Rules of engagement – How to keep students interested in class

Keeping students engaged and motivated in class is one of the most essential aspects of being a successful teacher.  Besides keeping behaviour in check and disruptions to a minimum, maintaining students’ interest has a massive impact on how much information they absorb, as well as their ability to use it.  However, as any teacher will admit, this can be extremely difficult.  Fortunately, there are a few tactics that can help us to engage students’ interest and get them more actively involved in class.

Rules of engagement

Cultivate a positive relationship between students and teacher.

Sometimes easier said than done, generating good relations between the teacher and students will have a profound impact on the latter’s level of engagement.  A class that trusts and respects their teacher should be much more willing to get actively involved.  Of course, building a positive relationship can take time.  Showing students that you care about their progress, treating them as individuals and being positive and enthusiastic in the class should, over time, help you to establish a good rapport with your students.

Cultivate a positive relationship between students and teacher

Trying to spend time with each person in the class on a one-to-one level is also useful and allows you to learn about your students.  As teachers, we need to know what our students’ motivations and interests are and how they respond to different types of activities.  Are they introverts or extroverts?  Do they prefer reading and analysing articles in pairs or open class discussions?  Remember that the focus of a lesson should always be on the students, what they can learn and how they can use this knowledge.

Have a clear purpose.

In order to get students to really engage with an activity they must have a reason to invest their effort and attention.  Therefore, the activity must have a useful purpose, one that is clear to the students.  After all, if they don’t see the point of doing an activity, then why should they bother?  Making it relevant to them is important.  This could be done in a number of ways, such as showing how the activity links to a certain key section of their exam, or how it could be useful in a real life situation.

Have a clear purpose

You can also connect it to their own personal interests and experiences, which not only makes the topic more appealing but also gives them an area in which they can use their own background knowledge.  Appealing to their own interests is particularly constructive, as it is likely that they will want to learn more about the topic.  Again, it is important to study your students, find out what they are interested in and adapt your material accordingly to suit each class.  This will encourage students to participate more actively and you will get more from them.

Use different types of activities and collaborative learning.

Students will respond better to activities that interest and stimulate them.  Providing variety by having them work in groups or pairs, move around or actively looking for information themselves will engage them much more than just passively sitting and reading or listening.  These types of activities also allow for a large amount of collaborative learning.  It allows students to engage and work with each other, while the teacher can take the role of advisor or facilitator.  This moves the focus to your students and makes sure they are learning actively, not just passively.

Use different types of activities and collaborative learning

Conducting collaborative learning tasks also gives the teacher the opportunity to mix things up further by putting students with different people, taking into account interests and abilities.  It’s important to note that these activities still need a structure so that students know what is expected of them and they are guided towards a successful conclusion.  Providing students with roles within the group, such as a team leader, may also help the group to work as a successful unit.  The difficulty level of the activity also needs to be considered.  It needs to be challenging enough that students need to focus, but not so hard that they get de-motivated and switch off.  When it comes to feedback, evaluating both individual and group performance benefits the students and shows that you were paying attention to what they were doing.


As with any activities, we need our feedback to be both engaging and constructive.  Of course we want students to take an interest in their mistakes, as it makes it more likely that they will learn from them.  Feel free to encourage the making of mistakes in class.  It shows that students are pushing their boundaries, and as long as error correction is done in a sensitive way, the whole class can benefit from an individual mistake.  We also want feedback to be appropriate.  Remember the aims of the task and focus your criticisms accordingly. Feedback can be tailored to the class as a whole, groups, or individuals and each student should be treated on a case by case basis. They will probably all have different strengths and weaknesses and may well need to work on different things.  It is important when going through feedback to elicit as much as you can from the students.  This gives them the opportunity to display what they’ve learnt as well as a chance to express their own thoughts and opinions.  This makes the feedback more personalised and relevant, and students will be more engaged.  Also, after an engaging activity students will want to know what other groups or individuals thought, so this is an excellent way to revise their findings and fill in any gaps.  It can also lead to an extension activity, such as a class or group discussion which will allow for further practice and reinforcement of important points.


Getting students to engage in class may be one of the biggest challenges facing a teacher.  However, providing a range of activities that both interest and stimulate them will greatly increase student participation, as will creating a good rapport and classroom environment.  Whilst getting this right will take time, ultimately the benefits will become obvious.

Useful resources and links

Useful Links

For more on how to engage your students, have a look at the following links.

Advice on activities.

Simple strategies for engaging students.

Six golden rules, with an extensive bibliography for further reading.

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