Thoughts on Student Engagement in the College Classroom

Finding ways to actively engage your students can significantly enhance student learning. In an email interview with The Teaching Professor, Alice Cassidy PhD explains how to select and implement active learning techniques that are well suited to your content and students.

What does the literature say about the benefits of engaging students?
Cassidy: As far back as 1987, Arthur Chickering and Zelda Gamson encouraged teachers to reflect on how and what they were doing in lesson planning and class time to engage learners (and to explain these to students). Their paper, “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education,” remains a classic.

More recently, we have seen some very good publications that summarize empirical and theoretical evidence of the benefits of engaging learners. Two such examples, both in the form of books with a multitude of references to explore, are by John Bransford and colleagues (How People Learn) in 2000 and Susan Ambrose and colleagues (How Learning Works) in 2010. The most recent issues of the journal, Active Learning in Higher Education, include articles on such diverse topics as lecture notes, peer-assisted learning, meta assessment and academic misconduct.

What process do you recommend for selecting engagement techniques to suit a specific class, situation, and/or student demographic?
Cassidy: I think that instructors need to carefully think about what they currently do in class time. What is working well, and how do you know that or how could you find out? Are there certain lessons or sections of the course that you most want to inject with some new ideas for active learning? What is your intended goal in making a change? Have you asked students for input? In doing so, you will have already made a valuable step forward in engaging your learners. I suggest you check out Classroom Assessment Techniques by Tom Angelo and Patricia Cross for specific tools.

If you teach a large class in a fixed-seat lecture theatre, you may want to choose active techniques where students don’t need to move out of their seats. There are many of these. I like to remind teachers that active does not always need to mean interactive. And, there are several ways for students to be interactive, while staying in their seats in any size classroom.

Taking part in professional development seminars, attending conferences, talking with colleagues, and reading some published articles are all good ways to find about others’ experiences with techniques, to help you decide what to try, and how to do it for the best chance of success. I would never recommend that teachers try using problem-based learning or team-based learning without exploring some of the basic suggestions for success in terms of group size, content and process. While lots of other techniques are easier to experiment with on a trial-and-error basis, there is no replacement for keeping lines of communication open with your students and your fellow teachers.

What are some common mistakes instructors make regarding student engagement?
Cassidy: Designing an activity that, though active and/or engaged, does not have a clear connection to the intended objectives of that class is a mistake; students won’t see the point, may (correctly) think of it as “busy work,” and be less inclined to take part in future activities.

Introducing too many techniques all at once can be confusing to your students (and to you)!

Not explaining to students why a particular activity is taking place and how it can benefit their learning is not only unfair to them but can lead to poor results that could show up in students’ assignments and/or your teaching evaluations.

What do you look for in determining whether or not an engagement technique is working?
Cassidy: I think part of it is to see how it is actually feeling as it happens in class. For a student to come up and tell you that she “cannot believe how quickly the class went by” might be a good indication. Or for a student to say, “Hey, I get it!” because of the technique you used, will tell you a lot.

I think you have to look at two things in concert. First, students’ work and progress as it takes place during class time and in assignments that stem out of such engagement. Second, in their feedback to you, and through formative and summative evaluation.

Finally, be prepared to adjust activities over time. Something might work well for a particular group or class, but not in another situation or context. Reflect on these experiences, talk with colleagues and decide how to best move forward. Don’t give up on a technique because it does not go as well as you hoped the very first time. Like any good teaching and learning, practice and then practice some more.

Earlier this year Cassidy presented a seminar titled Ten Ways to Actively Engage Your Students.
Learn more about the seminar »