Speaking Up: A Guide to Encouraging Student Engagement

Posted on Thursday March 21, 2013
From our friends at BEST COLLEGES ONLINE
Staff Writers 

2012 Gallup poll indicates that with every school year, student engagement drops. Nearly eight in 10 elementary school students are engaged, but by middle school, that number drops to six in 10, and by high school, only four in 10 students are engaged. As the novelty of learning wears off, students become less and less interested, and student engagement wanes. This puts students at risk for lower grades, low achievement, less motivation to follow through with studies, and may even result in drop outs. What can be done to keep students interested and engaged in learning in higher education?


Students are engaged in education when they make an investment in their learning and do schoolwork not from a position of obligation, but from a desire to learn. Research has found that students who are engaged in learning are much more likely to succeed and persist in college. High impact student engagement practices that require participation in and out of the classroom support students and encourage them to stay interested in learning, and research indicates that student engagement is linked positively to critical thinking and grades. TheNational Survey of Student Engagement indicates that student success is directly related to student involvement, including active and collaborative learning, encouragement of student effort, academic challenge, support for learners, and interaction between students and faculty. Highly engaged students will be more likely to re-enroll for the next semester, and their grades will be higher. These engaged students become more invested in their education, and their school, and they make plans to stick around and do well.

It’s difficult to compete with ever-present distractions. Nearly every student brings some sort of device to the classroom, whether it’s a smart phone, iPad, or laptop. Facebook beckons, Twitter chirps, and before you know it, they’ve zoned out of your lecture. Mobile devices are so prevalent and distracting that professors like David Cole of Georgetown Law have banned laptops from their classes. But engagement can encourage students to put down their devices, or use them in a productive way by making wireless devices a part of instruction. Cell phones become student response clickers and laptops are used for on-the-fly research.

Students want the freedom to be curious and creative, something that attention to engagement can offer. And they’re good at it. Research from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development indicates students crave work that stimulates their curiosity, allows for creative expression, and builds relationships with others. Resources that encourage student engagement offer a better way to learn than the “I lecture, you listen” approach.

Student engagement and happiness go hand-in-hand, and they both contribute to the other.Teachers point out that students who feel threatened by a difficult lesson, or embarrassed to be called on, may shut down and have trouble learning effectively. But a happy and comfortable learning environment encourages, and is encouraged by, student engagement. When students don’t feel threatened, they open up to new ideas and guidance, become willing to try difficult work, take risks, and think deeply. Activities that foster student engagement, especially those that build social and emotional interaction, can give students a sense of safety in the classroom and open them up to deeper learning.

Engagement is an important part of deep learning and academic exploration, but it’s also an essential feedback tool for instructors. Instructors typically solicit questions from students, but those who are confused may not speak up. That means often, they have no idea how well students are grasping concepts until test time comes around, and it’s too late to go back and cover the material in depth. Student engagement activities, like real-time Twitter feedback, can help instructors identify hiccups in the learning process.


Colleges that pay special attention to student engagement typically see a payoff. Twitter has been used to engage entire lecture halls in simultaneous instruction, professors get real time feedback from students with adaptive learning technology, and in-class instruction has been supported with mobile apps.

Engaging 200 or more students in active lecture discussion may seem like an impossible task, but for University of Texas at Dallas professor Monica Rankin, it’s entirely possible. Using Twitter, Rankin has been able to grow class discussions from an average of three active students to 30 or 40 at once. This happens live during the lecture on a Twitter backchannnel as students tweet comments or questions, and Rankin or a TA responds in real time. Shy students speak up without fear, and academic Twitter chatter continues even after class time, with students using the Twitter feed as a study aid.

Poker faced students who don’t speak up when they’re confused do a disservice to themselves and their instructors, who have no idea they’ve fallen behind. Arizona State University has a solution for that: Knewton’s adaptive learning laboratories. In these laboratories, students work through diagnostic exams that track their performance, and depending on how well they do, they’ll either pass or be placed into a lesson with learning items including videos, texts, and quizzes. In ASU’s remedial math courses that used the Knewton resource, pass rates jumped from 66% to 75%. Some ASU courses have seen entire sections with 100% pass rates, indicating that this real-time feedback can be an effective tool for engaged learning.

