Wednesday / February 8

Active Engagement Equates to Students Talking

active engagement

Contributed by Pamela Nevills

Picture a learning environment that demands student engagement. No student is allowed to be disconnected from lessons. Each one is in a constant state of readiness, for students know they are expected to think, respond, and learn. When students are engaged learning potential is at its highest. While an active engagement classroom will not be the quiet, orderly, neatly managed environment some have come to expect, there is no doubt that the teacher is in charge. There is a planned lesson and student responses are anticipated, even though there is no way to predict what they will need or ask or talk about to reach the lesson objective. Students bring to the classroom a wild range of information, a wide berth of needs, and a whimsical curiosity. The classroom can be anything but predictable when students are actively learning. Furthermore, they know and sense when a classroom is productive, and they savor the opportunity to be in these happening, active classrooms.

Traditional teaching requires students to pay attention and to wait for the teacher to call on them or maybe not. Teachers can change this time tried and antiquated process by expecting that every student will stay focused and at a continual state of readiness.  Each student has the potential to be asked to contribute and respond out loud to the whole class, a small group, or a partner at any point of the lesson. This concept looks and sounds very different from the traditional method for seeking student responses. Students attend, remain engaged, and strengthen newly forming neuropathways in their brains to enforce learning and remembering. How do teachers reinforce this type of student engagement? The opportunities are endless, but here are two examples.

Working Memory Engagement

Call out responses – the teacher stops talking and signals students to respond. There are many ways this engagement can happen. The most common strategy is to have all students answer a question out loud in unison. A variation is to prompt responses from the right or left side of the class, boys/girls, tables, or rows. Students can also repeat what the teacher has just said following a prompt, such as both hands being held out and open.

A more advanced strategy requires students to listen attentively to one another, as if they are having a large group discussion. This technique requires individuals to keep track of answers given by others and wait for an opening to take a turn to talk. Note the teacher’s role is not to call on specific students; rather it is to indicate attentiveness through the teacher’s sign of approval, such as a nod, open hand, or step toward the self-initiated speaker. If responses are not accurate or moving away from the topic, the teacher intervenes and redirects the discussion. When the discussion is exhausted, the teacher proceeds with the lesson. Students can also be asked to repeat someone’s answer or add to it. These more advanced call out strategies expect students to be attending to what other students have to say. It requires some practice and enhances not only listening and learning skills, but fosters respect among students, as well.

Remember back (first, second, or third concept) – the teacher announces there will be three (or another number) of key points the students need to remember. While teacher input is given, the teacher stops and asks the class to respond, “What was the first point (or second, or third)?” This questioning happens continually during the lesson to force students to hold important information in their working memories. Students can be encouraged and to keep track of the big concepts from the lesson by explaining the big ideas to a partner or developing the concept in a small group. This type of engagement forces students to practice and rehearse information in working memory. If the neuron signals are strong and reinforced it is more likely the student will be able to recall the information at a later time.

Enlist Long Term Memory

When students face new challenges to problem solve, compare, analyze, or develop a new product, they draw upon information, concepts, and images from long term memory. The information recalled can be accessed from many different areas of the students’ brains and will be recalled with richness of vocabulary if it was learned well. Students learning with the common core expectations can succeed with challenging educational demands requiring high levels of thinking, levels previously thought to be unattainable.  Teachers who understand the capabilities of young, developing minds can turn any lesson from a boring recapture of incidentals and facts into an exciting, neuron stimulating learning laboratory. See this example.

Experience a new identity

Social Studies – Studying a state’s current financial status. Have students take on the identity of a person who is facing a difficult situation. Teachers anchor the circumstances with actual facts. For example, what if you are a legislator in California who needs to deal with the economic problems of the county or area you represent? The students/legislators are given information they can hear, read, or observe through a technology resource. In this instance they need to know that the state of California is known for its rich history associated with the film industry, its lush farmlands and grazing pastures, its contributions to technology, its natural resources, and its mild climate and ocean front property all of which encourage the tourist industry. California is considered by many to be one of the wealthiest states in the nation. However, several years ago the state was on the verge of financial collapse. Students need find current information about their assigned county. A list of items to research is provided. The task is to prepare a speech and response to their constituents in the county. The information they provide needs to be encouraging and to provide a direction for the local area to be financially secure. The final episode of this lesson is for students to be the speakers and other students to be the voters back home. The speech scenario is enacted and the audience responds.

Exceptional teachers intentionally challenge students and prepare them for life as they access and develop working and long term memory. Through active teaching and engaged student learning students develop new approaches to thinking, and prepare for life’s issues that are sometimes riddled with absurdities.

Resource for nontraditional teaching strategies for student engagement:

Nevills, P. (2010). Build the brain for reading, grades 4-12. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.  (See chapters 3, 4.)



Pamela A. Nevills

Through her diverse professional background, Pamela Nevills has acquired a passion for teaching that is based on research and principles from neuroscience. Successful, competent learners result when teachers understand how learning happens. Exploring and developing the best instructional practices that affect all levels of the school system forms the basis of her work. She is the author of Build the Brain the Common Core Way. Schedule an on-site or virtual consultation, seminar, or workshop with Pamela A. Nevills today!


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