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Thursday, May 28, 2020

How to Engage High School Students in Active Learning

Put simply, active learning occurs when students become active, hands-on participants in their own learning experience and engage directly with the subject material.

The antithesis of active learning, or passive learning, would be the traditional, lecture-style type of learning in which teachers verbally transmit information to students, and students are then expected to take notes and remember the information.

This type of learning does not engage students in the same way, especially for students who learn best through visual or hands-on learning.

Why High School Students Are Tough to Engage

High school students are often the most challenging age group to engage for a variety of reasons:

They’re behind.

One reason high school students might seem less engaged than younger students is that they have fallen behind in previous grades and are now struggling to learn the harder material. When students fall behind early, the lack of understanding only builds to create an even more frustrating high school experience. 

Though students might be quiet in class and act as if they are jaded in high school, they could just be hiding their discomfort from not being able to grasp classroom content.

Learning isn’t “cool.”

Sometimes high school students follow the herd mentality that learning isn’t in fashion, and being actively engaged in learning is especially uncool. These students might actually be interested in the material but look to their peers for approval when it comes to engaging with their teachers and the material being taught.

They are focused on results.

Since so much of student success, especially in the United States, is based on how well students score on standardized tests, students might be more worried about results like grades and test scores than on actually learning the material. High school students might also already feel stressed about future college plans and want to focus on the grades and résumé builders they need for college admissions, rather than learning for the sake of learning.

High school educators inevitably feel the same pressure to teach solely for test scores, but some active learning strategies can help both students and teachers better enjoy the learning and teaching process while still moving through important and difficult content effectively.

7 Strategies for Engaging High School Students

The great news is that active learning strategies can help engage high school students, as long as educators are willing to be creative and set a solid example for their students. Here are 7 different strategies for engaging high school students in the classroom with which educators can experiment.

1. Try team-building activities.

Anytime you can put high school students into teams, they will usually feel a sense of competition and want to try harder. Split your students into teams and give the teams a task. You can have each team pick a team name and offer easy-to-fulfill rewards for the winning team.

Within classroom teams, encourage students to engage in ice-breaker and group activities that help them build their teamwork skills. Some examples of activities to have students try include:

  • Act out classroom material or vocabulary words (like charades)
  • Come up with different examples of classroom material in the world and sharing with the class
  • Each team presents one component of the lesson to the class 

Some students might be shy and not want to present to the entire class, in which case each team can have different roles they must assign, like scribes, presenters, timekeepers, researchers, etc.

2. Add visual components.

Since so many students are visual learners, adding visual components to lessons almost always helps students become more engaged.

You can make visual components even more active by asking the students to create them. For example, you can ask students to create word clouds of different vocabulary words used in a lesson, challenge students to paint pictures based on the lesson of the day, or have students create flashcards.

3. Consider fun additions, like music.

Music notoriously helps human beings remember information, so bringing music into your lessons can help students engage more actively with the material and solidify the information in their minds. High school students will especially love hearing some of their favorite songs incorporated into what they might have thought was a “boring” lesson.

Depending on the lesson material, some educators have found songs online to help students learn concepts, especially languages. Another great idea is to have students make up their own songs to remember concepts. They can make up words of the songs to go with famous melodies or popular (appropriate) songs they love.

Educators might also find ways to play music in the classroom while students are working to help stimulate their minds as they learn material. In a history class, perhaps an educator might play a song from that time period to bring students into the mindset of what it might have been like to live in the past.

4. Challenge students to become the teachers.

Students engage more when they have to process the information and teach it to someone else, so anytime educators can find a way for students to take ownership of the material, the students will likely be more engaged and absorb the information much more effectively. 

The first strategy in this list addressed this very idea with the suggestion that groups could be assigned one concept to teach the class. 

Teachers might also consider breaking high school students into groups and having the groups work through an assignment together. This will naturally activate students who understand the material to help teach the students who are having more trouble.

5. Make learning a game.

Anytime educators can create a game out of material, students will become more engaged. In high school, it’s important not to make games too kid-like and try to find games that suit the personalities of the students. 

Again, competition is a great way to encourage students to put in more effort. Consider breaking students up into teams or having students compete for a prize by answering questions correctly.

As a workable example, have students stand in a single-file line. Each student has to approach the board and try to answer a question correctly. When they can’t answer the question, they move to the back of the line. The last person still standing after a certain amount of time is the winner.

6. Connect material to current events.

Students, especially in high school, are more likely to care about material when they can connect it to the world around them. 

So, anytime you’re teaching a new lesson, try to find a connection to a current event. You can explain how the lesson relates to life now, how the lesson has impacted the world and important inventions, or how the history of the lesson has led to the world students live in today.

You can even consider having students research how the material is related to their lives today and present their findings to the class.

7. Lead by example.

Of course, students will be more engaged when they have a positive relationship with their teacher and see that teacher engaged as well.

Hopefully, these active learning strategies will also get educators more excited to engage in lessons as well and take some of the stress off of the need to teach to a test or make sure all students are paying attention and taking detailed notes during a long lecture.

Not all students will want to engage, even after these strategies, but they will inevitably appreciate the effort and at least remember the material better, even if they do not show enthusiasm at the time.



Since 2002, NSHSS has supported young academics on their journey to college and beyond as they prepare to become the leaders of tomorrow. The mission behind NSHSS is to recognize academic excellence and honor high-achieving students, providing them with the resources and network to excel in college, career and community. In doing so, NSHSS connects members with global events, scholarships, college fairs, internships, career and leadership programs, partner discounts, and more. Discover what makes NSHSS worth it to student members and how you can get involved. 

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