Engagement = Audience

Imagine you’re 15. You’ve been at home for eight months. You’ve got a budding romance that absorbs you. When you’re daydreaming, your body instinctively moves to the TikTok choreography you mastered last weekend. You learn in your room, with all of your stuff around you, including your long-haired cat strutting across your keyboard and your phone (notifications on) just off to the right. And now it’s time to Zoom in to your fourth class of the day.


Learners spend more time developing products that demonstrate their learning if peers and others are going to review it or be learning from it. Rita Marie-Conrad Center for Teaching and Learning, UC Berkeley

Even the most disciplined of us are struggling with engagement right now, wanting assignments simply to grade themselves, coaching athletes for games they won’t play this season, or aching for the replenishment of the spring or summer break that we didn’t really take. And like our students, it’s hard for us to focus on any responsibilities that seem administrative or even incredibly worthwhile but cognitively demanding (like the copy of The Beadworkers on my nightstand).


What we all need is a change of audience.



The already insular nature of school has felt, for our students, suffocatingly tiny. They feel they have spent too much time with family and too much time creating products solely for us. After all, the same amount of energy it takes to solve our equations or do that lab could get them an instant audience on Instagram.

One trick available to us (that many among us already use) is to give our students someone else to work for.

Having topic choices and an authentic audience has a powerful impact on writing quality and attitude toward writing. Hoch, et al. National Louis University

Working for an audience beyond solely the teacher at the very least provides incentive to polish one’s work and meet deadlines. An authentic audience—one that can shape, guide, critique, or learn from the work—can rope students into deep engagement, incentivizing them to learn otherwise dry background information, to revise beyond a teacher’s request, and to practice real-world skills with a sense of direct purpose.

Got 5 minutes? Let students know at the start of your next assignment that the work they are doing will be posted on your Academic Manager page or in the classroom. Up the ante with an invite to comment via email or Post-its.

Got a class period? Let students share their work for comment by others. Host virtual "gallery walks" in Google Docs for peer commenting (thanks for the idea, Lynette!), invite colleagues to review and offer suggestions on student work, or tap into our alum or professional networks for feedback from outside experts actively seeking a diverse group.

For low-stakes, high-yield results, invite that feedback half-way through the process, asking for input on “drafts.” The feedback will be franker if the reviewer feels they are contributing mid-way through rather than commenting on a done deal, and the student will take that feedback as formative assistance rather than just summative critique. Also consider giving structure to that feedback in the form of guided questions or a rubric. Cornell's approach to peer feedback is a great start. Peer review has an added benefit: students who choose academia in the future will be prepared both to give and receive peer reviews essential to publication in most online journals.


Got a whole unit to spare? Build a product expressly for community action or interaction. Have your students create teaching materials for each other or for students in lower grades. Have them build blogs on course-related topics of their interest. Create TED talks, podcast series, or social networking campaigns to spread awareness of the realities of the environmental crisis or how to stay in shape when your team is out for the season. Seek out student contests like those from the New York Times, Scholastic Art and Writing, or MIT's THINK competition.

Got an idea, lesson, or resource to share?

Add it in the comments below, please!

Interested in more?

In about 10 minutes, you can read this New York Times article, “Writing for an Audience Beyond the Teacher: 10 Reasons to Send Student Work Out Into the World.” From the pragmatic (real-word deadlines) to the deeply philosophical (a sense that their work matters), this piece states explicitly what so many of us know intuitively. (Or, for something super uplifting, consider the role that audience plays in this impressive real-world feedback loop between 51-year-old rocker Dave Grohl and 10-year-old rocker Nandi Bushell.)

In 11 minutes, you can watch Windsor High School teacher Caitlin Tucker’s TED talk about how she grew larger and larger authentic audiences for her students. At one point, she declares, “If these kids are going to make a change in this world, which I’m hoping they will, they need to believe that they have a voice and their ideas matter.” (Math teachers, one of her students argues that we can’t be adults without an education in economics!)



In just over 15 minutes, you can learn about authentic-audience projects in Spanish, science, history, and English from the ASCD’s “The Power of Audience” by Steven Levy, a school designer of the former Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound program who knows what it means to need to engage students.