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How do you keep young students engaged?

By offering support, challenge and choice in learning design, we are working towards creating a more equal learning environment.
The hand of a child on top of the hand of an adult

Those parents or carers amongst you will know that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to keeping young students engaged and on task. As educators you doubtless will have met and worked with students of varying skill sets, backgrounds, educational history, motivations and experiences: all of which impact their learning in various ways.

When working online and asynchronously a simple starting point is to have a clear understanding of what the learning outcomes for the session are. This will help you identify different ways that your students can meet these outcomes, and what you might do to support them in getting there.

By considering how to offer support, challenge and choice in learning design, we are working towards creating a more equal learning environment: what is taught becomes more accessible and more appealing – and therefore, hopefully, more engaging.

Design to support

Start off by breaking down what you want to teach into different stages, or chunks. Chunking and Flipped models (where much of the instruction and content is given to students to engage with asynchronously, outside of ‘class’ time) can create learning environments where students are better able to work at their own pace.

Each chunk should clearly contribute to a student meeting a learning outcome. Next, identify the learning type for each of the stages you design. This will help you to pinpoint what students need to do to succeed, whether there are dependencies, or areas which might cause difficulty.

Productive tasks should also be broken up into key stages, with these stages mapped to mini-deadlines or touch points where feedback occurs.

Breaking things down will give your students time to get everything done, but kept on track with their mini-deadlines, which can also serve to encourage and motivate them to keep going.

Diana Laurillard, UCL: “Plan not just what was the face-to-face time with your students, but be explicit about what they should do before to prepare and after to follow up. This is part of motivating concentration.”
It can be helpful to consider whether any language, ideas or skills need to be prepared or ‘pre-taught’ before a session or activity. Identifying and supporting prerequisite knowledge or skills (such as languages and key concepts) will help ensure your students are better prepared. This could be a study skill but also a technical setup – before asking students to perform a task, have you provided them enough support to know they can complete it in a fair and inclusive manor?
The Flipped or Inverted method can work well here (see Melbourne Polytechnic’s activity from week 1) as students have more time to engage with key language or concepts before being asked to engage more deeply with them.
Hence, for areas which might be problematic or barriers to success, scaffold with examples, samples, definitions, and models. Give students plenty of time to engage with this support, and clear instructions about how to get help if they need it.

Design to challenge

Add in extension activities or opportunity for further exploration of the topic. Again, be sure to express what it is you’re asking the students to do by clearly stating the learning type.
To lessen the load on you as educator, change the task slightly to fit the level of challenge required – think beyond adding onto a word count – you might wish to giving instructions of points you’d like to see covered, for example. It’s the quality or production, not quantity, that counts!

Design to offer choice

Provide students with multiple ways to demonstrate their learning (for example a recording, written work, presentation). Where appropriate, involve your students in compiling these options.
Amy Benjamin: “Having a choice gives students a sense of self-determination that translates into increased commitment.”
Most of what has been discussed here helps to uphold the learning design principles identified at the start of this activity; promoting independence and autonomy, asking your students to ‘do more with less’, keeping in mind the learning types, and breaking down your plans so much of it can be done asynchronously.
At the bottom of the page we have collected links and resources for you to explore. Just as in Week 1, do not feel you have to read all of these resources. Skim the resources descriptions to quickly figure out which could be most relevant to you and which you might like to try out.
Professor Mark Brown, DCU. “Although with the best intentions of helping my students by giving them access to lots of links and additional resources, I discovered that inadvertently I was actually increasing their workload. Indeed, I was even placing their success at risk as a clear flag was needed to differentiate between essential and non-essential information.”


Which approaches or techniques to support, challenge and offer choice could be suitable for your context? How might they increase engagement and motivation?

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