volunteer what they’ve learned,” says Meharg. “Before I used to throw a question out there and nobody would put up their hand because they were worried they’d look a fool in front of their peers. Now they all feel like they own it.”
4. Keep it real
Experiential learning isn’t just taking kids on an excursion; it’s about allowing students to problem solve real-life situations.
“I run physical activity and sports studies,” says Liz Dunn, a PDHPE teacher. “When teaching coaching, we go down to the primary school and the kids will actually physically coach junior students. You can teach students the theory while you’re sitting in the classroom, but experience brings the best learning. I don’t think they really learn how to do it until they actually try. I believe that’s where they learn the most.”
5. Give students time to prepare
It can be awkward when you ask an open-ended question and no one responds. Your gut instinct may be to answer the question, but it’s important to give students enough time to think of a response.
"You can teach students the theory while you’re sitting in the classroom, but experience brings the best learning. I don’t think they really learn how to do it until they actually try. I believe that’s where they learn the most.”
“I introduce questions at the start and get students to think during the lesson so I’m not asking them to think and come up with an answer straight away,” says Dunn. “If you give students the questions at the beginning of the lesson, or even the night before, it gives them time to come up with a more thoughtful response.”
6. Use case studies
Case studies allow students more opportunities to understand real-world issues.
“I do road safety with year 10. You can talk about the impacts of speeding and drink driving. But, when you present real-life situations, it makes students think more that it’s reality and not just something you see in the movies,” says Dunn. “We give students questions at the beginning of the lesson, so they can think critically and engage with the case study on a higher level. Afterwards, I actually go through and get each student’s opinion. Different people see different things, so it’s important to listen to a lot of different perspectives.”
7. Show what success looks like
Many students want to achieve the highest marks. Showing what success looks like at each level — similar to a marking criteria — can help them reach their goals.
“If students want a higher mark, they need to meet detailed, easy-to-understand criteria, such as going into more detail and giving more examples,” says Meharg. “Students can physically see what they need to do to improve, so they’re taking control of their learning.”
“It’s hard to get a perception of what an ‘A’ can look like,” she adds, “by doing this we make it clear what students need to do in order to achieve top marks, letting them take control of their learning.”
Every student is different, and there isn’t a single “right” way to teach that will guarantee positive results. But by using a mix of the learning strategies outlined above, teachers can test out innovative and interesting tactics to keep students engaged, and unlock their potential.