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Teaching That Emphasizes Active Engagement

Improving Learning for Middle School Students

Have you ever tried to

  • Tell a youngster how to tie his shoe?
  • Lecture adolescents on the path of a bill through Congress?
  • Get an 8th grade class to verify a math problem by writing out the explanation?

Of course you have. And in each situation, learning was superficial until the learner was actively engaged. Teaching that emphasizes active engagement helps students process and retain information. It leads to self-questioning, deeper thinking, and problem solving. Engagement strategies like repetition, trial and error, and posing questions move the brain into active and constructive learning. And such activities can lead to higher student achievement.

So where does a teacher begin?


Preparing classes that actively engage students requires a lot of planning. First, the teacher must prepare the lecture or other type of instruction. Then, he or she must select learning activities that support the content of the instruction and engage students. Here are five steps teachers should follow:

  1. Thoroughly learn/understand the curriculum.
  2. Identify teaching objectives and strategies that engage students and build understanding.
  3. Ask yourself these planning questions:
    • What is the goal?
    • What order does the teaching need to follow?
    • What do the students already know?
    • What do I want them to learn?
  4. Prepare the lecture or instruction of the concepts and skills, based on your goals.
  5. Construct processing/learning activities that match the concepts, skills, and goals.


To engage students, the teacher must do more than lecture. While teaching the concepts and skills, the teacher must help students draw on their own experiences to build a "scaffold" on which they can "hang" new ideas. When students are actively engaged, they focus on what is being taught and better process new information.

Because the most effective teaching takes place in "chunks," it's best to teach new information or concepts in 7- to 10-minute segments followed by a processing activity.

After teaching several segments, the teacher can use a longer processing activity. This activity should be tied tightly to the concepts or skills previously taught so that it builds understanding.

Processing Activities

A processing activity is an activity that causes students to pose questions, manipulate information, and relate the new learning to what they already know. Such engagements reinforce the learning and help move the learning to the long-term memory banks.

A processing activity can be as simple as a 60-second jotting down of the important points just covered, telling your table partner three things that you just learned, or expressing something in a song. Some examples of longer processing activities are:

  • Designing a concept map
  • Creating an outline
  • Writing a story problem
  • Making up a different ending to a story
  • Designing mock trials
  • Conducting an experiment in a science lab
  • Measuring the length of the hallways with triangles

Some examples of teacher strategies and student processes or products that actively engage the learner are:

Teacher Strategy

--Student Process


--Note taking and discussion


--Drawing a conclusion


--Sharing with a partner

Guest speaker

--Journal writing


--Graphic organizer


--Designing and conducting a survey


-- Designing a concept map

Field trip

-- Designing a tutorial on a topic

In summary, when students are actively engaged in their learning, they are processing and retaining information and using higher order thinking. When teachers design activities that promote active engagement, they are reinforcing student learning, keeping students interested and on task, and making learning relevant and fun. Remember, young adolescents want to do things and will do things. Capitalize on that in ways that reinforce their learning.

Pete Lorain, author of articles on middle schooling and other education issues, currently works under private contract. Prior to retirement, he served as a high school teacher, counselor, and administrator; middle school principal and director at the district level; director of human resources; and president of National Middle School Association from 1996 to 1997.



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