Using Students’ Interests to Design Engaging Activities and Assignments

Activities and assignments that incorporate student interests help students stay attentive, engaged, and on track for mastering learning goals. Dr. Robert Marzano refers to this as “keeping students in their working memory and out of their permanent memory.”  It’s a battle all teachers face as we compete for students’ attention. Keeping student engaged in what is going on in the classroom (Marzano Design Question 5) can be a challenge if the students aren’t intrinsically motivated to learn the material.

Designing engaging activities and assignments, involves 2 key questions: 

1. How can I inventory student interests?

2. What activities can I use that allow me to easily incorporate interests with new learning?

How can I inventory student interests?

What are some ways to find out what excites and motivates your students (especially if you have more than 25 in a classroom)?

A fourth grade reading teacher I know has a three-minute “Happy News” opening for each of her classes. Students share personal celebrations in a rapid-fire fashion. The teacher is quick to connect the news to character traits and key literary vocabulary as students share. This three-minute share provides her with many insights and opportunities to engage students throughout the class period. 

Another teacher posts a calendar for students to add the date and time of events they are participating in outside of school. The teacher makes students a promise to attend at least one “outside of school” event for each student each year. Luckily, many students dance in the same recital or play on the same Little League teams!  At the event, the teacher takes a picture with the student and posts on the calendar wall. He uses these events as connections and hooks to gain attention and form links between what students know and do and new learning experiences. 

Google Forms is an easy way to create an interest inventory that students (or parents) can answer online. The form compiles student responses into an Excel spreadsheet that contains the responses of all your learners.  For an example, go to:  To view the Excel spreadsheet, go to:

What activities can I use that allow me to easily incorporate interests with new learning?

To help students process new learning, here’s an activity that gets students to create similes by connecting interests with the concept or topic of study. Four Box Synectics (Lipton, L., & Wellman, B.,1998) Is appropriate for students in grades 3-12. I start by having students individually make a list of activities they like to do when they aren’t at school. Then students form groups of three to five and share out their lists of activities. The group goal is to choose four different activities that they all find interesting. I give each group an 8-1/2 x 11 paper and have them fold it into four quadrants. One group member is selected as the scribe. The scribe writes one of the selected activities in each quadrant. 

The students are given a topic or key concept from the topic being studied.  Using the following thinking prompts, groups create at least one simile for each quadrant.

How is ___________ like _______________? 

______________ is like (the topic of study) because_________________________. 

Example:  Playing video games is like the respiratory system

because both involve a process with functions that are dependent on each other. 

Because playing video games is not obviously like the respiratory system, your students will have to brainstorm attributes or functions that are unique to the activity and to the respiratory system in order to create insightful linkages that deepen understanding. 

Groups then share out at least one of the similes with the whole class.This activity helps students internalize key ideas about the new learning and think at a cognitively complex level of synthesis (Marzano Design Question 4). 

When students find activities relevant and personally interesting, classroom attention is high.  When teachers engage students by linking their interests to application of new knowledge (Marzano Design Question 2), student achievement gains follow. Highly effective teachers monitor for engagement and know ways to “hook” the learner using student interests so that learners sit up and pay attention.

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