It’s an age-old problem for educators.  You spend time planning and delivering a lesson only to assess students and realize that they did not learn the material, or at least they did not retain it.  While it’s tempting to move on—after all, you taught it, they should have gotten it—that’s not what is best for your students, and it definitely will not serve you well in today’s accountability-driven education system.

So, it’s imperative for you and your students that you figure out why they aren’t retaining the material.  One root cause of why your students are not retaining material could be a lack of engagement in the classroom.  When students are disengaged from learning, they will not retain the material, regardless of how well-planned your lesson may be.

Students retain more when they are actively engaged in the classroom.  Active engagement is more than just complying with a task or taking notes while a teacher lectures.  Active engagement means that students are mentally invested in the learning process (Voke, 2002).  They are interested in building understanding and competence, rather than merely earning grades.  In fact, engaging mentally with a learning task is considered “an essential prerequisite for the development of understanding” (Voke, 2002).

Sounds great, right?  If the students would just actively engage in the classroom, they would retain the material.  But, how do you get them to engage?  How do you entice them to be mentally invested in things like the Pythagorean theorem, literary terms, or even the difference between acids and bases?   Remembering a few strategies for promoting active engagement can help you as you plan for a higher level of student investment in the learning process.

  • Connect learning to real-world situations to encourage students to retain.

If you haven’t already heard that this is a good strategy, then definitely take notice.  Time and time again, research on best practices in education underscores the importance of connecting what students are learning to the real world.  When students understand why what they are learning is important, they will take more interest in learning it (Voke, 2002).  Marzano and Pickering (2010) point out that, like adults, students are motivated by a hierarchy of needs.  When their basic needs have been met, they become more motivated by future goals and ambitions.  Thus, when students can connect classroom activities to their future aspirations and real-world experiences, they are more engaged in learning.  Further, Marzano and Pickering (2010) point out that if the information is not important—not important in relation to their real-world experiences—they won’t retain it.   So, in any way that you can, ensure that your lesson is connected to real-world application.  Present problems about the Pythagorean theorem that include real-world scenarios using triangles.  Ensure that you talk about acids and bases that students might encounter in their homes.  A study of literary terms such as metaphor or personification would be highly engaging if you incorporate contemporary song lyrics as examples.   When possible, include examples and topics that relate to your students’ unique interests.  One student likes basketball?  Another writes poetry?  Connect learning and examples given in the lesson to these interests.

  • Work to create a positive classroom community where students interact with and respect each other.

Voke (2002) acknowledges that students are motivated by social needs—a sense of belonging and a sense of being able to make a contribution to the group.  As an educator, strive to create a classroom where students are valued as members of a shared community.  Vygotsky explained learning as a sociocultural process (McLeod, 2014).  Essentially, we learn through our social interactions with others.  To learn, and to be actively engaged, students need time to interact with each other and with the teacher in a social way.  We all know that adolescents like to interact (if they did not, then you would not have an issue with cell phones and text messages).  Harness the power of their natural inclinations.  Instead of fighting their propensity to chatter, ensure that they have time to chatter about what they are learning!  They will bounce ideas off of each other, clarify their thinking as they listen, and the classroom will be a more engaging place because they are able to express their thoughts.

  • Retain by ensuring that the material is at the appropriate level of difficulty for students.

Vygotsky calls this the “zone of proximal development” (McLeod, 2014).  The material needs to be challenging enough to push students past their current understanding and competence, but not so challenging that it is frustrating.  Marzano and Pickering (2010) advocate planning for instruction based on four questions that students will (subconsciously) ask:  How do I feel about this; Am I interested in this; Is this important; Can I do this?  By connecting to the real world and ensuring that students have time to make social connections with each other, you are addressing the first three questions.  The last, though, is critically important: can I do this?  If students feel that they lack the skill or understanding to engage with a task, they simply won’t engage.  Therefore, you have to think about whether or not your students have the skills to engage.  Providing them with support and feedback throughout the process can ensure that they are able to engage and feel confident that they will be successful (Voke, 2002).

Instead of bemoaning a lack of engagement in your classroom, spend some time thinking about your lessons from an engagement lens.  Have you worked to connect learning to the real world?  Have you including opportunities for students to interact in a learning community?  Have you thought about the current skill level of your students and whether or not they can even begin to engage, and what supports will they need to help them engage?  While you still might struggle to engage 100% of your students, planning for engagement ensures that you will engage more of them more often.

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Marzano, R. J. & Pickering, D.J. (2010).  The highly engaged classroom.  Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research.

McLeod, S. (2014).  Lev Vygotsky.  Available:

Voke, H. (2002).  Motivating students to learn.  Infobrief: Student Engagement. Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.  Available: