15 Tools for Engagement

Tools for engagement

1. Better Attentional Sets.

Create some anticipation for students or yourself before speaking. Use a train whistle, gong or party noisemaker. It just has to be fun, short and consistent. These kind, you’ll rotate each week to avoid habituation by your students.

Or, whenever someone is ready to speak to your group or class, he or she will use a pre-established activity. Any established call-response can work. As an example, the speaker, before saying a word, will stand up, clap three times and wait. The audience responds with 3 claps and sends, with their hands, a big “whoosh” of positive energy their way. This back and forth exchange tells the audience the teacher is ready to speak, and the audience tells he or she that they are giving both attention and support.

2. Start-up Call-Response.

These are the auditory-kinesthetic routines that you set up with the class as a way to prepare to learn. It can help get the whole group aligned and put all in a common, excited state of “I can!” Before class, first prepare an overhead or write the call-response on a whiteboard or chalkboard, divided into two columns. One column on the left has the “call” and the right column has the “response.” Ask the whole group to stand and take in a deep breath. Then tell the group that you’ll do the call, they do the response.

Examples include: You say, “Who’s here today?” They respond, “I’m here!” They do this both by sound and by adding the same beat of a foot stomp. You say, “Here for what?” They stomp and say, “To learn and have fun!” You say, “When do we start?” They stomp and say, “Right now!” You say, “How do we start?” They stomp and say, “Work hard, Learn smart!” This simple routine is best done quickly, with high-energy the first time by you so you can role model it.

3. Anticipatory traditions.

Doing something once is okay, but creating a positive, predictable and practical tool repeated enough to be called a ritual is even better. Many are as simple as raising your hand and asking others to raise their hand once they see your hand is up. This simply means you want the group’s attention. When others see that others’ hands are up, they too raise their hand. Soon, they entire group has their hand up and the room is quiet.

Also: 1) You clap once, then say, “If you can hear me, clap twice.” Then you clap twice and say, “If you can hear me clap three times.” Then you clap three times and say, “If you can hear me, clap four times.” Then you clap four times. By this time, all your audience will be clapping with you and ready for you to jump in and start talking with complete attention.

4. Inhale Slowly.

Breath is affects us powerfully. Stretching helps engagement. Taking in a deep breath is often a precursor to taking on a challenge or knowing something is coming up. You might say, “Let’s pause for a minute. Take in a slow deep breath… inhale, inhale and hold it. Now, slowly release it out. Very good. Now, one more time. Breathe in slowly, as if you’re taking in a divine gift. A little more… very good. Now, hold it … and slowly exhale as if you’re releasing all the stress of the day.” After the breath, there’s a pause in anticipation of the next thing.

5. Music for call-backs.

A musical deadline can create anticipation. Use a set-up song; otherwise known as a cue-signal or “call-back” song to get attention for a beginning or start time. This song should have the following criteria: 1) it’s short—under 3 minutes 2) it’s has either positive lyrics or no lyrics, 3) it ends with a clear predictable “pa-dum” and does not trail off, fading slowly into the quiet.

Songs like “Pretty Woman” or “Chantilly Lace” can work. Make an agreement that everyone must be in their seats, ready to learn before the song ends. Then enforce it by walking around the first few times you play it and “rounding up” everyone so they know you mean it.

6. Comeback responses.

These are strategies that are used the moment the group is back from: 1) yesterday’s class 2) the previous class 3) a break 4) lunch. Almost any tool, vehicle or group response activity can be used if it is: a) short b) solves the “return to seats” problem c) ends in a positive state d) engages everyone.

An example would be if, when the group’s back, you said, “If you made it back on time, raise your hand and say, ‘Yes!’ Now, turn to your nearest neighbor and say, ‘Welcome back!’” This aligns the group, reorients them to you and their social structure and quiets them for a couple of seconds. Naturally, you’ll need to jump in right after that moment and begin the class before the noise starts up again.

7. Demonstrate with the body.

Say, “We’re going to do something very interesting in just a moment. But first, please stand up.” This raises heart rate and arousal states. Ask your audience to take in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Now you, a group leader or assigned person can lead a team, group or those at a small table in some slow stretching.

Now, take a math problem and ask students to use their hands and body to act out the numbers. Use the body to demonstrate connections, links, relationships and key ideas. Your body can make a number, a movement or a show a plant, rock, mineral, cloud or river. They can show prefixes, suffixes or periods (stomp).

8. Who is Doing the Work?

Anytime you have materials to get to the students, get lazy. Under 90% or more of the circumstances, your students should be passing out papers, materials, handouts or any other item. Organize this through 1) the team leader 2) a volunteer 3) assigned in-class delivery students 4) a quick vote 5) form small impromptu groups, then ask those in them to pick the “fastest runner” or other fun designation. In other words, if you want more engagement, stop doing the student’s work for them.

9. Peer Drawings.

They can stand up and use their elbows to draw out a key word for the lesson. Spell out or they can use their head, knee or toes. This gets the epinephrine up!