Mobile devices can be distractions, or they can be used as classroom tools. For two English professors, they are valuable tools for learning. Elliott Visconsi, a professor at Notre Dame, and Bryn Mawr College professor Katherine Rowe collaborated to create Shakespeare’s The Tempest for iPad. This app takes an engaged approach to reading the classic play, offering audio performance and lectures, as well as interactive features like taking and sharing notes and passage annotation. Visconsi points out that this gives students the ability to participate and create new content, and students praise the app as a tool for turning classmates into resources as they work through the material together.


Twitter, mobile apps, and adaptive learning classrooms are all great ideas for unlocking the potential of student engagement in higher education, but you don’t have to go that far to implement tools and strategies that will make students engaged and interested participants. Enthusiasm, project-based learning, instructor feedback, and social media discussions can make a big difference. Try out these tools and strategies for engaged learning:

    • Be enthusiastic. The instructor sets the tone for the course. When students see you as an active, excited participant in learning, they’ll be more likely to find enthusiasm themselves. Hult International Business School professor Philippa Gamse encourages discussion by asking controversial or contentious questions, and giving students interesting topics that they can’t resist talking about.
    • Connect lessons to the real world with project based learning. Give students focus and context by showing them how their studies apply beyond the textbook. Try project based learning with real life dilemmas and solutions. Northwood University professor Diane Feffer finds companies and nonprofits with real projects that students can work on to find solutions. In doing so, says Feffer, “students can harness all of their ‘conceptual knowledge’ and apply it to a real problem.This promotes collaboration with teams, gives them interaction with adults and boosts their confidence. They can also reference these projects on their resumes. “
    • Pay special attention to student response and feedback. Using tools that can track student struggles and success can help you better understand where they need help and support in learning engagement. Dr. David Lenihan of Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine utilizes an interactive student response system. Students first answer assessment questions independently, then discuss answers in groups and answer the questions a second time. With all of this feedback, Lenihan is able to easily identify concepts that his classes don’t understand, and can spend additional time reviewing the material. Lenihan also uses data-driven feedback to provide students with areas of weakness that require remediation. This system has allowed Touro’s program to graduate more students with higher board exam scores, and saves $2 million each year by reducing the dropout rate.
    • Use social media for discussion and instant feedback. Social media tools likeTwitter and Facebook offer a platform for discussion and engagement, as well as a resource for instant feedback from both student and instructor. You can also use social media to extend the discussion beyond class time. California State University San Marcos professor Matthew Atherton challenges students to break down complex criminology theories into a single 140 character tweet. “The exercise is not about presenting theories in the most simplistic manner; rather it is an exercise in being able to synthesize the numerous aspects of the theory into a succinct statement,” Atherton says. “In the process, students gain a greater understanding of the theory.”
    • Show students how content is relevant to them. Relate history to modern-day issues, show how math can be used in everyday life, and explain physics in an exciting, real life demonstration. MIT professor Walter Lewin is a superstar online not because the world is innately interested in physics, but because he enthusiastically shows students how physics works in real life through his lecture demonstrations.
    • Focus on intrinsic motivation over extrinsic. Use intrinsic motivation, or, internal factors, to make learning genuinely enjoyable for students, rather than relying on extrinsic motivational tools like grades or gold stars. Utilizing intrinsic motivation promotes a deeper and longer-lasting commitment to learning. University of Oklahoma Price College of Business professor Jeremy Short has made learning enjoyable with graphic novels that teach graduate level students the principles of management. An upcoming study indicates that recall of material from graphic novels was not only equal with traditional text, but also that verbatim recall was actually better with students who read graphic novels. Using tools that make learning fun can encourage students to be more engaged, and even improve learning outcomes.


  • Require discussions and interaction with fellow students. It’s easy for online students to become isolated, but the online format can actually provide great resources for interaction. Discussion board or chat room participation is typically required in online courses, but you can encourage students to do more than the bare minimum by asking controversial or thought-provoking questions that make students want to answer and continue the discussion.
  • Collect data and take action on findings. The online environment offers instructors a unique opportunity to use data to their advantage. So much of online study can be tracked: online quizzes, time spent on discussions, and how much students interact.Study this data and use your findings to influence your future instruction. Consider where students hesitate and run into trouble, and find ways to improve their understanding in these concepts. See what you’re doing right in discussions that spark lots of interaction, and apply those same ideas to discussions that typically don’t get a lot of attention.

Now is a time when distractions lurk around every corner for students, competing for attention and hampering student engagement. Nearly half of all college students drop out before receiving a degree. But now is also a time when educators have more resources than ever to pull students back in and become deeply engaged in learning.