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Increasing Student Engagement

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The challenges of teaching diverse learners in varying learning contexts puts into perspective the importance of student engagement to the learning experience. Consider using the strategies below to help students increase their engagement with learning activities, build confidence in their community of learning, and increase their comprehension of the course material.

Classroom activities should address student fears about learning

Compared to other aspects of college life, the classroom environment is inherently “a riskier one based on intellectual commitment and engagement” (Bauer, 2007), which can be intimidating for many students. A key step to promoting student engagement is recognizing and addressing the fear of failure and judgment by both instructors and peers.

Ask open-ended questions

Questions that ask students to justify an opinion or interpret a reading are more likely to elicit responses even from those who do not know exactly how to define a term or derive a formula because there is no risk of “failing” the question. Because open-ended questions can have multiple correct answers or valid perspectives, they can also generate more interesting discussions. Engagement-based questions can require students to be more diligent in their readings and homework as these questions require a deeper understanding than simply knowing a correct answer. 

You can combine multiple types of questions to both generate discussion and check for student comprehension. For example, consider starting off with a more open-ended question to invite engagement. Then, ask more “fact-finding” follow-up questions to help refine, contextualize, and nuance those responses to ensure students understand the material.

Ask students what they know about a topic before instruction

Background-knowledge probes are useful because they can help instructors decide what to cover in limited time, ensuring that subsequent meetings of the course will better engage students, and can even generate discussion in the moment.

Use more ungraded or credit-upon-completion assignments

Short reflections on class material or participation in classroom discussions can easily be turned into credit-upon-completion components of a course. These types of informal assignments hold students accountable for doing work and can prepare students to think critically in advance of more important graded assessments without presenting a significant intellectual risk for them or a grading burden for instructors. 

Encourage students to take more active roles in collaborative learning and teaching

Many studies underscore the effectiveness of learning techniques that utilize student experts or require students to practice teaching what they learn. These philosophies can be integrated into course activities through a variety of methods.

Incorporate student discussion time into activities

Instead of having students solve an example problem on their own, consider asking students to form small groups or try activities such as think-pair-share to work through it. In addition to boosting engagement, group discussions give students the opportunity to explain to others their reasoning and problem-solving processes, which helps promote metacognition. Small groups work equally well for discussing open-ended questions and problems with explicit solutions. 

Have students model or explain to other students

When students begin to grasp a concept in a difficult lecture for the first time, they may feel like a lightbulb has just turned on, bringing clarity to their understanding of a topic. This is a great opportunity to ask these students to explain it to the rest of the class and take other people’s questions, interrupting only to correct or clarify information.

Build peer review into open-ended assignments

While peer review can be beneficial for increasing engagement, students are most accepting when instructors inform them of the importance and potential benefits of participating in such activities. Take time to establish peer review norms and expectations, so that students can trust they will be treated with respect and be more open to feedback. Ask students to account for how and why they incorporated the feedback and when they did not. Consider how and when you give your feedback on student work so that it does not unintentionally undercut the peer review process. If your feedback comes after a draft that incorporates peer feedback, that is an opportunity for you to reinforce the value of that peer feedback by pointing to places where they successfully integrated the feedback or places where they should have.  

Use activities that provide students with a diverse range of engagement opportunities 

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework which strives to capture the diversity of student learning preferences and is applicable to any field or subject. Consider the following strategies while designing learning activities to best reach students who may possess a variety of engagement styles.

Offer multiple versions of activities or assignments

Information is only accessible to students when it engages their cognition, so it is essential to give students both autonomy in choosing how to engage with the material as well as a diversity of methods for them to learn and assess their skills. Consider utilizing information from multiple types of sources or modalities when giving lectures or allowing students the freedom to choose different types of projects for a final assessment.

Encourage students to reflect upon the learning process

Metacognition is useful for student learning and mastery as well as building and sustaining a motivation to learn. Consider providing students with feedback on key assignments as well as creating activities in which students can conduct self-assessment with a variety of different techniques. The Canvas Commons has an Exit Ticket module with a number of examples you can build into your course. 

Emphasize the importance of course objectives in assignments

While all students appreciate understanding the significance or utility of their course material, some students especially benefit from continued reinforcement of course objectives to boost engagement. Assignments should allow learners to understand or restate the goal of the activity as well as offer relevant examples for how the information gained can be applied which connects to students’ backgrounds and interests.

Research, scholarship of teaching and learning, and online research consulted