How to Engage High School Students in Active Learning

Monday, October 16, 2023
How To Engage High School Students In Active Learning

 Active learning can be quite hard for some students, mostly due to a lack of exposure. 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. It does not engage students and can lead to a more dismissive response from the student. Oftentimes if a student does not feel that you are engaging with them, they are less likely to engage with you. 

This type of learning does not encourage students in a productive 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 because their personal and education problems have become more complex than before. For instance, a student might have fallen behind in a previous grade 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. So, although a student might seem to appear “quiet” in a high school class setting, and they may even act as if they are jaded, 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. By engaging them on a more active level, you can bring out each individual student and break up any sort of herd mentality. 

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 and communication 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, so each team can assign different roles, like scribes, presenters, timekeepers, researchers, etc. This will not only form unknown bonds between peers, but it could also exemplify what certain students excel at that they otherwise would never have known with just a lecture. 

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. These visual cues from a certain day in class might even stick in their brains longer when it comes time for that inevitable test.  

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 having students make 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 the 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. This exercise can provide a much-needed immersion in the material that a lecture-based delivery would not reach in the same way.  

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 students with more trouble. New bonds might form, and the material might become more accessible through a peer than through a teacher. 

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. They move to the back of the line when they can't answer the question. The winner is the last person still standing after a certain time. These types of active-listening, active-participation games can influence the absorption of the material in a more organic way. They will remember the answer to a question since “Sandra” got it wrong twice in a row, than if they had just heard it mentioned once in a book.  

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. It will keep the conversations more lively as their modern-day enthusiasm matches the historical context.  

7. Lead by example

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

Hopefully, these active learning strategies will also excite educators to engage in lessons and take some of the stress off of ensuring that 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.

Besides, who doesn’t have a fond memory of that fun day in class when they played charades or had a mock debate? 


The key word in active learning is of course, active. It is important that each student learns how to express themselves and take ownership of their academic careers. By stepping out of your comfort zone and taking chances alongside your peers, you will find out things about yourself you can carry into college and beyond. This confidence will speak for itself as you begin your career.