Cash in on Learning: How to Engage Students in Learning, Part 1 (Plus, win a free book!)

Those of you who have followed my blog postings know I’m somewhat of a “self-regulation” nut. I stumbled upon the theory several years ago when I was working with high poverty schools. The well-meaning teachers I was working with were “differentiating their hearts out” and finding little success in improving student achievement. My observations of students during class time showed me that no matter what the teachers were doing, the students weren’t engaging. So, I set forth on my journey to find a root cause to the persistent lack of motivation and overwhelming disengagement. Thus, self-regulation.

A brief summary: Self-regulation of learning (SRL) is the personal engagement in effective cognitive, behavioral, and affective strategies to achieve learning goals (Schunk & Zimmerman, 2012). Those students who possess greater levels of SRL are bound to persevere, avoid distractions (focus), and put forward effort to be successful.

Well-regulated students also employ strategies for engaging in tasks. Berry Zimmerman and colleagues (1996), leading researchers in the field of SRL, suggest four phases to efficiently engage in learning tasks. The learner must 1) commit to doing well, 2) determine what they will do to do well, 3) monitor their progress toward doing well, and 4) reflect on how well they did and what needs to be changed next time.
Engaging in Tasjs graphic

In this post, I’ll share ideas for the most important phase, phase 1. I will write about phases 2–4 in my next post.

In the beginning phase of learning, the student needs to reflect on past performances and prior knowledge experiences to set forward into learning. For struggling students, this initial stage may set them on the path to failure because they can’t recall positive past performances or prior successes and thus don’t know what to think about (cognitive), how to act (behavioral), or how good it feels (affective) to be accomplished. This phase is considered the most important stage in learning—getting students to ground themselves confidently.

What is necessary at this point is to foster the learner’s confidence in learning. Begin by helping students identify their emotional state. How one feels about a learning situation determines the level of attention one will pay to the information. Get kids to feel good about the experience. I’m not suggesting the “touchy-feely” kind of feel good—but I’m talking about building a positive learning environment where all students are respected and encouraged to do their best. The teacher is a supporter of intellectual risk-taking, curiosity, and hard work.

c-michel74100_-dreamstime_com.jpgWe need to help students develop a sense of positive self-belief and self-esteem. An effective strategy at this point is to have students do a visualization activity. In this activity, students either lie on the floor or sit comfortably at their desks with their eyes closed. Using a soothing voice, ask students to picture in their mind a peaceful, calm place. This place can be their bedroom, the fort they built as a younger child, or in a quiet library. Then ask them to get in touch with how they feel when they are in this peaceful place. Have them “capture” that feeling and hold onto it as an example of success. Now ask them to think of a time when they were excited about their performance or when they accomplished something that was at first difficult. Again, ask them to capture that feeling of success and remember it. Have the students open their eyes and recall the feelings of calm and success. Say, “Those are the feelings you will have when you successfully complete this task.”

Other ways for fostering confidence are through:

  • Setting and maintaining acceptable learning behaviors in the classroom
  • Using a nonconfrontational style with your students—don’t get into power struggles!
  • Using affirmative language rather than punitive language (“Jamal is really focused on the task at hand!” rather than “Sarah, stay on task”)
  • Giving students time to de-stress—play fun games or tell jokes after a difficult task, activity, or test
  • Refusing to engage in public arguments—don’t allow students to “get your goat.” If a student has a disagreement with you, take the student aside to discuss it.

AdvancingDifferentiationAnother essential aspect of building students’ confidence is through developing habits of thinking. Craft time in your class day to embed thinking activities where students develop the abilities to think independently. For some useful and ready-to-use ideas, check out chapters 9 and 10 on critical and creative thinking in my book Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century. One such activity is the “Squiggle” activity.

Finally, to assist learners in developing a greater sense of confidence, build, activate, or teach the prior knowledge, practices, or experiences the students will need for upcoming activities. Some students come to class without having a great deal of authentic experiences (such as having visited a museum, theater, or zoo, or traveled out of town). These students need enriched experiences to attach new material to. These kids need field trips to places they have never been; to view movies, videos, or websites that prep them for the upcoming units of study; to play with manipulatives or artifacts of the study; books or stories read to them that pique their interests, and so on. Background knowledge is needed before students can begin the study.

Some kids may have had prior experiences with the topic but have “forgotten” what they were exposed to. These kids need refreshers of past experiences. Show examples of prior products they created that used the strategies or skills necessary for the upcoming study. Provide websites or YouTube videos of what they have done in the past, or refresh their memories by talking through the experiences they have had and discuss how those will link to the new learning.

For students to fully engage in learning tasks, they must initially have confidence in their abilities and capacities to pursue new learning. All too often teachers ignore this crucial step in learning. We must first have confident learners before we can get successful learners.

In part 2 next month, I will share ideas for the other three phases of engaging in learning tasks. I’ll give you literacy and learning strategies that will be helpful in assisting learners in being motivated and confident scholars.

What suggestions do you have for fostering confidence for self-regulation?

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

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Suggested Resources
Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century. by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.
Motivation and Self-Regulated Learning: Theory, Research, and Application, edited by Dale H. Schunk and Barry J. Zimmerman.
A Biological Brain in a Cultural Classroom, by Robert Sylvester.
Developing Self-Regulated Learners: Beyond Achievement to Self-Efficacy. by Barry J. Zimmerman, Sebastian Bonner, and Robert Kovach.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2014 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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4 Responses to Cash in on Learning: How to Engage Students in Learning, Part 1 (Plus, win a free book!)

  1. dhill1735 says:

    As an elementary creative drama teacher, I extensively utilize the arts to foster engagement, excitement, and confidence. Thirty years of teaching has surely taught me much and many things have changed, but children and their zeal for play has not changed. I was instructed as a student teacher to teach through my passion, because passion is contagious and a great platform for igniting energy, connection, and a collaborative spirit. Please see “Lessons Learned from the heel-digging-in-place called I can’t” at

  2. Bradley Evans says:

    In our world of technology and instant gratification it is most important to find new and creative ways to keep our students engaged in learning without having to resort to total technology. Our students need to experience learning hands not thumbs on.

  3. Candace says:

    I love being able to find more resources aimed at how engagement must come first, if we don’t have their full attention then even the best interventions aren’t going to work.

  4. Madison says:

    In order to foster confidence in my students and thus foster self-regulation, I work to set acceptable learning behaviors in the classroom at the start of the year and to check in on these behaviors throughout the year. I attempt to “catch” my students “doing good”, as especially those students who struggle to self-regulate often thrive on the encouragement they receive for acceptable behaviors. Lastly, I love to include games, funny movie clips, songs, and movement in my classroom to give students a chance to de-stress. Although it’s a work in progress, I feel that these few actions assist students in becoming both engaged and self-regulating.

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