Engaging Students in Learning: Tips and Ideas

A brain-based classroom is one in which students are actively engaged in learning. What exactly does it mean for students to be actively involved? It’s certainly not about students completing worksheets, answering basic questions, or taking lecture notes. Take a minute to think about the definitions of these two words. The word active It means moving, working, participating, being energetic and provoking action. The word compromises means requiring the use of / occupying, attracting and holding attention, and engaging. So basically, when students are actively involved, they participate and work in an active way, full of energy and movement, and they are involved and interested in what is being learned.

Woof! Is it a lot to ask of our students, or is it more than asking a lot of us? This type of learning requires a lot more work and effort on our part to make it more meaningful to students. It is much easier to read the chapter, answer the questions at the end, and complete a prepared worksheet. However, there is hope! Many of the new textbooks available now include activities that actively engage students in their learning. Does your textbook have these tips and ideas in the teacher’s edition? If so, do you ever use those activities in your lesson plans? The next time you sit down to plan lessons, read the activities provided and think about how you might incorporate them into your lesson. If you don’t have a newer textbook or are just looking for other ideas to actively engage students, the tips below are for you.


Have students create their own game that applies the concepts and / or skills learned for a particular unit. This activity also integrates writing, since students will have to write the instructions. Take some time to look at the educational games that are already available and discuss them with your students. Help them see the elements found in a board or card game. Notice how the directions are organized and written so that students have a role model. One of my students made a Colonias game as a project for our 13 Colonias unit. He was able to show all his learning through creating this game.

There are also many great games available these days to help practice reading, spelling, math, science, and social studies skills. How could you use Monopoly, Allowance, Scategories, Scrabble, Mastermind, or Taboo in your class? While students may think they are simply playing a game, they are actually applying important skills / concepts learned in class. To make the most of this learning opportunity, then have students discuss the different skills they used while playing. Did they learn anything new? This type of debriefing makes connections between the game and your curriculum. Without the questioning, the students simply participated in a fun but pointless activity.

Treasure hunt

Create a scavenger hunt for clues, phrases, or questions, and have students read the chapter to find the answers. It’s more of a learning experience if the answers aren’t immediately visible, especially to older students. Have them read the chapter so they can answer the questions or find the clue. Allowing students to work in pairs or groups adds an additional element of fun to this activity. Again, take some time to discuss the activity and the results with the class when everyone has finished.

Another twist on this activity that requires more reflection on the part of students is to have them read the chapter first and then create their own scavenger hunt. The students then switch roles among themselves and have a partner complete their treasure hunt. Allow fellow students to discuss the positives and negatives of the scavenger hunt created. What was too easy? What was a challenge? Were the questions / clues misleading or clearly understandable?


Again, this activity works very well with reading textbooks. Have students work in pairs or groups to turn a historical event, textbook chapter, or story into a play. You can also have students work together to explain a concept or skill through a play or play. Writing the script incorporates writing skills in the classroom and provides you with an assessment tool.

One twist on this activity is to have students rewrite events or concepts read in the textbook or recently learned through direct instruction as a children’s story. This type of activity requires students to think at higher levels. Comprehension, analysis, application, and synthesis are involved, as students must understand what was read and be able to explain and apply it in a short fictional children’s story.

Learning stations

You don’t have to be an elementary school teacher for Learning Stations to work. Take your unit and think of five or six different activity or reading stations for students to complete. Write the instructions for each station and glue the page on construction paper. We roll bears to last. Then write a checklist for students to use when traveling to each station. This will help them to know what to complete in each one. To set up, simply place the instructions and materials on a group of desks or a table for each “station.” When you’re done, place the laminated instructions in a manila folder and label it. Then save it in your filing cabinet for next year. In fact, I laminate reading passages, checklists, etc. so you can use them over and over again every year. This type of activity is also a great way to integrate other subject area concepts and skills into your lesson / unit.

With all of these activities, it is important that you walk monitoring at all times to keep students on the right track. Ask guiding questions to help students complete homework and get the most out of the activity. You will also need to take time to review your expectations for behavior and academic results before each activity. This reminder, along with constant monitoring, helps keep student misbehavior to a minimum. It is also very important that you take the time to discuss or “brief” the students about the activity. This type of discussion makes connections between the activity, the overall goal, and the lesson objective for your curriculum. Don’t settle for time fillers. With just a little preparation and sweat, you can get your students moving, engaging in their learning, and enjoying every minute of it!

Copyright 2007 Emma McDonald

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