4 Sure-Fire Ways to Engage Reluctant Learners

Engage Reluctant Learners

A cinematic depiction of education, which is almost universally loved is The Dead Poet’s Society. It is difficult to forget the scene when the uptight professor, confused that so many pages have been torn from textbooks, demands a student read verbatim an essay on interpreting poetry. We see Robin Williams’ character, John Keating, standing within an office preparing to leave the school, as the student’s voice can be heard explaining the steps necessary to interpret poetry. As Mr. Keating leaves the classroom, the music begins to swell, and one by one the students stand upon the desks reciting, “Oh Captain, My Captain” by Walt Whitman.

There isn’t a teacher alive who didn’t wish to see their students engaged with their content so fervently.

Unfortunately, desk climbing isn’t a metric universally acknowledged for student performance. However, every one of us can still be John Keating within our own classrooms. The truth is that the opportunities to have remarkable student engagement are possible, and easily achievable. In our work with schools and districts across the country, we’ve seen many student engagement strategies in action—from kindergarten classrooms to high school AP courses. Student engagement strategies that work have one thing in common—they take the focus off the teacher and place the active process of learning in the hands of students. Below we outline four strategies that consistently result in active student engagement: The Hook, The Check for Understanding, Do Now, and Post It.

The Hook

In non-fiction writing an author will often employ a hook to quickly engage the reader. It is usually some anecdotal finding, an engaging question, a personal connection, or a story to get the reader on the proverbial “same page.” The same thing exists in teaching. Termed, “anticipatory sets” by Madeline Hunter in the 1960s when she introduced a new format for lesson plans. These short prequels prepare students to engage in new content.

The hook is typified by three traits:

  1. It is short. 10 seconds is a good target.
  2. It yields results. The teacher will notice students’ interest in the subject growing.
  3. It is energetic and optimistic. Don’t tell the kids how difficult the content is, unless you’re also going to make it clear to them how different they are from other students, and how easy it is going to be for them.

The hook can be anything, but a few examples of typical hooks include:

A Story

The first type of hook is a story. When you’re telling a story, the point is to humanize you, and make the content relatable. If the students are studying WWII history, you might find it appropriate to talk about the time you heard Elie Wiesel speak. This would give the students the ability to contextualize the lesson, and also help them make a personal connection with you.

An Analogy

The second hook is a brief analogy. Using an analogy helps the students better grasp material by comparing it to something they already know. For example, an English teacher could help his students better understand Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night by comparing it to the movie She’s the Man. Or if the students are struggling to understand Greek mythology the teacher could compare Narcissus with social media platform usage. There are myriad analogies to chose from for any topic. You can use:

  • a story,
  • a video game,
  • a movie or tv show,
  • or artwork to help students be better prepared for the lesson.

A Prop

The third type of hook is to use a prop. A simple object can help the students get into the right frame of mind. The prop’s strength lies in being something tangible. It could be a coin collected from a specific region. It can also be extravagant, like a food item (perhaps a specialty cheese, if you’re teaching about France). The prop engages other senses besides just seeing information or hearing your voice.


The fourth hook is to use some type of media to start the lesson. Some educators frown upon the use of media in the classroom. When carefully planned and intentionally used, videos can open new worlds for learners. When using videos as hooks, it’s most important to be intentional and adhere to the first trait of a hook—keep it short. A video clip, a piece of music, or an image are great ways to quickly engage the students. If the video takes 7 minutes to illustrate the point you’re trying to make, fast forward through those seven minutes.


The fifth type of hook is to create hype around the lesson. Hip hop musicians often employ a hype man. The hype man’s job is to occasionally jump into the song and speak to the crowd and spur their emotions. Some notable hype men include Flavor Flav for the group Public Enemy, or Puff Daddy for Notorious B.I.G. Hype men also exist in professional sporting events, such as the Ring Announcer in boxing and MMA competitions. This man introduces the competitors and creates a short engaging story for the crowd. A hype man employs changes in tone and volume, alternative cadences, and hyperbole to pique interest. Teachers can similarly create hype around lessons. There is no need to have parents volunteer to come be hype men in your classroom either. You can accomplish this on your own by;

  • Use hyperbole and explain what an amazing subject they’re going to be learning.
  • Exaggerate the students’ own abilities and present the common as the extraordinary.

You’ll know you’ve done this right when the students’ physical demeanor changes. The kids will sit up or lean forward. They will feed off your energy, and their anticipation about the content will be palpable.

A Challenge

The sixth hook is to create a game. Mary Poppins taught the invaluable lesson that any task can be accomplished when it is turned into a game. There are many websites and programs that cater to this need but turning any task into a game can improve student engagement in even the most exemplary classrooms. Rather than asking a question, or conducting a review for a test, create a competition. Explain a few simple rules, show the students a prize, and watch as your question pulls every student in.

