Engagement to Autonomy: Four Strategies for Face-to-Face or Online Learning in First-Year Experience Courses

Ladder of items represent student learning and student knowledge

Although teaching first-time freshmen across all content areas presents challenges, first-year experience (FYE) courses also have unique obstacles which must be overcome, especially with the shift to online learning. Often, there is no traditional content such as math or history, so students may ask, “What will I get out of this class?” As instructors and professors, we need to get creative in challenging and engaging students so they feel motivated to learn. This semester, we surveyed students in both face-to-face and online FYE courses and found four active learning strategies that helped students become more engaged.

So, what counts as “active learning?” According to Speaking of Teaching (1993), the Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching, “Active learning is…having students engage in some activity that forces them to think about and comment on the information presented.” Put another way, active learning is “any learning activity engaged in by students in a classroom other than listening passively to an instructor’s lecture” (Faust and Paulson 1998, 4). Transitioning from passive listeners to active participants encourages students to generate ideas and use them. 

Given that our students are coming from an environment in which passive learning is the norm, what can we expect their classroom preferences to be? In our survey, 68% of students looked forward to going to classes that offered both lecture and learning activities, and 64% felt they learned best in this same setting. Eighty percent of students either agreed or strongly agreed that they preferred to be involved in class. These results suggest students want to be more engaged in their learning.

As a result of actively participating in class, most students (84%) felt they knew themselves better as learners at the end of their first semester in college, while 95% responded that they now think about their own thinking and learning. In terms of instructional approaches, classes that offer learning activities may help students become more metacognitive and autonomous. In other words, active learning serves “as a method of engaging students in their learning and as a way to encourage metacognition and reflection” (Riggs and Linder 2016, 1). Fortunately, instructors can design remote learning environments that promote active learning.

Our students responded favorably to all the active learning strategies we used in both settings, but the four listed below stood out as being the most helpful in contributing to their learning. We’ve included examples and how you can use them. 

1. Working in small groups

Ex. LMS Breakout Groups: Use the “Interact” or similar feature in your LMS to assign groups and have students meet in their virtual Breakout Groups to tackle certain tasks or assignments.

2. Participating in small group discussions

Ex. Silent conversation: Post an image or quote on a virtual whiteboard or tape to a legal-sized sheet of paper, if face-to-face.  Each group gets a different image or quote. Using different colored ink, each person in the group writes a reaction to the image or quote. In the second round, students respond to what others wrote so that the conversation occurs “silently.”

3. Solving problems in class

Ex. Mystery bag: Add an image of a mystery bag/box on a PowerPoint slide and use animation to make the mystery item appear. If F2F, groups receive bags (or grab an object out of a bag). Instruct students to think about how the object connects to a given course topic. Each group then reports to the class how the object relates to the course topic. For example, an image or piece of plastic fruit might stand for food shortages due to climate change (course topic).

4. Working on projects

Ex. I-Search Project: Invite students to explore topics they’re interested in as a group by engaging in research to prepare a multimedia project that includes their search story, results, and reflections.

Providing students an opportunity to actively engage with each other as they engage with the curriculum may lead to a deeper understanding of both the content and themselves as learners, enhancing self-efficacy. Vincent Tinto (2017, 260-61) examines students’ perceptions about persistence and cites studies which find that “Regarding pedagogy, those that require students to actively engage with each other in the pursuit of learning… have been shown to enhance motivation and improve classroom performance.” 

Overall, at the end of the semester, students overwhelmingly reported that they became more metacognitive and autonomous learners. Furthermore, 95% believed they were responsible for their learning while only 38% felt the instructor was responsible for their learning. When actively engaged, students are more likely to feel ownership over their education and become more self-directed learners, critical to college success and an important distinction between high school and college.

As FYE instructors in a Minority Serving Institution, we want our students to persist, and we want them to know they have the skills to do so. It’s essential that they feel motivated to learn and empowered because they can make sense of the way they learn. When we invite students to embrace active learning in our face-to-face and remote learning environments, we also encourage them to see themselves as strong, capable learners.

Paty Cantu, MA, is an instructor at Texas A&M International University. She is QM certified and is currently teaching First-Year Experience classes online. She was featured in TAMIU’s Technology Spotlight, and she was a leader in the University’s Gold Seal Award winning Excellence in Student Voter Engagement program.

Hayley Kazen, PhD, is an assistant professional at Texas A&M International University. She is QM certified and teaches both face-to-face and online FYE course. She has earned the Excellence in Instructional Technology award at her institution as well as Excellence in Teaching First-Year Seminars award presented by National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience.


“Active Learning: Getting Students to Work and Think in the Classroom.” 1993. Speaking of Teaching: Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching 5, no.1 (Fall): 1-4.

Faust, Jennifer. L., and Donald R. Paulson. 1998. “Active Learning in the College Classroom.” Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 9, no.2: 3–24.

Riggs, Shannon S., and Kathryn E. Linder. 2016. “Actively Engaging Students in Asynchronous Online Classes.” ideaedu/org. IDEA Papers (December): 1-10. https://www.ideaedu.org/Portals/0/Uploads/Documents/IDEA Papers/IDEAPapers/PaperIDEA_64.pdf.

Tinto, Vincent. 2017. “Through the Eyes of Students.” Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice 19, no. 3: 254–26.             https://doi.org/10.1177/1521025115621917