Activating Student Engagement

Teaching November 21, 2022

“Cindy Engel studies zoopharmacognosy, or ________________.” I paused the video on the caption so the students in my Speaking and Listening Intermediate ESL class could fill in the blank in their workbook. One student scribbled down the answer, while the other four looked at me blankly. “What is the definition of zoopharmacognosy?” I prompted. 

“Biology?” One student replied, grasping for any word appearing close to the one in the sentence. 

I replayed the clip, pausing at the strategic point and prompting them with the first part of the word “Animal. . .” 

“Self-medication!” a student suddenly said. 

“That’s right!” I replied. We struggled through the rest of the 4-minute video until all the answers had been written down.

A few minutes earlier, I had shown a clip from a popular TV series to illustrate how we make claims every day. Then I asked specific questions and the students were quick to reply, remembering specific details, using their vocabulary well, and competing to be the first to answer. 

Why did the students understand one clip but not the other? Was it because the popular series was recent, while the other one was more than 9 years old? Was it because the popular series used everyday language, while the other one used more academic language? Whatever the reason, the first clip was more engaging for the students. It reminded me that engagement is essential for helping students to understand what they learn. 

As teachers we often believe that we need to finish a textbook, show all our PowerPoints, or give a certain number of quizzes during a semester, but this is not our real purpose. The goal of teaching is to activate curiosity. I once saw a colleague illustrate this when he stopped his presentation to answer a student’s question about the topic even though he didn’t have extra time allotted for questions that morning. He set aside information so that he could impart knowledge. This is the mark of a real teacher. 

There are three basic strategies for activating curiosity in students:

  1. Find creative activities that reinforce the idea being taught. For example, to teach creative writing students the concept of hearing your own writing voice, I have them close their eyes, then I tap a student on the shoulder and have them speak for a sentence or two. After they speak, the class has to guess whose voice it was. I use this activity to show how creative writers have unique and recognizable voices in their writing. 
  2. Schedule discussion time, providing and encouraging open-ended questions. When students ask and answer questions, it engages them on a deeper level than lecture, rote memorization, or reading slides.
  3. Individualize your instruction. Get to know your students’ hobbies and interests. Then connect the concept you are teaching to their topics of interest.


Maria Lombart

Maria Lombart, MA, always vowed she would never be a teacher. Now the highlight of her week is seeing her fun-loving and unpredictable students who keep her on her mental toes. She is the Executive Assistant to the President of Middle East University in Beirut, Lebanon.

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