UKEdMag: 3 Principles for Engaging Students by @BarbBlackburn

Engaging students can be a difficult task, especially when students are not particularly motivated to learn. Let’s look at three general principles for engaging students, along with sample activities for each.

This article originally appeared in Issue 50 of the UKEdMagazine. Click here to freely read.

Make Learning Fun

Quick games can help students have fun while learning. Three Alike is a game in which the teacher provides three examples to the students, and then asks the group to guess what he or she will be teaching about today. Rather than saying, “I’m going to be teaching about negative integers today,” the teacher says, “Notice I have three numbers on the screen (-5, -14, -25). What do they have in common?” At least one student in the room probably knows the answer. Then you can build off that information as the lesson continues.

Once students are adept at Three Alike, you can play the Red Herring game. In this game, you provide four examples. Students must identify the one that does not belong and justify their answer. For example, “Which

of these does not belong: manatee, shark, whale, dolphin?” The answer is the shark, because it not a mammal. When students are familiar with both games, you can shift the ownership to them. They come up with the examples, and their classmates must guess the answers.

Use Real-Life Tasks

In most lessons, simply giving students an example that they can relate to their own experience will enhance the lesson. If you are teaching about map skills, you can have students draw maps of their classroom, their school, or their neighbourhood.

In the picture book Measuring Penny, the main character is assigned a project by her teacher to measure something at home. She chooses to measure Penny, her dog, in a variety of ways, using both standard and non-standard measurement. The book is an excellent example of a real-life project that inspires younger students.

Donna Gillespie teaches spreadsheets to her secondary students. To make the lesson relevant, she asks them to create a simple budget. In a follow-up, they are required to calculate grades. Donna explains, “Some of them liked giving grades so much they said they wanted to become a teacher. Others said, ‘Do you have to do this all the time with our grades?’” As the students created a grading system, they understood how their own grades were calculated in their classes. They were immediately able to make a connection to their own experiences.

Enhance Activities with Technology

Technology is the third way to increase student engagement. For example, blogs, which are short online journal-like entries, allow students to create a series of extended responses on a particular topic. For example, after students read a story or novel, they can write their response to the text. Many teachers use wikis, which is a way to power your blogs and allow students to write back and forth.

A key aspect of blogs is the written response by others, which requires the blog author to expand on the original response. Teacher Dave Craig used a blog with his students for reader response. After their initial entry about their book, other students responded with additional questions. The back-and-forth necessitates that the original author to write at higher levels. As you begin, you may want to assign students particular blogs to write a response with questions.

Sample Blog Assignment

Choose a person who is famous (related to our subject area). Create a blog entry explaining who you are and why you are famous. You can expect
a minimum of five follow-up questions from other students and/or the teacher. Be prepared to answer them with additional information about your person.

Another effective way to use technology in the classroom is to conduct virtual field trips. In today’s budget-conscious schools, this is particularly helpful. Imagine the activities you can integrate into the classroom with a virtual tour of the National Gallery. However, it’s important to remember that the field trip itself should not be the end result. Any tour should be linked to your standards, and the activities should result in increased learning related to your objectives. In the sample below, a visit to the Louvre was linked to a study of Egyptian history in grade six (Age 11-12). With adaptations of the assignments, it could easily be used in a secondary art class.

The Louvre Visit

Today we are going to take an exciting trip to Paris, France! Your ticket is and your vehicle is your computer, tablet or phone. Please read the instructions carefully so your trip is not wasted. I want you to have fun and learn something new in the process. We will have a round-table discussion on our magnificent trip Friday. Have fun and I can’t wait to hear about your adventure!

  1. As your tour guide, I suggest you learn some information about the Louvre Museum because you begin your tour. Start at the Collection and Louvre Palace link. Read the information about the history of The Louvre. You are in Paris and you call home to talk to someone your love. Tell them about the Louvre’s history in 3-5 sentences. Include why the museum was established and how it has been important to France.
  2. Now you are ready to take your tour. Using the same link go to Online Tours. Choose following tour: Egyptian Antiquities. Walk around on the floor to several areas. Spend 10 minutes learning how to navigate through the museum floor. Go to the help menu for ways to better navigate the tour.
  3. Choose one sculpture from your tour. Analyse how it reflects the culture of Egypt.
  4. Interpret the artwork. Communicate the artist’s statement. Describe what you think the artist is trying to say through the work of art. Expound on the feeling conveyed by the artwork. Describe what the artwork means to you, and why. Explain what you feel is the artist’s intended purpose for creating that particular work of art. Examine why the artist made the choices in technique, materials and subject matter and how they relate to the intended purpose. Your narrative should be approximately one page.

Note: for more suggestions, visit (the suggestions in number 4 are an excerpt from this site).

Ideas for other content areas:

Maths: Students can plan the trip to the Louvre, look up the flight, and calculate the cost.

Social Studies: Plan what to take and how to pack, discuss how to prepare to visit the country, learn about Paris, and the French government. Also discuss the history of Egypt and the symbolism of the historical time period.

Language Arts: How did the authors and poets of Egypt impact the culture? Also, teach about critiques and writing the analysis.


Increasing student engagement occurs when we make learning fun, help students see the value of learning through real-life connections, and use technology to increase interaction. Adjusting our instruction to incorporate these principles will help students learn at higher levels.

Barbara Blackburn was recently named one of the Top 30 Global Gurus in Education. She is a best- selling author of 18 books including Classroom Instruction from A to Z, and Motivating Struggling Learners: 10 Ways to Build Student Success.

An internationally recognized expert in the areas of instruction, rigour, and student motivation, she collaborates with schools and districts for professional development on-site and via technology. Barbara can be reached through her website. Follow her on Twitter @BarbBlackburn and find out more at



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