July 26th, 2012

10 Ways to Promote Student Engagement


Prof with students in lecture hall

Student engagement is another of those buzz phrases popular in higher education. As with many regularly used terms, everyone assumes we are talking about the same thing; but when asked for definitions, either we are hard pressed to come up one or what’s offered is a decidedly different collection of definitions. Here’s an article that includes clear definitions and, based on a creative synthesis of research, offers 10 ways to promote student engagement.

The authors propose definitions broad enough to include more specific descriptions. For example: engagement is “students’ cognitive investment in, active participation in, and emotional commitment to their learning.” (p. 168) Or, engagement is “students’ involvement with activities and conditions likely to generate high-quality learning.” (p. 168)

Supporting Learning Outcomes - Free Report

Based on this synthesis of research, student engagement can be promoted in the following ways:

1. Enhance students’ self-belief — There is no agreement in the research literature as to what motivates learners to engage, but the dominant view is that students engage when they act as their own learning agents working to achieve goals meaningful to them. This means that what students believe about themselves as learners is very important. They must believe they can learn, including that they can overcome and learn from failure. Giving students some control over learning processes helps develop this confidence and commitment to learning.

2. Enable students to work autonomously, enjoy learning relationships with others, and feel they are competent to achieve their own objectives — “When institutions provide opportunities for students to learn both autonomously and with others, and to develop their sense of competence, students are more likely to be motivated, to engage and succeed.” (p. 170) Not unrelated to the first recommendation, the focus here is on cultivating intrinsic motivation, which fosters the self-determination that leads to engagement.

3. Recognize that teaching and teachers are central to engagement — Much research places teachers at the heart of engagement. For example, one study found that “if the teacher is perceived to be approachable, well prepared, and sensitive to student needs, students are committed to work harder, get more out of the session, and are more willing to express their opinion.” (p. 170)

4. Create learning that is active, collaborative, and fosters learning relationships — “Findings acknowledge that active learning in groups, peer relationships, and social skills are important in engaging learners.” (p. 171)

5. Create educational experiences for students that are challenging and enriching and that extend their academic abilities — Easy learning activities and assignments are not as effective at engaging students as activities and assignments that challenge them. When students are reflecting, questioning, conjecturing, evaluating, and making connections between ideas, they are engaged. “Teachers need to create rich educational experiences that challenge students’ ideas and stretch them as far as they can go.” (p. 171)

6. Ensure that institutional cultures are welcoming to students from diverse backgrounds — To become engaged, students must feel they are accepted and affirmed. They must feel they belong at an institution.

7. Invest in a variety of support services — Sometimes it seems as though students don’t take advantage of support services like learning and advising centers, but a wide variety of research findings confirms the importance of these support services. They are perceived as part of the institutional culture, and students engage when that culture values and supports their efforts to learn.

8. Adapt to changing student expectations — An institution should never be satisfied with how it is promoting student engagement. As students change and new research evidence emerges, institutional practices should be adjusted. Engagement cannot just be promoted, it must also be maintained.

9. Enable students to become active citizens — “What is needed is a democratic-critical conception of engagement that goes beyond strategies, techniques, behaviours, a conception in which engagement is participatory, dialogic and leads not only to academic achievement but to success as an active citizen.” (p. 173)

10. Enable students to develop their social and cultural capital — This kind of capital derives from a sense of belonging, from active relationships with others, and from knowing how things work around the institution. It is especially essential for minority students who need to be successful not only in the classroom but beyond it as well.

Reference: Zepke, N., and Leach, L. (2010). Improving student engagement: Ten proposals for action. Active Learning in Higher Education, 11 (3), 167-177.

Excerpted from Ways to Achieve Student Engagement. The Teaching Professor, 25.6 (2011): 8.

  • Fleur Fallon

    Hi Maryellen, So nice to read your refeshing article with an emphasis on intrinsic motivation. I wholeheartedly agree and have just presented with a student about a student-led community consulting project at the Australian Universities Community Engagement Conference (now called Engagement Australia). I am completing a Grad Cert in HE L&T at the University of Tasmania and currently reading your book !


  • Deirdre Reyes

    Thank you for the excellent and practical tips for increasing student engagement. i believe that this is a strength for teachers at the elementary and secondary level but can be neglected at the higher education and adult level of learning. Many adult learners enter classrooms expecting a lecture-style method and are in fact comfortable with that. Increased engagement promotes collaboration and more critical thinking. I am currently taking a series of classes on student engagement and the presenters use all of their methods to engage us during the presentation. I find that I am really enjoying the experience and thinking deeply about the subject matter as a result.
    D. Reyes

  • Annie

    Thank you for engagaing us to bring engagament in our students. I had the opportunity to listen/attend one of your sessions. I feel previleged!!

  • Patty Mc Dowell

    These ten ways to promote student achievement can be utilized in any school environment. I plan on using them at the University and the elementary school level!

  • Michael Kimmig

    Thanks you for this inspiring thoughts. There are very good points their, although I would argue with some shortcuts or underlying believes, e.g.

    "Giving students some control over learning process…" – I don't believe, we have any control over the learning process of students. That's 100% in their hands. What we can control is the teaching process, which effects of course students learning.

    "Recognize that teaching and teachers are central to engagement" – No, they are not. Students are central for their own engagement. Again, supportive teaching and teachers come only in the second place.

    I think it would be helpful to see students engagement independently of teaching and teachers. If students re-discover learning, that it's truly themselves and for themselves, they are engaged and we (as people who are guiding them) can start a dialogue, what next steps to take and what they need to get there, etc.

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  • Adrienne

    Thank You for confirming and reaffirming what I thought was the best route for adult learners. I believe that a stimulating and engaging curriculum is necessary to keep students focused, centered and willing to go the distance for 16, 12 or 8 week semesters. Great tips; some I practice, and now some I will put into practice.

  • Ellen

    A good reminder of the importance of our impact as leaders in the classroom.

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