Student engagement: State changes in the classroom

Written by: Jon Eaton | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

We can avoid disengagement by changing the way students interact with the lesson content. Jon Eaton looks at ideas for ‘changing gears’ in your lessons to keep students attentive

At a teaching conference about “brain-based learning” almost 20 years ago, I heard someone make the following analogy.

The speaker asked us if we had ever noticed our refrigerators humming away in the kitchen. We had! Then he asked whether we’d stopped noticing the sound even though it was clearly still happening. We had experienced that too!

This was because, he explained, our novelty-seeking brains decided that it was no longer worth paying attention to an unvarying signal. In the hierarchy of information our brains might focus on, which could include survival-related information or highly charged emotional information, the noise from a kitchen appliance ranked somewhere below the experience of watching paint stay wet.

His point was that, if we don’t vary the classroom signal, we as teachers can become fridge hum, droning away at the front while our students tune out.

Of course, this was in the early 2000s when broad findings from neuroscience were frequently used to make specific recommendations about classroom practice, as if you could go straight from brain scan to seating plan.

The problem, of course, was that this general-to-particular approach was like consulting a star chart to find your socks.

Now in 2019, sobered by Dr Ben Goldacre’s gleeful pasting of Brain Gym in his book Bad Science (2008), and having been made properly diligent by the likes of the Education Endowment Foundation, we need to heed the following remark by David Didau and Nick Rose in What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology (2016). They wrote: “Neuroscience is probably the wrong level of description to provide meaningful insight into classroom practice.”

So why do I mention the fridge hum analogy? Because I think if we lose the macro-level description about brain behaviour and reframe it as a simple reminder about attention and engagement, then it’s a useful guideline. Things getting stale? Change the signal. Let’s consider an example.

A lesson begins with a teacher-led explanation of how to plan a piece of descriptive writing. First, the rationale is explained:

  • It can be hard to know where to begin a descriptive piece.
  • Planned writing tends to be more cohesive than unplanned writing.
  • Cohesive writing is more likely to gain marks for structure, and so on.

Next, the teacher describes a particular planning strategy: “We will first describe the weather, then lower our gaze to the landscape, then zoom in on a particular feature – a river, for instance.” This process is then modelled at the board.

So far, this is clear and helpful. But if the teacher were to continue with another planning strategy modelled in the same way, the students would have been passive for a long time and would have an awful lot to remember, let alone apply. We’re dangerously close to fridge hum territory.

Does this mean we need to change the lesson content? No. Does it mean we need to change the way students interact with the content? Possibly. At the very least, we need a way to “refresh” the learning situation.

The interaction in our descriptive writing lesson, up to this point, has involved the teacher addressing the whole class. A simple change would be to have students pair up with someone from a different table, then take turns explaining why planning is important. This takes only one minute, but it has changed the face they are looking at, the voice they are listening to, the nature of the interaction, even their position in the room.

Now they might return to their seats to hear the next planning strategy, far more alert than they would have been.

I have heard this referred to as a “state change”, which I prefer to “transition” since it describes a purposeful decision rather than inevitable dead time.
In Why Don’t Students Like School? (2009), Daniel Willingham calls it “changing gears” and suggests it is a way to regain attention – again a more purposeful act than “transition” might imply.

A state change is also an opportunity for our students to forget. This seems counterintuitive (after 10 minutes of precise explanation and careful modelling, why would we want them to do that?), but it is likely to aid learning.

If we are immediately tested on something we have learned, we will probably do well. Why? Because it is easy to recall something we have just been taught. If, on the other hand, we are given an opportunity to forget, we have to work harder to recall it. This extra effort – called “desirable difficulty” – actually increases the chance of moving information into long-term memory.

So what can we do to create a state change? The following suggestions require no extra planning and can be done at the drop of a hat. If you feel the hum of your inner fridge, it might be better to stop the current activity and use a state change instead.

Stop and draw: Stop a teacher-led explanation and ask students to draw three images summing up what they have learned so far.

Instant narrative: Using the words “first”, “then” and “finally”, have students turn the learning into a mini-narrative.

Different face: Label the students A and B. Have all As stand and move to sit by a different B. At this point they can take turns listing what they have learned so far.

Use a cooperative learning structure: If you are familiar with, for example, Kagan Cooperative Learning, you will already have a bank of collaborative structures like Numbered Heads Together that you can use to change the classroom interaction.

Question time: Form groups of four. Using a piece of scrap paper (or better, sticky labels), have students take turns writing questions they could ask about the lesson.

New groups: If you want to form eight groups of four, take eight pictures, tear each image into four parts and distribute the pieces as appropriate. Students then need to group with the people who have the missing pieces of their image.

Urgency: Ask them to write the alphabet on a piece of scrap paper. Put a timer on-screen for one or two minutes. For each letter of the alphabet, they need to write a word relevant to the lesson.

  • Jon Eaton is an English teacher and evidence lead of education at Kingsbridge Research School, part of the Research Schools Network – a collaboration between the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). Visit &


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