January 29th, 2009

Building Student Engagement: Classroom Specifics


In this, the fourth article in a six-part series on building student engagement, I offer specific suggestions for what to do in the classroom get your students interested and excited about your course.

Show up early for class: Showing up early for class allows you to connect with your students. Greet them warmly and engage them in conversation. Arrive meticulously prepared, including having backup plans and extra magic markers or chalk in your pocket.

Take roll: Some professors believe it’s the student’s responsibility, as an adult, to attend class. There’s merit to that argument, but I’ve found that students are more likely to attend class if they know I take roll. This helps you and the students to learn names and helps build a sense of community.

Start with student summary of last class: Start class by asking a student to summarize the main points from the last class. This provides continuity (and helps students who were absent), and also helps students feel comfortable with oral communication. Let your students know you plan to do this so they can prepare.

Write the plan for the class on board: Write the plan for the class on the board before students arrive. This helps the students know what to expect and encourages participation. Refer back to the plan as the class unfolds. This gives you a chance to recap and answer questions. You don’t have to cover everything in the plan. Remain flexible. The goal is to focus on student learning, not necessarily cover every detail in the outline on the board.
Have the students stand up and stretch: Sitting for over two hours (or even 45 minutes) is too much for anyone, so once or twice during the class, ask all your students to stand up and stretch. This helps break things up a bit and keeps them alert.

Play short games: For long classes, occasionally play a short game (sometimes called ice-breakers), especially early in the semester. Such games, which last no more than a few minutes, help students get to know each other. They are a fun break from the intensity of the class and help to build a sense of belonging and community. Students’ motivation and desire to learn are increased.

Have field trips as part of the class: Whenever possible, have field trips and excursions. Interacting with students in a non-classroom environment can be more engaging because the students tend to feel more relaxed.

Invite parents and siblings: Tell your students that if their parents or siblings are ever in town, they are welcome to sit in on the class so they can see what a typical class is like.

Complete the class: At the end of each class, summarize what was accomplished. Reinforce and underscore the two or three key messages or learning points you’d like the students to come away with. Go over the homework due at the start of next class, providing a typed handout, so there is no confusion about what you are requesting. Another idea at the end of the class is to have your students write a “minute paper,” asking them “What is the most significant thing you learned today” and “What question is uppermost in your mind at the end of today’s class” [Davis 56].

End the class on time: End the class on time to show basic consideration for the value of the students’ time.

Davis, Barbara Gross (1993). Tools for Teaching.

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