Monday, May 6, 2024

From Compliance to Engagement: Inspiring Students Beyond Following Rules

One of the toughest things to understand as a new teacher or someone outside of education is that there is a big difference between students being compliant and students being engaged. Students can be sitting quietly in the classroom staring straight ahead at the board, but that doesn't mean anything is taken in by them. It is a sticky subject, because it often takes a long, hard look inward to truly see if your students are being engaged or compliant. Let's take a look at some examples and see how we can try to move students toward engagement. 




1. Compliant Students: Raising Hands, but Reluctantly

Compliance: You know the type—they do their homework, answer when called upon, and follow classroom rules. They’re not causing trouble, but they’re not volunteering answers, either. They’re just following the script. This was me for many of my classes growing up. Just going through the motions because that is what was expected of me at school. I didn't want any type of attention and I would freeze if a teacher cold called me. 

Moving to Engagement

Strategy: Mix things up by letting the students collaborate! Give them a problem that requires them to brainstorm, discuss, and find innovative solutions with their peers. Think, Pair, and Share your questions to have students thinking and connecting. Ask questions and have students move to spots in the room that coincide with their opinions. Movement can help get the brains working and seeing that you can connect with others will help those students who just want to sit and do nothing. It is tougher to sit quietly and just be present when you need to move around and connect with peers. 

2. Compliant Students: Working Silently, but Bored

Compliance: These students complete assignments quietly and on time but often seem bored and disconnected. They meet the minimum requirements without a hint of excitement. The bare minimum is all some students will give if asked to fill out forms or take notes day after day. They lack the motivation to truly be engaged with the content. Students can often be bored because the content does not interest them, it is too easy, or the level of engagement is too high from them to meet. 

Moving to Engagement

Strategy: Let’s give them a little more creative control! Invite them to design a project that allows them to blend their personal interests with your lesson goals. This way, they see learning not as an obligation, but as a platform for self-expression. Whether it’s creating an animation, writing a short story, or developing a prototype, let them choose their medium and topic. Project Based Learning and MakerEd are great ways to engage students in learning. Having them explore topics that match their interests and having them create artifacts that demonstrate their learning are great ways to have them engaged in the learning process. Sitting and taking notes is not the way to create an engaging classroom for students all of the time. 

3. Compliant Students: Writing Down Notes, but Not Asking Questions

Compliance: Some students take diligent notes, but they never question or dig deeper. They’re content copying down what’s on the board without much thought to why it matters. Students are pretty good at figuring out school. If they know a teacher is just giving notes and the notes make up the assessment, they will do the notes, study, and take the assessment. This creates great test-takers, but terrible critical thinkers. Recording information is an important skill to have, but taking the next step and placing meaning on the information and deciding how that meaning impacts great things is something that cannot just be ignored. 

Moving to Engagement

Strategy: Flip the script with open-ended questions that require critical thinking. Pose a question that doesn’t have one right answer, and let them brainstorm and hypothesize in pairs or groups. Allow them to present their findings and encourage them to ask their own questions. Push the students to look at multiple answers and solutions to problems. Have them engage in research and rebut possible conclusions. Push the students to push back on the provided notes. Just providing all of the answers for the students does not help them learn to find the answers for themselves later in life. 


There are going to be plenty of times when students are going to come to class and check out for a wide range of reasons. Few students can be engaged every class every day of the year. However, teachers should work on creating environments where students will have difficulty checking out. High energy classes that push student thinking and encourage them to engage with the content in ways that get them out of their seat and beyond their notebook helps with class engagement.

On a connected note, classroom management issues will also drop because bored students that choose to be disruptive will be less likely to be a distraction because they are engaged in the content. Creating engaging learning environments does not happen overnight, but it is worth putting in the time because those dynamic classes are so much fun for the students and the teachers. 

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