Increasing Student Engagement Strategies: Can You Hear Me Now?

Increasing Student Engagement In the spring of 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic began to roll across the country, many educators got their first experience with distance learning, whether they wanted it or not. As schools moved to online learning, new challenges with communication emerged. In online synchronous classrooms, teachers and students came to appreciate the necessity of speaking one at a time. In asynchronous classes, finding ways to increase student engagement became important. Students who were shy in person may have been comfortable emailing with teachers, while others who were loquacious in class were nearly absent online. Some districts created new jobs for people to go out and find students who’d dropped off entirely.

While many schools returned to face-to-face instruction in the fall, where available, a significant number of families opted to keep their children at home and signed up for online learning for a semester or the whole year. That means some teachers are not only teaching as usual with the same struggles and challenges but ones compounded by the new virtual reality.

About that teaching as usual. It’s not really usual is it? Let’s go there. Let’s talk about — the mask.

I spoke with Erin Nickerson, a high school English teacher in Northeast Georgia. This is a woman who naturally possesses an amazing “teacher voice.” I once heard her talk to an entire cafeteria full of seniors without the benefit of a PA system, and they heard every word. So her comments about mask-wearing in the classroom surprised me.

“Some students have told me they have a hard time understanding what I’m saying when I wear a mask,” Nickerson said. She added that she isn’t required to wear a mask when delivering instruction, but she does need to maintain social distance. “That means, I’m pressed right up against the whiteboard.”

She does wear a mask at all other times in the classroom, and said when she’s working with students one on one, “I’ll have to ask them to repeat what they’re staying three or even four times.” It may slow down the flow, but Nickerson and her students know it’s worth it to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. No one wants school to go back to 100% online.

In a situation where verbal communication is a challenge to engage students, writing is a great alternative. Teaching students strategies for writing clearly and meaningfully goes a long way toward ensuring teachers and students are really “hearing” each other. It is critical, and maybe essential, that such student engagement strategies offer the look and feel of a puzzle, an invitation into the world of solving simple but challenging prompts that require full explanations. Applied Grammar Sentence Building lessons deliver puzzles of sentences for students to analyze and combine into increasingly more mature sentences patterns. Writing on Demand Daily Writing to Learn the Curriculum offers strategies that stimulate and nurture their communication skills in short reading texts and written responses. Check out one of the critical-thinking strategies for prompting students’ response – the Quad Cluster.

The Quad Cluster strategy takes the pattern of the ingrained multiple-choice test item to the next level (of deeper knowledge or greater proficiency). In a study of animal classification, students meet four choices

         whale, catfish*, lion, dolphin

The asterisk (*) prompts students to explain how different the term is from the other three and how the other three are alike. Note the focus is not on a correct answer but rather on why catfish is the logical choice that shows a relationship between it and whale, lion, and dolphin.

The Quad Cluster difference? Students must write, and writing makes them think. They explain catfish is a fish and the others are mammals. They use gills vs. lungs and eggs vs. live birth to explain the characteristics of each class of animals to support their claim. They convince us that the relationship is class-to-class. Their writing shows what they understand (and misunderstand), what we taught, and what we may need to re-teach. With systematic use, the Quad Cluster strategy builds a robust scaffold for thinking that at once engages and empowers students to articulate how key terms in course standards relate to each other and to the new knowledge they represent.

That means some teachers are not only teaching as usual with the same struggles and challenges to engage the student, but ones compounded by the new virtual reality.

With the extended engagement of students solving the puzzles of which key term is not like the others, time moves forward in productive thought. With the best practices of self-assessment, peer-evaluation, and small and whole-group reporting, the tension of virtual teaching and learning eases. Yes, they can hear each other now.


Combs, Warren. Writing on Demand, Daily Writing to Learn the Curriculum, 2021,

Photos by Julia M. Cameron and Max Fischer