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What we can learn from 2020’s most engaging content

The Newsela Team
Nov 6, 2020

2020 changed the meaning of student engagement. What was once a nice-to-have to make classrooms more lively is now a must-have to get students in the (virtual or in-person) door to learn. One study conservatively estimates that at least 1.3 million students nationwide completely stopped engaging with their schools at the end of last academic year. With so many distractions and barriers to participation, how can we as educators motivate students to show up and learn?

A key element of student engagement is the content teachers are using for instruction across subjects. To understand the connection between student engagement and content, we analyzed the behavior of students on Newsela since the start of distance learning in March. Based on our findings, here are 3 actionable tips that educators can implement in their schools and districts today:

1. Incorporate timely content into instruction across the curriculum

It was no surprise to us that the most viewed content on Newsela this year lined up almost perfectly to what students were hearing and seeing on the news – a sobering reminder of the collective challenges we’ve faced this year. 

But rather than letting current events distract from learning, we saw teachers incorporate leveled news content into instruction to engage students and push content area knowledge forward. This ranged from teachers using the story of “murder hornets” to anchor conversations about ecosystems, to using the election to teach about citizenship and the democratic process. 

2. Use SEL-forward content with formative assessments to develop literacy & SEL skills simultaneously


Disrupted learning environments have made it challenging for educators to get a sense of how students are doing – both in terms of academic performance and their social-emotional well-being. And the engagement gap makes it even more challenging to bridge this (physical and metaphorical) distance.

As it turns out, literacy instruction rooted in SEL really is engaging to students. Our usage data indicates that since the start of distance/hybrid learning, teachers have been choosing feel-good and often SEL-forward content paired with formative assessments to develop reading skills. We measured this by looking at Newsela articles with the highest number of reading comprehension quiz completions, knowing that students typically only complete these quizzes if they’re assigned to them by their teachers. We broke that data down by the eight standards-based reading skills that our quizzes cover (every quiz maps to at least two skills), and found that students have gotten extensive reading skills practice on content covering relevant topics like coping with anxiety, boosting your immune system through kindness, and watching your screen time

3. Give students the opportunity to explore content that’s relevant and interesting to them

Student choice isn’t a new concept — studies have shown that autonomy in learning is associated with greater personal well-being, educational satisfaction, and even improved academic outcomes. Autonomy and choice are at the heart of the Newsela student experience. Since the start of distance learning, millions of students have searched for Newsela content on their own, with an average of 7.5 searches per student. And on the other side of those searches? Vetted, leveled content from real-world sources with standards-aligned activities attached. 

What they’re searching for runs the gamut, reflecting the range of interests and lived experiences of students around the country. Whether they’re seeking out content around this year’s news cycle (e.g., the pandemic or wildfires), or their passions like animals, video games, or sports, you can be confident that students who have the option to explore content aligned to their personal interests will be more engaged in learning.

However your students are learning this year, it’s clear that one-size-fits-all content manufactured for the classroom won’t be enough this year — or ever again. It’s time that we as educators renew our commitment to student engagement as a foundation for learning going forward. If you haven’t done so already, take our quiz to find out your school or district’s student engagement score. 

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