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)

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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.