4 Go-To Strategies for Engaging Digital Learners

By Karen Beerer, Vice President, Learning and Development, Discovery Education


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Today’s students live in a world of constant stimulation. Whether it’s Xbox, social media, or television, students have continuous access to highly enticing visual information, entertainment, and connectivity with friends.

How do your teachers capture students’ attention and engage them amid all the distractions? The era of the teacher as the sage on the stage is over. Students thrive on problem-based, interactive, authentic learning. Classrooms must be just as engaging, interactive, and exciting as all of the competing stimuli in students’ lives. Putting technology in students’ hands is not enough to engage today’s digital learner in a meaningful way. Student engagement models differ, but research and practical experience tell us that high levels of student engagement occur when the following are present:

1. Well-planned lessons with memorable beginnings and endings
2. Collaboration and interaction with peers
3. Relevant, problem-based teaching and learning
4. Routine access to varied digital tools

Why do these factors matter?

1. Well-planned lessons with memorable beginnings and endings

Most of us are familiar with the work of David Sousa related to how the brain learns (1). Sousa reminds us that during a learning episode, students tend to remember best that which comes first and they remember that which comes last. They are least likely to remember what is presented during the middle of the learning episode. Sousa refers to the time at the beginning of the lesson as Prime Time 1 and the time at the end of the lesson as Prime Time 2. He refers to the time in the middle of the learning episode as Down Time. His work goes on to examine the percentage of time for prime learning in learning episodes of different lengths. His recommendation is for teachers to present lessons in well-planned, twenty-minute segments that maximize learning by capturing student interest at the beginning of a twenty-minute segment, presenting new information in the first ten minutes to twelve minutes of a segment, allowing students to apply the information during down time, and then having students summarize the big ideas presented during Prime Time 2. Teachers can then have students switch activities and repeat the pattern to take advantage of a second round of Prime Time 1, Down Time, and Prime Time 2. Planning lessons in this way maximizes engagement because it takes advantage of how the brain learns and it takes into consideration that twenty minutes matches the attention span of many adolescents. Shorter, well-planned learning episodes are probably best for younger learners.

2. Collaboration and interaction with peers

Today’s digital learner places a great deal of value on interacting with peers. Employers tell us that they want future employees to have the ability to work well with others in collaborative teams. Therefore as educators, we encourage and support collaborative learning. Collaborative learning requires students to work together to construct knowledge. It acknowledges that students learn best when they are actively involved in working with others in a social setting to deepen their understanding of core concepts and develop both discipline-specific skills and
the skills needed to interact effectively as a member of a group.

When they set up collaborative teams, effective teachers explicitly teach the skills involved in working as a member of a team. These skills include:

  • Leadership skills such as goal setting, time management, and organizing the team to complete the task
  • Collaborative decision-making skills such as generating alternatives, collecting and sharing information, and agreeing on a choice
  • Communication skills including both verbal and non verbal communication skills, as well as active listening skills
  • Conflict management skills such as being aware of and respectful of differences, clarifying issues, resolving concerns within the group, or seeking the teacher’s help to resolve the concern

Perhaps students and teachers value well-designed and implemented collaborative learning assignments because of the emphasis on teaching and using these valuable skills.

3. Relevant, problem-based teaching and learning

Well-designed collaborative learning assignments often also involve problem-based teaching and learning. The energy and time needed for effective collaborative learning makes sense when students are involved in studying the type of real-world problems that are at the center of problem-based learning units. Good problem-based learning units are built around open-ended problems that have multiple solutions and require students to consider many variables before developing how they would solve the problem. These units give students the opportunity to use problem-solving skills and strategies that are specific to the discipline and spend concentrated time developing these skills. Upon completion of the study phase of the unit, students are usually required to develop a way to share what they have learned with classmates and/or with an authentic audience interested in the area of study. Students value the opportunity to develop skills used by professionals in the field and they value the opportunity to consider and study problems that genuinely need solutions.

4. Routine access to varied digital tools

Through the Speak Up 2014 survey today’s digital learners tell us “learning at its best is a 24/7 enterprise comprised of a seamless set of engaging interactions with teachers, classmates, parents, and experts, some near and some far away. These interactions happen both in the traditional physical worlds of classrooms, libraries, and community centers, as well as in the virtual spaces of social media, massively multiplayer online games, and online classrooms (2). ”Our students view technology as a natural and required component of their world. They naturally use smartphones, tablets, laptops, digital cameras, and other devices to gather, organize, and share information. Forty percent of K-12 students tell us that they find online videos to help them better understand concepts that they are learning in school. More and more students are spending time creating digital content (YouTube videos, slideshows, interactive games, etc.) and they expect to use these kind of multimedia resources to learn. In fact, 42% of the 6-8th graders completing the survey say taking an online class should be a graduation requirement. Students see the skills they develop while using digital tools as excellent preparation for college, career, and life success.

The National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies was established to improve the opportunity to learn for all Americans through technology and research. They have identified a number of ways that digital resources can support the use of key research-backed principles that have a positive correlation with improved student learning. In the hands of well-trained and knowledgeable teachers, digital tools have the potential to support the following:

  • Personalized, differentiated, and self-paced learning
  • A positive emotional climate, and social and emotional learning
  • Authentic real-world learning
  • Collaborative learning
  • Data gathering, analysis, and timely feedback (3)

Education in 2016 is an exciting world that is juggling new standards, new assessments, new curricula, new instructional delivery models, and new requirements for teacher evaluation. While much is changing, the heart of the matter when it comes to engaging learners remains unchanged: Effective teachers know their learners, they know the content and the curriculum, and they know good pedagogy. At Discovery Education, we look forward to continuing to partner with you to complement and extend learning both inside and beyond the walls of the traditional classroom.


About the author

Karen Beerer, Ed.D. has 28 years of experience in public education as a teacher, reading specialist, principal, supervisor of curriculum and professional development, and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment. She received her Ed.D. from Lehigh University in Curriculum and Instruction. Dr. Beerer has a passion for professional development, specifically, helping educators utilize research-based practices in instruction to help all students achieve.


1 Sousa, D. (n.d.). Primacy/Recency Effect. Retrieved December 28, 2015, from https://www.lancsngfl.ac.uk/secondary/math/download/file/How%20the%20Brain%20Learns%20by%20David%20Sousa.pdf
2 “Trends in Digital Learning: Empowering Innovative Classroom Models for Learning”. (n.d.). Retrieved January 4, 2016, from http://www.tomorrow.org/speakup/2015_ClassroomModels.html. p 1
3 Francisco, A. (n.d.). Technology’s Role in Putting Learning Science Research To Work. Retrieved November 12, 2015, from http://www.digitalpromise.org/blog/entry/technologys-role-in-putting-learning-science-research-to-work
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