Seven Ways to Increase Student Engagement in K-12 Classrooms

students in a classroom sitting at desks and working on a textbook assignment

Contributor: Jonathan Wylie

The desire to keep students engaged in their learning is a continual challenge for teachers. However, help is at hand. When CAST created the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines, they knew that engagement had to be the foundation for creating expert learners.

In this post, I am going to use the UDL Guidelines as a lens to help provide you with some techniques and strategies that you can use to increase student engagement in your classroom.

Engagement vs Compliance

Before we get to those strategies, it’s important to draw a line between engagement and compliance. They’re not the same thing. If you walked past a classroom of students and they were all busy working away on an assignment, would you be able to tell if they were engaged in the work, or just doing what they were told?

Compliance is not a bad thing. We want students to behave appropriately and to be respectful of others in the class. However, true engagement only happens when students are working at a deeper level. When students are engaged in the learning they are self-motivated, self-directed, asking questions, and making connections to prior learning.

So, how do we make that happen?

1. Make Learning Relevant

Student engagement is higher when teachers explain why their instruction is relevant. A common question in many classrooms is, “Why do we have to learn this?” We need to have an answer to questions like this. We need to start with the “why”.

Is there a reason we study the American Civil War in social studies or spend time multiplying fractions in math? Of course, but if we are not explicit about what those reasons are, students won’t see the value in what they are being asked to do. 

Create learner profiles to help you build a picture of who your students are, what they like to do at school, and how they spend their free time. You can use the information you glean from these to put learning in a context that is meaningful to your students. 

Is there a TV show they are all watching, or a video game they are all playing? If you look for ways to incorporate student interests into your lessons, engagement will follow.

2. Remove Barriers to Learning

Student engagement is higher when teachers remove barriers to learning. You can identify some of these barriers from your learner profiles, but you will instinctively know some already given your knowledge of your students.

If your content is frequently presented in written form, consider adding alternative formats like audio or video for those who find it challenging to read. You could also ensure that students had access to tools like the Immersive Reader or Read and Write for Chrome so that they could have digital text read aloud to them.

3. Include Choice and Voice

Student engagement is higher when students feel like they are a part of the learning. Instead of having all your students create a slide deck to show what they know, give them a menu of options to choose from. They could make a video, record a podcast, create an infographic, design a flyer, or do a sketchnote. 

Not only does this give students choice over how to show their knowledge, but it can also be an opportunity for them to self-select something that will be an appropriate challenge for them. If students perceive that the learning is too easy, or too difficult, it is much harder for them to engage with it on a deeper level.

Choice ensures that students aren’t just passive learners. They are taking some control over their learning and making it more meaningful for them.

4. Create a Safe Space for Learning

Student engagement is higher when students feel that their classroom is a safe space to learn in. Clear expectations for student behavior are critical, and so is the need to minimize threats or distractions that could interrupt the flow of learning. 

Look for ways to involve all your students. Encourage them to take risks and to recognize the value of failure when it happens. Failure is only a bad thing if we don’t take the time to reflect on what went wrong and what we would do differently next time.

With a strong classroom culture and a safe space to learn, students will find it easier to engage in deeper learning.

5. Encourage Social Learning

Student engagement is higher when they have opportunities to collaborate with their peers. We know this because learning is a social endeavor. Strive to involve all your students and empower their learning by giving them roles during group work. Model and give them norms and expectations for what a good collaborative process looks like. 

The ability to work well with others is a crucial skill in the workplace. If you can create a community of learners in your classroom, then students will be better prepared for team environments when they leave school.

6. Make Feedback Matter

Student engagement is higher when feedback is frequent, timely, and specific. Teachers should provide mastery-orientated feedback that encourages growth and perseverance. This type of feedback emphasizes the role of effort and practice as opposed to a letter grade.

Some studies have also shown that students respond better to feedback when it is in the form of a video or audio comment. Consider using Mote or Screencastify the next time you are giving students feedback on an assignment.

7. Set Learning Goals

Student engagement is higher when they know what they are working towards. If they have an end goal in sight, it helps guide and motivate them towards achieving it. If the goal is a long-term objective, look for ways to break that down into smaller steps so that students know they are on the right path and are not overwhelmed.

Blended learning playlists could be one way to help make that goal visible. A playlist typically includes teacher check-ins so that students can get feedback along the way in relation to their progress. 


To learn more about strategies for student engagement, visit the UDL Guidelines website or listen to our podcast, Divergent by Design. It’s available wherever you listen to podcasts.

About the Author:

Jonathan Wylie is a digital learning consultant at Grant Wood Area Education Agency. He works with teachers and administrators to help integrate classroom technology in meaningful ways. Jonathan is the co-host of the Edtech Take Out and Divergent by Design podcasts. You can contact Jonathan at jwylie@gwaea.org.