Checks for Understanding

Hooks are a great way to begin a class, but once the class is in progress teachers need other tools to keep students engaged. The second strategy—which is also important data—is a check for understanding, or more commonly known as a CFU. A CFU is a quick question, often given to an entire class, which gives the teacher immediate feedback about how well content has been received. Many of us experienced similar CFUs during college, if you were lucky enough to attend a large lecture hall where the teacher used iClickers. Similar checks can be accomplished even in classrooms which aren’t teched-out like a college lecture hall.


A nontechnical CFU can be accomplished with personal whiteboards. When using the whiteboards, the purpose is to have each student write their answer, and having the whole class present the whiteboards simultaneously. From your position in the front of the classroom, you can quickly see which students are grasping the lesson.

Response Cards

Response cards are a simplified version of the whiteboard CFU.  Each student has two different colored cards. One for “yes,” and one for “no,” or true/false, a/b, etc. Once the teacher has asked a question she gives the students time to think, and then all the students present the card they believe to be correct at the same time. This gives the teacher a good indication of who is grasping the material. It also has the added benefit of creating an environment where every student got to respond without every student shouting out.

More complex versions of this same system assign each student a printed QR code.  Each rotation denotes a different response choice (a, b, c, or d). The teacher, using the camera on their computer or phone scans the classroom, which collects the data from each child.

Do Now

The Do Now, or bell ringer activity, is simply an activity the students do within the first few minutes they enter the classroom. Typically, it does not require any classroom materials beyond a pencil and a piece of paper, which makes it easy to accomplish while the students get their materials ready for the day. There are several important guidelines you should adhere to with Do Now activities because it can easily take longer than necessary if you’re not careful.

Guideline 1—Consistency

Keep your Do Now in the same place every day. If you write the question on the board, keep that consistent. The same principal extends to how the Do Now is done, and how the students get credit. Plan on a single process for all Do Now activities, from the moment the student walks in your class and picks up the paper to the moment they turn it in.

Guideline 2—Minimal

The Do Now should be accomplished without any direction or guidance from the teacher. If students are asking you questions about the content, or what they are supposed to do this is great data for you about how well your last lesson was received, or how well prepared they are for today’s lesson. Take this time to silently observe the classroom to assess the work students are doing.  You can then quickly use their responses as a springboard into the lesson.

Guideline 3—Timed

Help your students cultivate a sense of urgency. When you first begin this practice, it might take your students 5 minutes to complete the activity. Your goal is closer to 3 minutes. The amount of time students spend on this activity can be a good indicator for how well prepared they are for the lesson you are about to give. If the clock starts reaching 6 minutes you can determine that 1) there was too much information in this activity or, 2) that the students are not ready to move on from previous content.

Guidelines 4—Low Stakes

Don’t let students believe this activity is unimportant because that could negatively impact the type of work they produce. But the content of the activity should still be low stakes.  You can do a simple review from a concept taught the previous day, or you can ask a probing question that will get the students thinking about a concept you are going to teach that day.

Post it

The last tactic in our list of effective ways to engage students is something that really has to happen before anything else.  Somewhere visible in the room, and somewhere where the students can always find it, you should post the Learning Intention, Rationale, and Success Criteria for the lesson.  But like anything posted to our classroom walls, this information will quickly blend into the background if it isn’t regularly updated and discussed. Post it, reference it, and speak about it with the students.

Demystify your classroom.  Bring your students into the lesson through activities and talking with them about their learning. Remember that your classroom isn’t a game of poker where you win if you hold the full house at the end of the day. It’s much more like a cross-country road trip.  You’ve got a car full of children.  And while you might have driven this road before, it is new for them.  This trip will be much better received if you let them know where you’re going, why, what is along the way, and incorporating activities to keep them occupied.


Each of these strategies have been shown to increase active student engagement in the classroom. John Keating used similar strategies to teach his students Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” a poem which has important lessons for us as educators. John Keating recognized how limited his classroom time was with each student. We get our students for 180 days, and then we turn their care and education over to another. Like John Keating we cannot be coy, and save lessons for future days, “for having lost but once your prime, you may forever tarry.” Carpe Diem.



William Evans

Prior to joining Ed Direction, William was an educator and administrator in charter and private schools. He has experience with organizational management and improving educational opportunities for underserved populations. William graduated with his Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Brigham Young University. Shortly thereafter he earned his Master of Arts in English Literature from Creighton University. He worked with the Creighton University’s Strategic Planning Committee and developed an interest in school policies and procedures. He went on to earn an Interdisciplinary Doctorate of Education in Leadership from Creighton University.

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