Seven Ways to Go from On-Task to Engaged

HarrisbWe know that engagement is the key to learning, but we also know that many of our students are bored with the curriculum and activities being offered in classrooms. To battle this problem, much focus and attention has been placed on getting students to be “on-task.” Indeed, the link between on-task behavior and student achievement is strong. However, just as a worker at a company can be busy without being productive, a student can be on-task without actually being engaged in the learning. True, long-lasting learning comes not merely as a result of being on-task, but being deeply engaged in meaningful, relevant, and important tasks.

We see examples of on-task but disengaged behavior every day: students mindlessly copying notes from a screen, listening to a lecture but daydreaming about what to do after school, robotically completing a worksheet. Some students, particularly older ones, have become masters at what Bishop and Pflaum (2005) refer to as “pretend-attend.” They’ve mastered the ability to look busy, focused, and on-task, but in reality they are disengaged in the actual learning.

So, how do we ramp up both on-task behavior and real, meaningful engagement for our students? Here are seven easy ways to increase the likelihood that students are both engaged and on-task:

  1. Teach students about the process of focus, attention, and engagement. Tell them about how the brain works and help them to recognize the characteristics of real engagement.
  2. When designing objectives, lessons, and activities, consider the task students are being asked to complete. Is the task, behavior, or activity one that is relevant, interactive, and meaningful, or is it primarily designed to keep kids busy and quiet?
  3. Ask your students about their perspectives, ideas, and experiences. What do they find engaging, real, and meaningful?
  4. Create authentic reasons for learning activities. Connect the objectives, activities, and tasks to those things that are interesting and related to student experiences.
  5. Provide choice in the way students learn information and express their knowledge.
  6. Incorporate positive emotions including curiosity, humor, age-appropriate controversy, and inconsequential competition. (Inconsequential competition is described by Marzano [2007] as competition in the spirit of fun with no rewards, punishments or anything of “consequence” attached.)
  7. Allow for creativity and multisensory stimulation (think art, drama, role play, and movement).

Have you noticed that on-task does not always mean engaged? How do you achieve both?

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. Bryan — great suggestions, especially #7! Customers tell us all the time that in order to keep the “iGeneration” engaged, they need to give them real-world experiences to help get them-and keep them-engaged. With a generation of students that not only expect technology to be integrated into lessons, but actually depend on it to learn, allowing them opportunities to see, feel, and touch as part of their learning is critical.
    Chris Colbert
    Realityworks, Inc.

  2. This is a great article with great suggestions. My personality especially connects with suggestions 5-7. Many students can easily pretend to be busy and on-task, but when you give them fun activities to participate in, they no longer have to pretend. They are learning, engaged, and having fun! I have learned in my classroom that as students have choice they take more ownership in their learning.

  3. Wonderful article, Bryan! I really enjoyed reading all the suggestions but the ones that stuck out to me were 2 and 4. I feel authentic material is very important because it shows the students that you put in the effort for them to learn and participate. It is also important that the lesson should be relevant because then they will not engaged and lose interest immediately. Thanks for this great article.

  4. I liked how you addressed that students master the art of pretending to be focused when their minds are really elsewhere. This is an interesting point you make for us as teachers to make sure in our work that we are providing lessons that are truly engaging and not just to keep students busy. They must be learning something, and on top of that, learning something while being intrigued. People seem to forget things that are not interesting to them. If the topic can connect with them and their likes they will have a better chance of remembering that information and possibly using it to analyze other things generating high level thinking. Also, I liked how you suggested to design objective based lessons. I will have to ask myself, “what will the students be able to do/know by the end of this?” If the answer is a regurgitation of some facts, I know I will have some work to do! Great article!

  5. Great article. I like knowing I am not the only one that has had those students that will show me all the signs of active listening during a lesson, only to find when its time to answer a question or participate in an activity that they have no idea what is going on! I have found suggestions #4-7 helpful toward improving student engagement. Connecting lessons and skills to student lives and real life world experiences in a great aspect in connecting students to the material being presented. This past year I found my students more engaged and excited about borrowing across zeros by relating it to a story about borrowing a cup of sugar from the neighbor. Choice is also essential to reaching all students. By providing students with a choice of how to solve problems or complete a project, students are able to complete tasks in a way that is meaningful and exciting to them.

  6. An interesting article that focuses on a realistic issue that teachers face in their classrooms. Quite often we are contented when our students are merely on-task because it may take alot out of us to get them to even reach to that point. However, is learning really taking place? In the ideal situation we would all prefer to have our students both on-task and engaged. I definitely agree with suggestions 3-6. Effective teachers do need to take into account students’ needs, interests, experiences, and ideas when designing lessons and activities. Students need to have an input in their learning so that it can become more meaningful for them. When we capitalize on their interest and enthusiasm, the teaching/learning experience becomes more effective and worthwhile for everyone involved.