There are other types of drawings. For example, keep a bag, bowl with some or all of the student names on cards or paper slips. The students do a drum roll on their tables for added suspense. At a point during each class let one student come up to the container and draw out two student names. One of the names gets a standing ovation (pure fun!) and the other gets to answer two questions from the group and they get one “lifeline” (ask another student, or they can look it up on the spot). The peer pressure is both fun and stressful! If both answered correctly, then win a silly prize or favor.

10. Walking Fast to the Music.

Use this as a tool for “mixing” up the group. Sometimes a class forms too-familiar “social niches.” This means accountability drops because your audience becomes TOO familiar with each other. They stick up for and cover for each other, dropping accountability for thinking and learning. What’s needed is a vehicle for mixing up the group. Music can do that because people can “lose themselves” in the music.

It works this way. Say, “It’s time for a change of pace. Take in a deep breath… and let it out. Great. Now, please stand up. In 10 seconds, the music will begin. When it does, walk away from your chair. You can go anywhere in the room quickly until the music stops, then wait for directions.” The directions are usually, “Find a neighbor. Hand up if you need a partner. Now, here’s who goes first…” You might do a think-pair-share activity next.

11. Stop reading information to students.

Give them a role. Every day, multiple students can have the roles of morning announcements, previews of coming attractions or reviewing key points from the day. When they do the reviewing, other students can repeat after them to boost recall.

Instead of you reading it, condense it into a short paragraph. Then show the information, followed by a simple question. For quick recall, use a multiple choice. For more in-depth processing, use open ended Qs. Our frontal lobes release dopamine when we complete challenging problems. It’s nature’s way of rewarding us for doing well. Plus, the dopamine that is released will then support tasks that require working memory.

12. Repetitive gross motor movement.

You may have noticed that when you go for a walk, it’s hard to return in a bad mood. Activities that stimulate repetitive gross motor movement include swimming, walking, cycling and marching. In general, it takes from three to ten minutes to get the dopamine going, depending on a host of variables. If students need a “pick-me-up” send them out on a ten-minute walk with a structured positive conversation.

They’ll return in better state of mind. Add music to the student’s marching time. Great marching music includes: Anchors away or the Triumphal March (Verdi).

13. Look on Your Neighbor’s Paper.

Many of the tools of engagement are, rightfully so, tools for increased accountability. This one is simple, “Look on to your neighbors paper. If they wrote down all three points we just mentioned, congratulate them and raise your hand.” Or, “Look on to your
neighbor’s paper. If they have less than the last three items we’ve just reviewed, tell them what their missing ones are.”

14. Transparent Teaching.

You present a key point, using an overhead as a prompt for yourself. Now it’s the student’s turn to put it in his or her own words. You can number sentences, so that each student takes the odd ones. You can also color-code them so one takes those in blue and the other takes those in red. Everyone stand, mix up to find a partner. On cue, one person translates the sentence into their own words, creating meaning for themselves and maybe others. This is a good way to ensure that everyone understands the material.

15. Voting with their body.

This strategy is a kinesthetic affirmation based on others taking an action to respond by doing something with their body. As an example, first ask your students to stand up. Ask them to vote with their body.

Say, “If you believe this is true, go to that side of the room. If you disagree, go to this side of the room.” Then, they might do an activity such as a pair share. Before they go sit down, you might say, “Now take in a slow deep breath and hold it…good. Now let it out. If you feel more confident, have a seat.” Or, “If you’re ready to learn something new, please have a seat.”


Filling “holes” Good for students using a notebook or those with any collection of pages with notes. Each student finds the weakest page (one he or she’d like more info on) from his or her workbook from the last unit or learning segment. They open that up and leave it exposed. This activity works best with a “set-up” beforehand. Talk to the students about learning from others and the fact that we all value other’s opinions and that no one can know everything. Remind students in advance, that his is a chance to “give ideas and get ideas,” and it’s not the time for rude comments or love letters.

Students stand up and walk around the room (use music for this one). Make it mandatory that they stop and write on at least one open notebook page. Give students about 3 minutes and keep them focused. Once students have returned to their seats, you can evaluate how many actually did get comments. If they are seated in a cooperative learning group, you can also have students pass their notebooks or the pieces of paper to solicit comments. Then they can share with their team what they learned from the comments.

That’s it! We hope you find these strategies valuable. We also look forward to seeing you in one of our upcoming courses. If you liked what you saw here, you’ll really like the Jensen Learning 2-day course, “Tools for Maximum Engagement” or “Teaching with the Brain in Mind.” at www.jensenlearning.com. Thanks.

Eric Jensen is a former teacher with a real love of learning. He grew up in San Diego and attended public schools. While his academic background is in English and human development, he has a real love of educational neuroscience. For over 20 years, he has been connecting the research with practical classroom applications.


  1. I really like the notebook idea filling the “holes” because as a history teacher my students take a lot of notes this would be a great exercise for them to also see just how much they do know on a particular topic.

  2. Allowing the kids to use their body and move during learning really works. Kids learn much better when they can be actively involved. I like many of the ideas mentioned.

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