This article appeared in the 2017 summer issue of The Classroom Teacher.

Keeping students engaged in classroom activities is a challenging part of the job. With limited time in class and myriad objectives to reach to ensure students are prepared for state-mandated tests, keeping students interested in lessons can seem like an impossible task.

High school students can be an especially difficult group to engage. But a June report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute shows high schoolers are interested in learning. The Institute, which surveyed about 2,000 10th through 12th graders across the country, found that “nearly all students report being motivated to apply themselves academically.” The problem for teachers is that not every student learns in the same way. 

The Institute identified six dominant categories of students:

  • Subject lovers (19 percent) enjoy school and feel engaged when they perceive learning as useful, interesting and relevant to their daily lives. 
  • Emotionals (18 percent) report feeling excited, happy, proud and interested in class.
  • Hand raisers (17 percent) live “in the moment” and apply themselves during class time, but do little academically outside of class.
  • Social butterflies (16 percent) tend to be more engaged when they feel like they belong at school and that they matter to other students and teachers.
  • Teacher responders (15 percent) value close academic and personal relationships with teachers and other adults in their schools.
  • Deep thinkers (15 percent) pay attention in class, think deeply when they take tests and prefer to figure things out on their own.

While the Fordham Institute, a right-leaning think tank, used the survey results to further its objective of advocating for school choice initiatives, understanding the types of students in a class can help teachers build relationships and find ways to tailor lessons, when possible, to better engage students.

Deep thinkers, for example, enjoy self-directed learning. Social butterflies and emotionals often prefer to work in small groups. Hand raisers and teacher responders want an adult leading a lesson who asks questions so they can participate. Subject lovers can learn in a variety of environments, but especially prefer lessons that offer examples of how the knowledge can be applied outside the classroom.

Unfortunately, there is not a single tool or method to reach every student. But this does not mean engagement is an impossible task for teachers. Instead of trying to fully engage 100 percent of students, 100 percent of the time, focus on continuous improvement throughout the school year. 

Try new methods of teaching, such as project-based learning that empowers students to take more responsibility for a lesson, or integrating technology into lectures so students more actively participate in class. 

Build relationships with your students and show them you care about them. Understanding who they are and how they think will help you connect, which will help keep them engaged.