Building Student Engagement: Classroom Interactions

In the fifth installment of a six-part series on building student engagement today’s teaching tips focus on strategies for improving classroom interactions.

Make the class interactive: Do everything possible to transform the students from passive observers to active learners. Get the students out of their seats frequently to work in twos or threes on analyzing an issue. Students learn more and retain more when they are actively involved. Working in pairs (dyads) at the start of every class gets everyone engaged, not just the people who raise their hands. Plus, then students share their thoughts with each other first, the class discussion will be of a higher quality.

Call on students constantly to answer questions: Make a habit of calling on individual students by name to answer questions without first asking for volunteers. This keeps the whole class awake and alert. Never go for more than three or four minutes without getting one of the students to speak. You want your students to be on their toes, knowing that you might call on them at any time to answer a question.

Reassure students you will come back to them: If two or more students raise their hands at the same time, reassure those not selected that you won’t forget to come back to them for their questions in a moment.

Find a student’s strength: If one student is particularly adept at a particular skill set, point it out and have an expectation for the student to be the “expert.” This raises the student in the esteem of classmates and encourages the student to stay abreast of the topic. Try to find a dozen students like this in your class for a variety of topics by being specific in your praise. Don’t just say, “That was a well-written paper,” but indicate exactly what about the ideas, or wording, or structure of the paper you felt made it stand out.
Encourage shy students to speak: Protect the soft-spoken and encourage shy students to speak. Don’t allow long-winded or loud students to dominate the classroom discussion. Call on those who don’t speak much so everyone is heard from. I had one student who was shy and hated to come to the front of the class to talk. At the same time, she was an excellent student and wanted to overcome her fear of public speaking. I worked out a plan with her to allow her, for the first few times, to present from her seat instead of coming to the front of the class. This helped and she made great progress talking in class. Another idea is to pose a question and give the students a few moments — this allows students to formulate their thoughts before the discussion begins [McKeachie 34].

Listen actively to students during discussions: During discussions, maintain strong eye contact with the student speaking so he/she has your complete attention. Students want to be heard. By nodding, smiling or otherwise acknowledging the student, you show that you are totally committed to listening and understanding what each student has to say. Give critical feedback, but look for ways to compliment the student for the observations so the student feels encouraged. Guide class discussions so they don’t wander too far off-mission.

Incorporate peer review: When students make presentations, which they should do frequently, encourage peer review. Get students to teach each other and to learn from each other. It engages them more than the professor doing a solo act.

Do a networking exercise: In some of the early classes in the semester, give students a three-minute “networking” exercise. Before it starts, stress the importance of networking (making contacts and meeting key people) to their careers. Then tell them to stand up, move around the room and find a student they don’t know or know very little. Give them an exercise (such as a question relevant to the class or finding out something unique about the person) and then have them report back to the whole class on what they learned from each other.

Ask early for feedback from students: One month into the class (about the 4th or 5th class) ask for feedback. Three possible questions to ask are: What is helping you learn in this class? What is getting in the way of your learning? What are your suggestions for the rest of the semester? Give them a leisurely ten minutes of silence to write their answers. Tell them they are welcome to hand the answers anonymously if they’d prefer. Repeat this exercise about two months into the class. It will give you valuable information about what is and is not working, allowing you to change, modify or tweak what you are doing.

Always report back to the class on what you learned from the feedback and the changes you intend to make as a result. Make it clear that you welcome candid and constructive feedback from students and make sure you implement the changes you promise to make. This exercise will empower your students and send the message that you care about how they are doing in the course, and that you are open to making changes for their benefit.

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