  7. Great article! I really liked that you provided methods of making students stay engaged while remaining on task. I can remember when I was in school I hated when teachers gave us “busy work”. I liked doing the hands on activities and being involved in the classroom. I agree that teachers need to know their students and to provide instruction and activities that will help them learn and grasp the material that is being presented.

  8. You really brought up an important idea to keep in mind when teaching. Are my students engaged in learning or are they merely on task, going through the motions. When students are engaged it is more than following directions and completing the tasks at hand. I agree that it is very important to provide choice for students when learning, while offering multisensory learning experiences. Encouraging inconsequential competition is an excellent idea. Competition with rewards and punishments tends to enhance some students’ engagement while hindering others’ engagement. Instead, providing competition in the spirit of fun seems like a great way to enhance on task and engaged student behavior.

  9. This was an awesome article, I wish that I had read this before the school year ended! Thank you for the suggestions!

  10. Immediately when I read this article, I wanted to share it with my colleagues. This is what we have been debating all year. How do we, as classroom teachers, get our students engaged? I am a first-year teacher at my own elementary school and I see things very differently than veteran teachers who some of which even taught me! I cannot stand being up in front of class lecturing or giving notes because I can see in my students’ faces the same disengagement I had when I was in school. I must get them up, out of their seats, moving, experimenting, collaborating, and learning together through hands-on engaging activities.
    I knew my year was a success when my fifth graders signed my yearbook today that they had fun learning all they did. Some have asked me for the link to order the robots we built to go along with our astronomy unit, or others have begun reading Shakespeare after my brief introduction to the Golden Age of England. I can see that they were engaged because they could not stop talking about what they have learned.
    I particularly liked your tip to discuss age-appropriate controversy. This is very true especially in today’s age where kids are exposed to so much more. They know what’s out there. They understand gas prices, global warming, and the bombings in Libya. Some come to me first thing in the morning asking if we can discuss this matter or that matter. I show my students the world and they embrace it.
    I will definitely share this article with my colleagues and try to encourage them to step away from the comfort of the textbooks and workbooks, and open students’ eyes to the wonderful possibilities that learning can provide.

  11. Oh my God! Thank you, Bryan, because you have given me the precise information I was looking for to share with my colleagues. I work for Even Start Program as a preschool teacher. In the center, parents take classes to prepare for their ninth grade or their GED test, and their children take early education, too. I do not have much issues with my classes regarding to this because my classes are based in playing Even though, we have a serious problem with assistance from the participants, and I was just starting to wonder recently if it could be because of the methods and strategies the adult teachers use at their classes with the parents. The few I have seen is that is mostly based in textbooks, readings, and answering questions. I did not know how to address this concern I have with my colleagues because is a very sensitive subject to approach. This article is the right answer to this. I really thank you. God bless you.

  12. I am in total agreement. I recall when reviewing for an upcoming exam and a student asked, “when did we talk about this?” Shortly afterwards I noticed one or two more puzzled looks expressing the same concern, and one student blurted out, “when did we work on this, I don’t remember doing this. That’s not fair, I’m gonna get an ‘F’ on a test over something we never worked on.” Around this time many students began commenting on how and when they learned the skill. As an instructor it is frustrating to learn students seemed to be learning and on task but did not retain the information presented. However, teachers who are passionate about their profession and know the power of their reach will continue to seek out ways to integrate strategies that provide concrete, meaningful learning to take place amongst all of their students.

  13. I am in total agreement. I recall when reviewing for an upcoming exam and a student asked, “when did we talk about this?” Shortly afterwards I noticed one or two more puzzled looks expressing the same concern, and one student blurted out, “when did we work on this, I don’t remember doing this. That’s not fair, I’m gonna get an ‘F’ on a test over something we never worked on.” Around this time many students began commenting on how and when they learned the skill. As an instructor it is frustrating to learn students seemed to be learning and on task but did not retain the information presented. However, teachers who are passionate about their profession and know the power of their reach will continue to seek out ways to integrate strategies that provide concrete, meaningful learning to take place amongst all of their students.

  14. I agree it takes a lot to get kids’ attention these days. They have grown up with such high tech gaming devices, internet, cell phones, ipods, etc. They know more about technology than most of us “older” folks. I feel it is my job to present material in a fun exciting and interactive way so that students can’t help but be excited and fully engaged.

  15. Chris – You are right on. Many of our kids have to “power down” and turn off all those devices, toys, and things that are central to their lives when they come to school. Bottom line – their experiences and lives are different than ours. Effective teachers know that they need to build a bridge and make the content and the methods relevant to kids. Thanks for your post.

