Improving student engagement in the classroom is a common concern among faculty these days. At some point in the conversation, the mythic college student makes an appearance. That perfect student of the past was always on time, had always done the reading, answered every question with astounding complexity, and memorized everything the professor said. What a great time that must have been!
We may not ever have a classroom filled with the students of our dreams, but what if we could get a bit closer? What if we could encourage motivation, curiosity, and enthusiasm for learning? What would happen if we understood a bit more about how engagement really works?
What is Student Engagement?
Scholars who study college learning define student engagement as, “the mental state students are in while learning, representing the intersection of feeling and thinking.” (Barkley & Major, 2020, p. 6). Engaged students are not just absorbing content, they try to make meaning of what they are studying by putting in intellectual effort and working through challenging ideas. Engaged learners care about the subject, feel motivated or excited to learn, and take ownership of their own learning.
We tend to think of engagement in the classroom in restrictive terms, as students asking and answering questions. Yet, engagement is more complex. We can look for many signs of engagement through the interaction of three dimensions of a person’s attitude, or how an individual evaluates a person, idea, or thing. These three dimensions–cognitive, affective, and behavioral–work together to influence an individual’s engagement on any given task or day (see table 1).
What engagement looks like
Cognitive: the extent to which students are attending to and spending mental effort on the learning tasks encountered
Being curious, wanting to understand something
Psychological or intellectual investment in learning
Use strategies that lead to deep learning
Behavioral: the extent to which students are making active responses to the learning tasks presented
Asking or answering questions
Going to class
Affective: the level of students’ investment in, and their emotional reactions to, the learning tasks
Students care about their learning
Interest, enthusiasm, and excitement about what they are doing
Motivated, challenged by new things
Willing to participate in the learning process
Taking these concepts further, Barkley & Major (2020) proposed that student engagement is the product of motivation (the driving forces of an individual’s behavior) and active learning (what students do to build their skills). It is important to understand that the mix of motivation and active learning is unique to each individual, and engagement is not stable over time or for an individual person. Engagement can vary in intensity and situation; in one class, a student may be excited about each new thing, while dreading spending another minute in a different class. Motivation also interacts with other related aspects of learning, such as self-efficacy–an individual’s belief that they can do something.
It is also important to understand that engagement can look different for different students or different groups of students. If students were raised in a culture in which it is disrespectful to interrupt an elder or person in authority, they may feel uncomfortable engaging in a full class discussion. However, they may still be deeply engaged in listening and thinking about the subject matter and may enjoy a small group discussion or writing activity. Students may also choose not to participate if they feel that they will be ridiculed for a wrong answer, or if they otherwise feel unsafe.
Creating the Environment for Engagement
Given what we know, can we actually promote student engagement in the classroom? The answer is, Yes! While we cannot control all of the factors that influence students’ learning experiences, instructors can create learning environments in which students feel encouraged and supported to engage in active learning.
Active Learning refers to a broad range of teaching strategies that engage students as active participants in their learning during class time. Active learning helps students to engage with the course material beyond reading, listening, and note-taking, and it contributes to the development of higher order thinking skills (e.g., analysis, synthesis, evaluation) as well as content knowledge. Active learning often involves interaction among students, though these activities can vary in intensity.
Some Common Active Learning Strategies
- Interactive lecturing: Break up mini-lecture sections with 2-3 minute pauses during which students discuss and rework notes in pairs
- Small group work, group projects, or group problem-solving
- Short writing activities to be used by the student alone or paired with group discussion
- Interactive games or problem solving
- Demonstrations, simulations, or experiments
- Music, video, images, or a demonstration can create a sense of excitement, curiosity, or set up a problem or puzzle to be solved
Using active learning strategies can be a little daunting for instructors coming from a conventional lecture format, so start small. Think about your class; where do you see one small opportunity to make a change? Make sure that the new strategies align with your learning outcomes and relate in a meaningful way to your expectations for learning. An activity might be fun, but it should help students make meaningful connections to the course material.
Almost everyone who has taught a class has used the student participation grade as a primary assessment of engagement. In light of what we have learned about the complexities of motivation, engagement, and learning, many professors have stopped this practice in favor of more active learning strategies and inclusive teaching practices. But if we want to assess what we value, we can design reflective and thoughtful assessments of engagement.
We can create assessments that tap into the cognitive, behavioral, and affective dimensions of engagement discussed previously. Look for evidence that students are taking an active role in their learning; this may show up in different ways for different students. For example, one student may take a leadership role in managing group projects while another student spends a lot of time supporting and mentoring other group members.
What should we look for?
- Spending time on projects requiring integration and synthesis of ideas
- Completing coursework requiring practical application of knowledge or skills
- Demonstrating growth on the course learning outcomes
- Student self-perception of learning or engagement
- Asking questions or contributing verbally in class
- Paying attention/active listening
- Taking notes in class
- Engaging in group projects or collaborative work
- Helping or tutoring others
- Time invested in studying
- Effort to meet instructor’s expectations
- Being prepared (or not) for class
- Discussing course material outside of class
- Student attitudes toward course material
One way to collect information about student engagement is through self-assessment. Metacognition about one’s own learning and engagement is an important higher order skill that can help develop critical thinking. Students can be guided to reflect on their own motivations, effort, and learning. Provide a rubric or other evaluative framework before an assignment or activity—this shares your expectations as well as provides a platform for self-assessment. This can also work well for group activities and projects.
Course feedback methods are another way to learn about student interest and attitudes towards the course. Start the semester by giving students a notecard or preparing an online form to complete on the first day of class. Ask them to write down what works best for their learning and something professors do that they don’t like. Mid-semester feedback can help you identify which teaching strategies have been the most effective for student learning. Anonymous responses might reveal feelings of safety (or not) for participating in class.
Improving student engagement will take some effort, but it’s well worth it! Some key takeaways:
- Make your class a safe place for all students to engage. Create an environment that helps students feel safe to take risks and make errors.
- Engagement should not be competitive or punitive.
- Be thoughtful about how you respond to student contributions and questions. What ways do you show students that it is okay to be wrong?
- Allow for different forms of engagement that tap into the cognitive, affective, and behavioral dimensions. In addition to verbal contributions, consider other ways that students can engage.
- Be clear about your expectations.
- Use activities that engage different parts of the brain, social and individual, and kinesthetic or sensory.
- Provide early and regular feedback to help students stay motivated.
- Conduct brief self-assessments and get class feedback to learn how students are experiencing the class and what adjustments can be made. For example, pass out notecards and ask students to write a one-minute response to the prompt, “What worked to help you learn today?”
For Further Reading
Tracy Marcella Addy et al. (2021) What Inclusive Instructors Do: Principles and Practices for Excellence in College Teaching. Sterling VA: Stylus.
Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.
Barkley, E. F., & Major, C. H. (2020). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
How to Make Your Teaching More Engaging: Advice Guide
Active Learning (Vanderbilt University)
Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs)
15 Ways to Engage Your Students In-person, Online, and in Zoom
Should We Stop Grading Class Participation? Why a professor no longer grades students on how much they speak up in class
Lang, J. M. Small Changes in Teaching (Chronicle of Higher Education 9-part series)
Keeping Students Engaged: How to Rethink Your Assessments Amidst the Shift to Online Learning