Student Engagement

Given that the goal of any teaching activity is tied to the learning of those at the receiving end, one question the professor needs to ask is: How best can my students learn?

Intuitively we would all agree that the classes where we learnt the most have been those where we were most engaged and this is confirmed by research which suggests that one way to help students learn better is to get them to interact actively with the material. There are two ways students can do this: Student engagement with the text and assigned reading and student engagement with the material through discussion.

Assigned reading: For a teacher it is may not feel so good but research suggests that students learn more through reading than through lectures. Therefore taking advantage of that should be one of the goals of the effective professor. So how can we ensure that (at least most)students do the assigned reading? Here are several suggestions ranging from light to hardcore:

1. Make reference to the reading in class. The idea is for the student to know that the reading is inexorably connected to the class material. Statements such as “as you saw in your reading for today’s class…” or questions such as “What was your response to the discussion of … in your reading?”

2. Take the first 3 to 5 minutes of class to have the students write minute long papers on “the two most significant ideas or questions I derived from the reading for today.”

3. Roser’s jigsaw method has students practice two important reading skills; critical reading and summarization. The class is divided into ‘expert’ groups and ‘teaching’ groups with each student belonging to one of each. Suggested procedure: form the expert groups. Each expert group is to analyze one reading assignment and prepare a handout with the main ideas. Form the teaching groups with each teaching group having a member from each of the expert groups. Each member of the group then uses the handout from his expert group to explain the particular reading to his teaching group.

4. One sure fire way is that used by my old graduate school prof; brief quizzes on the reading at the beginning of every class. That had me up on my reading every week. Some think we ought to instill in students the responsibility to read without the duress of quizzes. I say, if the quiz gets them to learn better go for it – we are primarily teachers then buddies, not the other way around!

Discussion: With research showing that students listen more actively and are more attentive in discussions than with lectures, teachers want to build in discussion into the class. Some common strategies for facilitating discussion:

  1. Questions: start off with a question. Not factual questions or those which have a straight yes or no answer. Before suggesting types of questions its good to remind you that the students need time to think about the question. You can minimize the awkwardness of the silence by making it a stated rule “think about this question and nobody can say anything for the next three minutes”
  • Application and interpretation questions: define the issue (eg. how does __ apply to ___) then keep quiet and listen for student answers.
  • Comparative or Evaluative questions: comparing studies, authors or theories, then evaluating thus “which of the two perspectives better explains the phenomenon?”
  • Critical questions; eg. “under which conditions might this theory not be valid?”
  1. Case Studies or Problems have been popularized by business schools and is an excellent method of generating focus and stimulating discussion.

Of course class discussion has its share of potential challenges; a few:

  • Participation (the absence or monopolizing of it by some individual students)
  • Making (or recognizing) progress toward course objectives.
  • Arguments or emotional response of students

breaking the class into small groups or having student led discussions are some effective strategies at minimizing these.

On the teachers side, one author advises them to learn students names whenever possible and to attend events where students are likely to be present. This is motivational to students as it indicates the teachers interest in the students to them. Besides these, provide opportunities for students to speak in class and stimulate discussion and collaboration and it is more likely than not that you will have students engaging with school work


I am a pastor and adjunct professor. I am interested in Leadership, Education, culture as well as the spiritual life. I am the author of no books, but I blog occasionally. I am married and have 4 lovely children.

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Posted in Teaching - best practices

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