Constructivism: Increasing Student Engagement

susan_gaerSusan Gaer

Constructivism is an educational philosophy that became popular in the early 1990s. The basic framework of constructivism is that students create their own learning; that is, we can’t teach students to learn – they have to learn for themselves. Using this framework, teachers take on the role of facilitator, and each student learns what he or she needs to. This fits in well with the new Bloom’s taxonomy where creating becomes the most powerful rung on the taxonomy ladder. Constructivist learning also fits right in with multi-level instruction and flipped learning.

Constructivist theory posits that there is no learning unless learners have created it from experiences; therefore, when using the constructivist approach, you are also creating a more engaged classroom that is student centered. Here are a few techniques that I use to make my classroom more constructivist.

Instead of giving students a vocabulary list, give them an interesting reading. Have students decide what vocabulary words to learn and have them make flash cards with the vocabulary words that they need to learn. I use an electronic flash card creator for this task called Quizlet (; however, you can use paper index cards just as well. The advantage to Quizlet is that students can download their saved work and have access to their vocabulary words any time.

After students have read, instead of asking them comprehension questions, have students create the questions themselves. I divide students into groups and challenge them to come up with higher-level, critical thinking questions instead of the questions that are spelled out easily in the text. Although it is common for teachers to ave students do this activity in intermediate levels, I think it is more powerful in the beginning levels. A good resource for questions is: (Note that these questions use the older Bloom’s taxonomy, but the prompts are a great way to practice student-created questions.)

Sample Activity Speaking and Writing
Materials –
Interesting pictures
Index cards
Post It Notes

Teach questioning skills by using pictures and have students make critical thinking questions about the pictures. I use this site to find good pictures:

An activity that you can use with the pictures is to print out a series of pictures and let each group choose the picture to work with. It is very important, in a constructivist classroom, that you not tell students what to do but rather facilitate based on their choices. Once each group has decided on a picture use the following steps for beginners.

Note: Always model the activity with a picture that you chose, with all the steps, before asking students to do this.

1. Have a blank card attached to the picture have students find five objects in the picture that they don’t know. Give them the words and have them write the words on the blank card.

2. Have groups identify the vocabulary. Use structured questioning. At the beginning level just start with:

a. What is this?
b. Where is the ________?

3. Have students request help when needed for identifying vocabulary.
When you have a minute, we need your help.

Here is a example for a picture located at

4. Ask them to write three questions with answers that are not easily found in the picture.

Is the cat sitting on a rock?
for example, is a lower order question.

But why is this cat sitting on a rock or How did the cat get on the rock? is an example of a higher order question.

Although the grammar will likely not be perfect, most students have enough critical thinking skills in their native language to come up with good questions. The problem they have is expressing the question in English. This is where the teacher as facilitator becomes important. As a teacher facilitator, you can choose to help with the language or not, depending on the level. Usually at beginning levels, I help a lot with expression and at the higher levels, I encourage the groups to figure it out by themselves.

5. Once they are finished with writing the questions, have students post the picture somewhere in the classroom along with their questions.

6. Give students Post It notes and have them walk around the room looking at the pictures while asking and answering them on the post it notes which are attached to the picture. The teacher-turned-facilitator can help with language and vocabulary. Finally groups take their pictures back with all the input on the post it notes and write a story together.

This is the type of activity that engages students, allows them to make choices about the language they will want to learn and has the teacher facilitate expression of the language.

Engaging students in learning what they need to know, allows them to take part in their learning. In the constructivist classroom, the teacher models activities that are interesting and engaging and facilitates learning. How are you facilitating a constructivist classroom?