Exploring Engagement in ELT Teaching

Part II: Behavioral Engagement

By Christina Cavage

We are bombarded by the term engagement these days. While it was challenging to build engagement under normal classroom circumstances, building engagement online and sustaining it is even more challenging. In the last issue, we broke down exactly what it means to be engaged. You may recall that engagement in learning is simply about “the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught” and how motivated they are to learn and progress. We delved into emotional engagement—how we can break down those walls and create a comfortable learning space. Today, we are going to examine behavioral engagement.

What is Behavioral Engagement?

When we think of behavioral engagement, we have to consider our students’ behaviors in class.  Are they participating? Are they working in groups effectively and efficiently?  How attentive and active are our students? Essentially, how involved are they in the learning process?  Now, in a traditional face-to-face class we might be able to clearly see this. We know the students who come to class with their assignments completed, with their books open and ready to go, with their hands up to answer the questions we pose to the class. However, in a virtual environment, this can be extremely difficult to observe especially when many of our students have learned to Zoom with their cameras off. So, what can we do to foster and maintain behavioral engagement in this new normal?

Strategies to Build Behavioral Engagement

Very much like emotional engagement, it’s all about leveraging our traditional teaching methods and the tools we have. Often times selecting the right tools and using them at the right times can actually lead to a greater amount of engagement. Let’s unpack this a bit more by looking at four effective strategies.

Strategy #1: Make Learning Active

Set the expectation early on that you will be asking your students to do rather than just receive. Imagine you have asked your students to begin to develop a thesis statement for a writing assignment. Rather than have them submit the assignment to you, consider using a tool like Nearpod, to have students post and share their thesis statements. When students know that their work will be shared, there are fewer excuses and fewer long moments of silence as you call on names via Zoom or some other vehicle.

Collaborative board on Nearpod

Strategy #2: Build in Peer-to-Peer Learning

Being an active learner, also means being an active partner or group member. Whether you are using breakout rooms, or discussion boards, it is important to set clear guidelines as to what you want students to accomplish. Using a model is often very helpful, especially for our lower levels. The below example is taken from Pearson English Content Library Powered by Nearpod. Here students need to share with a partner, then post their findings.

Read-Pair-Share in Nearpod

Peer-to-Peer learning may also mean peer-to-peer competition. Students love to ‘race’ against one another. I have found that warming-up with a race is a great way to get class going. It is also very effective in setting the tone for the rest of the class period. It communicates many messages—from how prepared I expect you to be to how active I expect you to be.

Time to Climb Activity, a race for students
Time to Climb activity: a race for students

Strategy #3: Break Learning into Small Pieces (Microlearning)

Microlearning is not a new term. However, it really has been coming to the forefront during these unprecedented times. Attention spans are dwindling and seem to be more so with the distractions of sitting in one’s own home taking classes. Microlearning is about presenting learning in small manageable pieces. This makes learning more accessible. The best practice is presenting content in small pieces, and then building in active tasks so students can immediately apply what they have learned. A great example of microlearning exists in Pearson English Content Library Powered by Nearpod: Grammar. Within each grammar lesson there is a short video lesson on the grammar structure. Within these lessons, there are formative questions that students have to answer to move on. It makes their learning real and immediate.

Grammar lesson in Nearpod

Strategy #4: Personalize Learning

Lastly, in an online environment it becomes even more important to create lessons that are tailored or personalized. Tailored or personalized learning allows students to make greater connections to course content. How can you personalize lessons? Well, most simply, incorporate students’ names into lessons and include information about students into learning materials. What about personalizing or tailoring learning on a more global scale, or in other words, tailoring to your specific program or course?

Well, using a tool like Pearson English Content Library Powered by Nearpod, you can add, modify, or delete content. This allows you to customize the content to best meet the goals, objectives, and student learning outcomes of your course. By doing so, you are able to give your students exactly what they need to master your course and programmatic goals.

Personalizing with Nearpod

Overall, engaging students online is not much different than engaging them in the classroom. It is about selecting the right tools and implementing those tools strategically.

References: Student Engagement Definition. (2016, February 18). Retrieved January 05, 2021, from https://www.edglossary.org/student-engagement/


Christina Cavage is the Curriculum and Assessment Manager at University of Central Florida. She has trained numerous teachers all over the world in using digital technologies to enhance and extend learning. She has authored over a dozen ELT textbooks, including University Success, Oral Communication, Transition Level, Advanced Level, Intermediate Level and A2. Recently, Ms. Cavage completed grammar and academic vocabulary curriculum for the new Pearson English Content Library Powered by Nearpod, which is now available. Learn more here.