5 Ways to Actively Engage Students in Learning


Robyn slipped her textbook between the pillow and the mattress, one hand resting on its hard cover. It wasn’t exactly comfortable and she didn’t really believe what Sarah had told her, but she wasn’t going to take the chance. She needed that B+ and if it had to happen through osmosis, then so be it.

Robyn isn’t real and neither is her story, but it represents something that’s happening in our classrooms every day.

The “textbook under the pillow” trick was a silly superstition that kids used to practice the night before a big test. I like to think of it as passive learning at its most extreme – the kind of learning that just happens to you without your effort. It can be seen in the classroom when students are asked to copy down definitions directly from the textbook or when they are asked to take turns reading aloud to the class. Passive learning such as this is rarely effective because:

Students learn best when they have the opportunity to interact with new information in multiple ways.

The brain is like a series of circuits that receives signals from the world around us. When a signal is received, it creates a pathway that links new information to old. The more pathways, the more likely the student is to thoroughly process the information.

If students are not actively involved in the learning, they are not always making the connections necessary for later recall. The worst part? The brain receives such a massive amount of information every second that it must pick and choose what is most relevant. Facts that do not appear relevant to the brain may not even be saved for the short term, let alone transfer to the next unit of learning.

Not to worry; there is alternative to passive learning. (And no, this isn’t where Robyn starts doing curls with her textbook.) There are some small things we can do as teachers to promote active learning in our classrooms. Let’s harness the power of technology to better involve our students in the learning process.

Here are 5 active learning ideas to try in your classroom:

Do away with “Round Robin” reading.

Instead, take advantage of audiobooks and apps like Audible, where students can listen and read along with audio recordings of thousands of texts. Amazon WhisperCast is a convenient and cost-effective way for teachers to share digital texts with their class.


Take a “break” and allow your students to become the teachers.

Jigsaw learning is a structure where students collaborate in small groups to learn a new a topic and then teach it to their peers. Google Classroom makes it easy for students to access a variety of resources for jigsaw learning within a single platform.  It even gives teachers the ability to differentiate at the click of a button.


Provide interactive reading experiences.

The Comments feature on Google Docs is an easy way to ensure that students are not simply reading the words of a text. As students read from the Doc, have them “stop and jot” their thinking by highlighting portions of the text and commenting. Not only will it promote active reading, but teachers will also get a better idea of what students are gathering from the text.

A student uses the comments feature in Google Docs to annotate an assigned reading.


Drop the textbook.

Not to say that it’s totally useless, but it’s important to present information in multiple ways. Don’t discredit the innumerable educational videos on YouTube. Anywhere Math, Math Antics, Crash Course, and TED-Ed are a few of my favorite channels. You can even create your own playlist of relevant videos and share them with your students via Google Classroom.


Let them talk.

Ever notice how you often proofread by reading aloud? Sometimes hearing yourself speak the words allows your brain to better process. Give your students this same experience by using tools like FlipGrid or Seesaw, where they can audio/video record verbal responses. This can be a great way to assess for understanding or promote student reflection.

Kindergarten students use an online application to record their answers to questions with a computer webcam.

Principal as Coach: Effective Questioning Techniques

The Advice Monster

As school leaders, we have a tendency to use our own experience as a form of teaching. When approached by a colleague with a situation, our immediate response is to make suggestions, based on our background. The underlying theory is that if the solution worked for us, why can’t it work for others? We’re amazing, right? After all, we are “leaders!” The reality is that offering suggestions or advice in this way can be ineffective and disengaging for the people who look to us for support.

According to Michael Stanier, this tendency is the unleashing of our “Advice Monster” – the voice in our head that tells us others are looking for our ideas and suggestions to solve their problems. Stanier suggests that rather than feeding the Advice Monster,  the best thing we can do is to encourage discussion and reflection. In short, we should spend more time asking questions that prompt reflection and growth and less time providing direct solutions. Stanier believes that the right set of questions can empower people to define their own needs and determine the best course of action. In his book The Coaching Habit, Stanier offers seven effective questions for managers ask, but we will focus on three which will benefit the leader-teacher relationship.

The Focus Question: What’s the real challenge here for you?

This type of question is best used when a teacher is providing a list of problems they are facing. The first problem that a teacher presents is not usually the whole picture, but merely a piece of it. The whole challenge tends to be the combination of a series of smaller problems which she/he encounters. Teachers will benefit from reflecting on this question because it encourages them to “think big” and identify their overarching challenge. As an instructional leader, asking this question empowers someone to arrive at their own conclusion and explore these larger challenges.

The Foundation Question: What do you wish to achieve?

A version of: “What do you want?” This question can seem intimidating, but when used appropriately can open up a dialogue with a teacher to determine a goal. While the Focus Question helps teachers to identify the overarching challenge, the Foundation Question will encourage them to determine what it is they want to do about this challenge. Therefore, it is best asked after the teacher has identified her/his “big picture” challenge. Principals can even adjust the question to address a specific event. For example, ”What do you want feedback on for this upcoming observation?” In this case, a principal empowers the teacher to determine the focus for an observation. This also helps a principal narrow her/his lens, allowing for more relevant and clear feedback following the observation.

The Lazy Question: How can I help?

Teachers often wish they had an opportunity to ask for support. The Lazy Question provides them with this opportunity – an open space to articulate their needs and explore the different levels of support which their instructional leader can provide. Although it seems like a simple question, it can lead to a powerful discussion where the teacher begins to view her/his instructional leader as a mentor. Once a mentorship is established, a teacher will feel supported and open to continuous feedback. This will ultimately result in a strong relationship, rooted in the teacher’s professional growth.


Tech Tip: Evernote = Ever-organized

In order for principals to utilize these questions most effectively, they should modify them to best fit a variety of situations. Depending on their dialogues with teachers (and the teachers themselves), principals may find it necessary to make small changes to how the questions are asked. Principals should also practice these questions regularly and note the teacher response.  To ensure that they are used as part of debriefs, performance reviews, or other growth conversations with teachers, principals can use digital tools like Evernote to create templates to frame the dialogue. 


Interested in learning more about asking good questions?

Click for more information about Michael Stanier’s bookThe Coaching Habit.

Click to explore resourceful videos about how to effectively ask questions.

Written by Nick Zaveri, @ZaveriNick