Promoting on-task behavior by students with intellectual disabilities may seem like an important skill, but is it really enough? Simply put- No! While definitions of being on-task might vary, the common notion is that students should sit still, make eye contact, and respond to a teacher’s requests. A variety of contemporary research offers various labels for on-task behavior including compliance (Almarode & Miller, 2013) and passive listening (LaDage et al., 2018). While the labels vary, the message of the research is consistent: students must be actively involved in instructional opportunities in order to learn.
What is active engagement?
Active engagement is a high leverage practice that offers opportunities for students to be directly, and actively, involved in learning activities. Rather than relying on more passive models such as silent reading, watching a video, or listening to a lecture, teachers can promote more active learning opportunities including hands-on projects, peer teaching, and role-playing. In short, passive learning asks students to comply with teacher requests, while active learning asks students to apply what has been learned. Carnahan, Basham, and Musti-Rao (2009) noted a link between active learning and increased acquisition and application of new skills.
How can I ensure that my students are actively engaged?
A quick Google search will uncover a large number of ideas, but here are a couple of highlights to consider:
A) Opportunities to Respond
The old model of a teacher asking a question and calling on a single student to respond should be left in the past. Opportunities to respond include any teacher behavior that solicits an active student response. When offering opportunities for the whole class to respond, be sure to allow at least 5 seconds of processing time before asking for a response. Consider these opportunities to actively engage your class:
- Choral Reponses- Students respond orally and in unison.
- Hand Signals- Students respond with thumbs up/thumbs down or by holding up a certain number of fingers to indicate an answer.
- Whiteboards- Students write answers on small whiteboards and reveal answers in unison.
- Collaborative Learning- Students discuss and respond in small groups.
Kaimuki Middle School in Honolulu offers a wonderful blog post that includes descriptions of various opportunities to respond and related videos.
B) Student Choice
When students have choice in how they share what they have learned, they are more likely to be actively engaged and develop self-determination skills including self-advocacy and self-efficacy. Below is an example of a student choice board that gives students the opportunity to select how they will share what has been learned.
In closing, teachers should regularly consider the intent of their lessons. Is our focus on how we teach or on how our students are actively learning? By using opportunities to respond and student choice as leverage, we can improve active engagement and learning for all of our students.
Almarode, J. and Miller, A. M. (2013). Captivate, activate, and invigorate the student brain in science and math. (2013). London, UK: Corwin Press.
Carnahan, C., Basham, J., and Musti-Rao, S. (2009.) A low-technology strategy for increasing engagement of students with autism and significant learning needs. Exceptionality, 17(2), 76-87.
LaDage, L. D., Tornello, S. L., Vallejera, J. M., Baker, E.E., Yan, Y., and Chowdhury, A. (2018). Variation in behavioral engagement during an active learning activity leads to differential knowledge gains in college students. Generalizable Education Research, 42, 99-103.