Engaging Students for Maximum Learning - Steve Barkley

Engaging Students for Maximum Learning

Consider times that you have seen students engaged in what you would label as deep quality learning. Recall the last time that you were engaged in deep quality learning for yourself. How many of the following quality learning items would you identify as being present?

  • Depth
  • Complexity
  • Detail
  • Ownership / Pride
  • Constant Improvement
  • Originality / Creativity
  • Integration

Depth, Complexity, Detail

Quality learning engages students in digging deep into a concept or question. Quality learning is unlikely to occur during a teacher’s “coverage” of a unit or standard unless a student pushes beyond the class coverage activity. With deep learning, students work in the complexity of the content early in the process and the key learning content emerges as they wrestle with questions. When teachers are pressed to cover material, students tend to receive the content elements already laid out for them. Often teachers want to get to complexity later but “run out of time” or lose student engagement before getting to the application activity. It can be productive to open a study with the complexity.

Ownership, Pride

Students illustrating pride and ownership of learning are indicating that they are engaged in deep quality learning. I frequently observe students in small groups who are successful in unlocking a learning challenge wanting to run to other groups and share their “discovery.” While the teacher is anxious to stop them from spoiling the activity for others, their desire to share indicates positive engagement. When I was a first-grade teacher, I often assessed the effectiveness of my social studies and science instruction by asking parents at conference time what they had heard about our units. I knew I had created the desired learning and engagement when my students had repeated science experiments at home or retold historical stories.  We all have a desire to pass on our learning and insights.

“When students are interested, engaged, and working well with peers, they are likely to operate at a greater depth of learning and make progress that is permanent in developing skills for the future.”
– Sparking Student Engagement

Constant Improvement

When teachers have taken students deep into learning you’ll sometimes hear a teacher tell students they need to stop. The teacher has to move on. The students know that with more time they could find another solution or add another element to their project. Each successful outcome motivates them to consider another possibility. In many ways the ultimate learning outcome at the end of a unit of study is for students to have more questions that they want to answer rather than the amount of knowledge or skills gained in the study.

Originality and Creativity

When students are engaged in quality learning, they make connections with previous knowledge and experiences and generate new ideas and solutions. The responses need not be new to the world but are insights the student reaches.  A favorite example for me was observing a preschool student who was busy matching plastic upper and lowercase letters. He suddenly shouted out a discovery, “A little r isn’t a little R but a little s is a little S”.

The Buck Institute identifies these behaviors as indicators of students’ creative practice:

  • Uses idea-generating techniques to develop several original ideas for product(s)
  • Carefully evaluates the quality of ideas and selects the best one to shape into a product
  • Asks new questions, takes different perspectives to elaborate and improve on the selected idea
  • Uses ingenuity and imagination, going outside conventional boundaries, when shaping ideas into a product
  • Seeks out and uses feedback and critique to revise product to better meet the needs of the intended audience



Often when integration of various content is discussed, it is explored as the teacher’s responsibility to plan for the connections. When students go deeper into the content in any area, they can discover connections. If you study history deep and wide, you will “run into” music and the arts. A deep study of geography will unearth connections to history, literature, science, etc. Providing time and sparking interest leading to depth can create additional learning from integration.

Focusing on creating opportunities for students to explore deeply, teachers can increase the quality of learning. A study from The Education Trust, Motivation and Engagement in Student Assignments shares that teachers bring relevancy to assignments when they:

  • Teach rigorous content using themes across disciplines, cultures, and generations; consider essential questions; and explore universal understandings.
  • Use real-world materials and events to explore salient topics.
  • Connect with the values, interests, and goals of their students.

Strategies to increase students’ engagement in quality learning can be found in Engaging 21st Century Learners to Promote Student Interaction Micro-credential

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One Response to “ Engaging Students for Maximum Learning ”

  1. Tamara Says:

    Love this and miss working with you, Steve!

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