Improving student engagement with active learning

Giancarlo Brotto, Global Education Advisor at SMART Technologies

One of the biggest struggles teachers have faced since the start of the pandemic is ensuring they remain connected with their students. Irrespective of where lessons are held – whether online from a kitchen table, or in a traditional classroom – forging relationships with pupils is key to ensuring teachers stay on top of their student’s academics and wellbeing, providing total support to students. Key to this is engagement which, during the COVID-19 pandemic, was badly affected. 

A study from June 2020 from the National Foundation for Educational Research, which assessed pupil engagement in the earlier stages of the pandemic, found that only 42% of pupils had returned the last piece of set work given at the time of research, with 90% of teachers claiming their pupils were doing much less work than they would usually at that time of year. 

For the two years that followed that aforementioned report, teachers worked tirelessly to ensure students continued to feel engaged, particularly around social emotional learning (SEL), math and literacy. 

Developing students in these three areas has always been core to the UK curriculum, but the ability of teachers to do so while navigating the challenges of a pandemic and remote learning brought a myriad of challenges to educators. As a result, active learning and blended learning became an increasingly popular method of ensuring pupils remained engaged.

Active learning is what its name implies. It is an approach that helps learners store new information into long-term memory and helps learners develop a conceptual understanding of the material. Research has identified several benefits of active learning for students. It improves critical thinking, increases retention of new information, improves transfer of new information and promotes higher-order thinking skills. 

Applying active learning to the curriculum

We looked into the benefits of active learning in SEL, math and literacy in a whitepaper on how to keep pupils engaged, and found common benefits across each subject area. For literacy skill development, we found that peer-to-peer and small group work benefited young children greatly, allowing pupils to collaborate and share ideas, connect with prior knowledge, and think critically about their reading. Meanwhile student-directed learning, whereby students drive their own learning and are given time for self-reflection, can significantly boost reading skills, stamina and fluency.

Elsewhere for maths, three core active learning approaches have proved successful in improving students’ understanding of basic math, including hands-on learning such as geoboards, tangrams, pattern blocks and money. As humans, we only have a limited capacity to process new information at any given time, so creating multiple opportunities for learners to spend time being active through a variety of hands-on learning allows pupils to activate their brain and to transfer new knowledge into long-term memory. Similarly, encouraging students to actively engage with content improves their acquisition of basic math skills which, when combined with a range of games, puzzles and playful experiences, can enhance their confidence in the subject.

Finally, for SEL, students who were given choices in how they learn and show what they know report higher levels of self-efficacy and positive autonomy. Likewise, students that interact with content in small groups through physical and virtual learning stations develop a deeper understanding of the content, while relationship building activities and games that ease classroom tensions support the development of advanced social skills and resiliency. 

Throughout the pandemic, technology has allowed teachers to apply these active learning principles. Lumio, SMART Technologies’ digital learning tool, for instance, allowed educators to easily transition between the classroom and remote learning, to make new learning situations easier for students and teachers. Lumio, along with other educational technologies, allowed teachers to be creative with their active learning methods and, crucially, to adapt their teaching process as and when circumstances changes throughout the pandemic. 

Crucially, Lumio supports with boosting engagement by supporting the ways in which pupils learn, by improving perception, attention and memory through its range of templates and features. 

Active learning places students at the centre of their education. It’s a simple shift that can produce dramatic results. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that, despite whatever challenges are thrown at teachers, this teaching method can continue in the classroom or virtually.