Seven More Ways to Go From On-Task to Engaged

HarrisbLast June, I wrote Seven Ways to Go From On-Task to Engaged, which turned out to be one of the most popular topics of the year.

In it I spoke about the possibility that students could technically be on-task but cognitively and emotionally unengaged in the actual learning.

For decades, much discussion and research in education circles focused on the role of time on-task and its relationship to attention and learning (Karweit, 1983; Prater, 1992). While time on task is important, as is focus and attention, true engagement in learning involves more than external behaviors as measured by time on-task. True engagement involves the mind, the body, and the soul.

As educators, we realize that not all on-task time is productive time. John Hattie, in his research synthesis Visible Learning points out that increasing time on task is pointless if the tasks themselves are not productive. Those who call for longer school days and longer school years might be wise to increase the focus on getting students engaged and productive. After all, asking students to spend more time being bored or disengaged isn’t likely going to have a positive effect.

Because not all tasks or assignments are equal in their ability to effectively engage students, educators should have a variety of strategies and approaches available when they work with students. So, here are seven more ways to go from on-task to engaged:

  1. Ask questions that don’t have right or wrong answers. Seek student opinions, allow argumentation, encourage persuasion, and teach students how to disagree and debate in a positive way.
  2. Strike a balance between praise and feedback. Grant Wiggins, co-author of Understanding by Design points out that praise, “Keeps me in the game, but doesn’t help me get any better.” While praise may encourage effort, specific feedback is necessary in order to truly learn and grow.
  3. Encourage self reflection and the creation of personalized goals. Teach students to track and evaluate their own learning. Some of the most valuable and long-lasting learning comes from the personal insights and “ah-hahs” we discover when learning about ourselves.
  4. Increase physical movement. Movement has a positive effect on learning and student achievement. Physical movement wakes up the brain by increasing blood flow, increasing certain neurotransmitters that have an impact on memory, and generally helps students be more alert.
  5. Increase the use of celebrations. Bobbi DePorter and her co-authors of Quantum Teaching point out that, “If it’s worth learning, it’s worth celebrating.” Classrooms should be places where there is joy, celebration, and happiness because learning is fun.
  6. Stress process over product. Some of our most disengaged and bored students care little about grades, points, or other “motivators” we tend to use in school. Instead of focusing on the outcome of the work (which is typically a grade), focus on the process of learning, the experiences students will have, and the personal connections they can make to ideas and content.
  7. Take a risk. Every day, we ask students to stretch themselves to be better, smarter, or more insightful. In essence, we ask them to take a risk and try things that may not be comfortable. Likewise, as educators, we should also be taking risks, trying out new approaches, and stretching ourselves beyond our comfort zone. When students see us modeling those same behaviors and attitudes, it can have a tremendous impact.

How do you know if students are not only on-task but engaged? What strategies to you recommend?

Post submitted by Bryan Harris, director of professional development for the Casa Grande Elementary School District in Arizona. He is the author of Battling Boredom, published by Eye On Education. More information can be found at


  1. Great insight and strategies that can be used by teachers at all different grade levels. I am new to the blogs at ASCD, but I will now follow the great information and postings I feel the site provides. I am going to go back and read your original article from last year!
    -Blake J.

  2. Great ideas for instructional strategies that may lead to increased student engagement in the classroom. I like your question at the end, “How do you know if students are not only on-task but engaged?” I think this is a critical question. What is engagement? Students sitting in desks looking politely at the teacher? Our thought is that engagement is defined by students either writing, speaking, or creating something. In other words, as John Hattie has said, make “learning visible”. Your thoughts?

  3. The easiest way to engage students is to make relevant what they are studying to their own lives now–not in the future. For example when studying cells, include a short article on stem cell research. Connect his to a relative suffering from an illness that stem cells might alleviate. Sit back and enjoy the “arguments” with evidence materialize.

    When reading Sarah Plain and Tall, connect the human emotion of “homesickness” to the reading. I did this with a group of immigrant students. Very effective.

    When studying the economy of China, include investing in companies (Walmart) and how they as individuals can do this. Discuss social investing, risk, etc. I did this in a class of high poverty students. They were impressed that they could afford to buy a share in a company.

    It’s easy to cover the standards, curriculum, and keep the students engaged, and you are correct: Engaged students will not have time to disrupt the lesson.

  4. Process over product… That’s one reason that college students cannot write an error-free cogent paragraph. Also, it’s an easy way for teachers to opt-out of providing specific feedback. Oops. Specific feedback is suggested. Cognitive dissonance?

  5. “True engagement [in learning] involves the mind, body, and soul.” Well said Bryan. I look forward to reading Seven Ways to Go From On-Task to Engaged. The cliche admonition that we provide “rigor, relevance, and relationships” in our schools and classrooms is very true. With the advent of the internet, in this modern era, it may very well be that “it’s not what you know, but what you can find” that matters … in the work place and in school. Our digital-age students will simply tune us out lest we practice some of your recommendations. Whatever the time on task, thanks for reminding us that our students must be “hooked” into the learning in real human terms if we are to be successful with them. Gary S. Mathews, Superintendent, Newton County School System, Covington, GA

  6. I completely agree that there is a difference between being on task and being engaged in what you are learning. Sometimes it is too easy to open to a workbook page and have students do that. However, as you said, students may be on task, but are they learning anything? A good way to see if they are actively engaged in what they are doing is to do a reflective exercise at the end of the lesson to have students tell you what they gained from the experience.

    2nd grade Teacher Surry, VA


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here