Building Student Engagement: Classroom Atmosphere

In previous articles I’ve offered effective teaching strategies for building student engagement by setting the tone with the syllabus and first classes. Today we move to the general classroom atmosphere. The following suggestions will help you build an atmosphere of constant engagement, passion and learning.

Convey your passion and enthusiasm for the subject: Your whole body language and voice must convey the message that there is nowhere else you’d rather be. Many professors like to walk among the students, and have their whole body and voice reflect their great fascination with the subject matter. Classes are much more engaging when teachers are moving around and not sitting still or lecturing from a lectern. When students see their professor’s passion, they want to participate.

Create a welcoming environment: Effective teachers create welcoming classroom environments that motivate students to thrive. They are committed to excellence in teaching. This manifests itself in enthusiasm, responsiveness to students’ e-mail and office visits, and willingness to go “beyond the call of duty.”

Foster a sense of belonging and respect: Students want to feel as if they belong in the class and that they have friends there. The atmosphere must be inclusive and trusting so students feel their views are heard and valued.

Encourage high performance: Students should take risks, and teachers should challenge students with more work than they think they can handle, encouraging them to develop high-level critical and analytical thinking skills. Demand that your students push themselves further than they normally do.

Promote active engagement: Lecturing may work sometimes, but even dynamic lectures can be tedious for students. Most students learn more when they are actively engaged in their own learning through reacting to lectures with questions and comments, participating in class discussions, and through active learning exercises. [McGlynn 79, 86}

Sit in a circle: For a small class, give the students a sense of community by sitting in a circle. This provokes dialogue and provides space for intentional and respectful engagement.

Make every class writing-intensive: Writing has a major role in student learning and engagement, and in promoting critical thinking and intellectual curiosity. Include a variety of writing assignments throughout the semester, informal and formal, in-class and out-of-class, “thinking” pieces, interpretive essays, research papers, reports and journals. Students not only learn to write, but they also write to learn.

Manage large lecture-based classes: If you have a large lecture-based class where many of the above ideas are irrelevant, you might try the following ideas. Chat informally with students before class and try to learn the names of some students. Set out a box by the door for feedback — questions, thoughts, suggestions, ideas, opinions, commentaries, critiques, etc. Begin or end your lectures with items from the box [Magnum 27]. Announce at the beginning of the lecture that you will ask a student to summarize the lecture at the end of the class. Or less threateningly, have students spend three minutes at the end writing up the main points, or have them write the most important thing they learned [McKeachie 61]. And have students stand up and stretch in the middle of class, no matter what the size. Make eye contact as you lecture and try to make eye contact with each student equally. Don’t give the impression of teaching to the front of the room or only to a select group or population of students.

Magnan, Robert (1990). 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Professors.

McGlynn, Angela Provitera (2001). Successful Beginnings for College Teaching

McKeachie, Wilbert J (2002). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers.

Chris Palmer is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. He can be reached at