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Connecting with students key to engagement

New York Teacher

High school students become most engaged with classes when a teacher shows how subject matter relates to students’ lives and encourages them to share opinions and ideas, according to new research published in the American Educational Research Journal.

Researcher Kristy S. Cooper of Michigan State University studied how three common teaching practices — connective instruction, academic rigor and lively teaching — influence student engagement. She observed and surveyed more than 1,100 high school students in 581 classes in English, social studies, math, science and the visual and performing arts. A total of 106 teachers were involved in the study.

With connective instruction, teachers help students connect personally to a class, its content and the learning experience. Students are encouraged to share their ideas and opinions, and material is presented so that students experience content as relating to their lives, cultures or futures. Academic rigor as an instructional practice requires the teacher to help students progress through challenging work by providing the supports needed for success. It assumes that the teacher has a passion for the content and believes the subject matter is important for students. Lively teaching is a practice where teachers place students in active learning roles by using fun activities such as games, group work and projects.

The results showed that connective instruction was seven times more effective at engaging high school students than the instructional practices of academic rigor and lively teaching. This result held up in both academic and nonacademic classes even after controlling for student gender and race and their parents’ education level. Connective instruction’s effect on engagement was strongest in classrooms that were low on lively teaching practices. Cooper said this suggests that connective instruction plays a strong role in teacher-centered classes where teachers spend a lot of time on lectures and demonstrations.

Cooper also found that lively teaching helps stimulate engagement when students feel a low level of connection to a subject or when they experience a class as relatively rigorous. Lively teaching appeared to fill an emotional void in less connective classes or to relieve stress in challenging courses, thereby fostering engagement.

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