Seven ways to improve pupil engagement

Written by: Ben Dunford | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Ben Dunford offers some tips and strategies to motivate and engage your students while also simplifying teachers’ lives...

Great teaching is, of course, central to better pupil engagement. Drawing in your pupils by using a range of teaching techniques and tricks will ensure that they remain connected with their learning.

The challenge of motivating your students has become during the pandemic and teachers are working as hard as they possibly can to ensure that their students are not disadvantaged by the continuing disruption.

Many of the techniques that boost pupil engagement are well known, but there are some lesser-known approaches that we uncovered while talking to schools across the country for a new e-book (Firefly, 2021). Using them together in a coherent pupil engagement strategy will, I believe, deliver some real benefits for your students and your colleagues.

Below, I have selected seven approaches that I think will help you and your colleagues as you work to increase student engagement.

1, Use what students already know

What do students know already of your subject or a new unit of work? This is a great hook to engage them with the learning ahead and an excellent basis for building new knowledge. However, make sure you check for incorrect beliefs in their prior knowledge.

2, Get creative with learning

Enquiry-based learning, for example, gives the reins back to the students, who start off with an “essential question”, such as “How can we protect our oceans?” or “What makes a great leader?”

Students can then develop their investigation from their own questions, ideas, and curiosity, with the teacher guiding and facilitating the process. They get to use a range of resources, from the library to the web, and collaborate with their peers to pursue their lines of inquiry.

3, Use the power of real-world stories

Story-telling makes learning meaningful and keeps students engaged. Think of a human rights lawyer talking to your students about their most difficult court case, a war veteran recounting how communications in wartime used to work, or the local council representative challenging students to find a solution to a waste management crisis: the possibilities to bring the world into your classroom are endless.

4, Get feedback right

The Education Endowment Foundation has produced evidence-based tips on how to get feedback right (EEF, 2021), but put simply, effective feedback needs to be specific, accurate and clear, pinpointing the precise achievement or areas needing improvement.

It is also helpful to make comparisons with the student’s previous work to provide a holistic picture of their progress.

Remember to provide feedback on elements of complex, on-going or longer tasks – it will keep students motivated and show them the importance of perseverance. And if you opt for peer review or peer feedback, be sure to provide clear guidance and support before the process starts. Another crucial feature of feedback is its role as a guide: it needs to outline how students can improve further.

Clear guidance on how to move learning forward, targeting the specific gaps the student needs to fill – or giving advice on how to extend and broaden their skills – is vital. Some think of it as a “feed-forward”: with clear instructions, students can feel confident to move on, and that could be a great motivator.

For more tips on effective marking and feedback practice, see SecEd’s recent podcast on this topic.

5, Get out in the community

Community projects foster students’ responsibility and promote their understanding of the role they play in society. Some projects are transformational for both the students and the community. For example, an award-winning community project saw a group of students from a school in Londonderry help the residents of a local care complex look after their garden. Both generations found out they had a lot to teach each other.

6, Take advantage of technology

Make use of technology whenever you can to facilitate and boost the feedback process. For example, you can provide comments via email or use audio notes to give feedback to students. Screen captures can also make your feedback on essays or projects more precise and powerful. Remember that technology can help simplify the teaching admin, freeing up time for teachers to support students to understand and make use of feedback.

7, Celebrate success – but be consistent

Ensure students know exactly what they have done well or where they have gone wrong and always be consistent. A clear points system is a great way to help ensure both consistency and buy in from teachers, students, and parents.

You could even set up an online shop for students to spend their hard-earned points on items, activities, and privileges – but remember that rewards are best given sparingly and that it is crucial to know what your students will appreciate the most.

With any celebrations, make sure that you reward effort over achievement, focus on long-term motivation above instant gratification and always keep parents in the loop.

  • Ben Dunford is a former secondary computer science teacher, founder of Epraise and head of product at Firefly Learning, a school engagement platform. Epraise is a school rewards system and learning engagement platform. Visit and

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