Strategies to Engage Students in New Content
When was the last time you heard your middle grades students talking casually about the corresponding angles converse postulate, the North American Free Trade Agreement, or the conservation laws of physics?
Chances are, these topics, and those of similar complexity, do not come up often during the course of our students' social interactions. Therefore, when content area teachers embark on a new concept with rigor and passion, they do so without recognizing that their students may not have any personal connection to the new content. Students get lost in a sea of information, unable to anchor their learning to something they know and understand.
An effective lesson plan engages students from the onset. It provides opportunities for them to think analytically about their own experiences before new learning takes place. Therefore, content area teachers should provide students with opportunities to make connections between themselves and the topic before trying to teach them something new. This will bring otherwise abstract, complex, and alien concepts to life, leading to deeper and more meaningful learning.
Teachers can engage students with new concepts by providing what Madeline Hunter identifies in Mastery Teaching (1982) as the "anticipatory set." This can be an activity as simple as posing a question for personal reflection or class discussion. The question should draw on students' existing background knowledge and experiences and focus their thinking on the new learning task.
For example, a math teacher might ask students to
- Solve a "problem of the day" or brain teaser.
- Interpret a chart or graph.
- Make a list related to the topic, such as "things with acute angles."
- Estimate quantities, such as the volume of a tin can or the perimeter of a textbook.
A science teacher might have students
- Discuss and respond to a thoughtful question, such as "Is all light the same?"
- Perform a simple lab experiment.
- Describe a scientific phenomenon illustrated in a photograph or drawing.
- List questions they would like answered about an object on display in the class.
In social studies, the teacher might ask students to
- Discuss and respond to a philosophical question such as "Should the U.S. government require all citizens to vote?"
- Discuss and respond to a famous quote.
- Collaborate to create a pre-learning concept map.
- List questions they would like answered about an historic document.
The anticipatory set does not require extensive classroom time; rather, it is a simple five-minute activity that pulls students into the lesson, providing them the opportunity to make personal connections to the topic before new learning begins.
Effective content area engagement activities involve students with thought-provoking and critical questions. They provide experiences through dialogue, exploration, activity, and investigation. Whatever the activity, do it before instruction to provide students with the experiences they need to make connections to their learning and bring meaning to what can otherwise be complex, abstract, or confusing topics and concepts.
Kathleen Kopp is a teacher on special assignment with the Citrus County Schools in Inverness, Florida. She is the author of
Everyday Content-Area Writing: Write-to-Learn Strategies (2010, Maupin House). E-mail: email@example.com