  16. Heidi- I’ve often wondered about the experiences of our kids in school as it relates to “fun”. Learning should be fun and school a joyful place. It certainly can be a challenge to make all the content fun, but the process of learning should be enjoyable. Over my years of talking with kids, it seems that school stops being fun around 2nd or 3rd grade. What a sad thing. Thanks for your post.

  17. Thanks, Akram. Relevance is the key and it is probably more important now than ever. There is no shortage of content information available to our students. The challenge is helping students see how the content, concepts, and ideas are relevant for their current and future lives. In my mind, that is the real challenge of teaching–making the content relevant to kids. Thanks for your post.

  18. Hi Lindsey,
    Want to see a great example of “pretend-attend”? Carefully watch your peers at the next school staff meeting. Adults are usually a bit better at playing the attention game, but the same concepts are important to remember — make it relevant and interesting and they will be engaged. Thanks for your post.

  19. Hi Jennifer,
    Stories are powerful things. Its no surprise that your students were more engaged/recalled more when you used a story. There is some interesting research that suggests that stories are specially processed in the brain. Students of all ages love to hear stories. Thanks for your post.

  20. Hi Allison,
    Getting kids on task can certainly be difficult…especially with classes with several challenging students. On-task behavior is important but sometimes I think we have the order backwards. Some struggling teachers work so hard to get kids on-task (because of the difficult behaviors) that they don’t consider relevance and true engagement. Perhaps if we focused more effort at creating real, relevant, and authentic work, student behavior would improve. Thanks for your post.

  21. Hi Amanda,
    Isn’t it amazing how astute our kids are when it comes to the difference between real work and busy work? I often ask kids, “Why are you doing this assignment?” When most of the responses are, “Becuase the teacher said to” I start to wonder about busy work. Thanks for your post.

  22. Hi Chelsea,
    Thanks for your input about competition. I totally agree that some kids really respond to competition while others loathe it. I appreciate your balanced approach. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  23. Hi Maria,
    Thanks for your post. I appreciate your reflections. You are in a unique situation…teaching at a school where you attended as a student. By all means share with your colleagues but remember that the best way to share ideas is to be a great model. People are naturally drawn to people who practice what they preach. Best wishes,

  24. Hi Naida,
    You are welcome…the suggestions apply as much to adult learners as they do to kids. Just starting the conversation with your peers will be a great start.

  25. I too think this is a great piece that i would like to share with my student teachers in the fall. Of all the great points made by Bryan and the responders, the concrete one relates to answering in an honest way when a student asks. “Why are we doing this?”. I wonder how many us
    – answer this from the outset
    – respond in ways OTHER THAN, “It’s in the curriculum, on the test, and similar ilk”?

  26. Hi John,
    Some teachers get irritated when students ask, “Why do we have to do this?” Maybe it seems like a threat to their authority but when I hear a kid ask that question (genuinely ask, that is), I’m thrilled because it shows that they are still in the game…they are still asking questions…they still care. Its the kids who never ask that worry me. Thanks for your post.

  27. When kids ask “Why do we have to do this?”…I have an answer ready for them! You can download several “rationales” I have written for students at this address:
    These rationales reduce classroom disruptions, and earn respect from students and parents!

  28. The seven ways listed to engage students is true for engaging any audience including staff and parents.
    Effective educators work hard to engage students and yet when it comes to addressing adult audiences, they resort to lecture. Too many times we fail to understand that professional development and parent workshops need to be engaging and interactive in order to draw people to attend, respect their time, and help them to move from knowing what to do to actually doing it (transfer of knowledge).

  29. I have to agree with Melissa, these seven ways to engage students can also be used to engage older audiences as well. I am guilty of looking busy or interested during a meeting when I am actually texting in my sleeve (a technique I learned from one of my students). I try to design interesting lessons that will engage my students and the longer I teach, the better I am getting.
    I think that #3 is an excellent way to keep students engaged. If we can find a way to interest students in the activity, they are more likely to take something away from it.
    I also think that #7 is great, students love the chance to be creative and are much more open with their creativity now than when I was in school.
    Another thing that I like to do that relates to objectives is to post the objective on the board and then at the end of class, ask students if we met the objective and give me different examples. I also try to get to know my students and read their emotions and reactions. When enough is enough and they need to take a break, we take a break.

  30. Chelsea,
    I have found that when my students like competition, they thrive on it and when they don’t like it, they shut down if we are playing a competitive review game. One way that I have found to engage and involve the students who aren’t competitive is to have them be the score keeper, another way is to ask them a question directly. I also always try to let these students know before that they will be answering the next question, so I won’t catch them too off guard, that usually backfires for me.

  31. I totally agree with this article. I especially like #4 – give them authentic reasons for their activities and learning. My students work best when I tell them what they need to know, what they will understand and what they will be able to do after each lesson. My elementary school has been using Kagan Structures to keep all studented engaged for the past several years. We have found that it really increases engagement with our students.


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