Student Engagement

Building opportunities for students to engage and find academic success

What is It?

Student engagement happens in the present tense. It is  when students are motivated to work on/with the material in your course.  Engagement has impacts (future tense) as well as causes (past tense) that include but are not exclusive to your course  or even students’ academic careers. For example, engaged students tend to do better academically across all courses and in future careers. Meanwhile, factors that facilitate student engagement  are structural, psychosocial, sociocultural and emotional. In other words, there is more to student engagement than instructors building engaging courses. But  students who find engagement in your course can see  that motivation ripple across multiple courses, and continue on to have lasting impacts on their careers and lives.

A diagram of sociocultural influences that influence student engagement.
Student engagement in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 38 (5), 758-773.

How Can I Encourage Student Engagement  in My Course?

“It is widely recognized that engagement breeds engagement,” writes Ella Kahu, who studies student engagement in higher education. Facilitating engagement in your course can breed engagement in other courses, in future academic pursuits, and beyond. You have the opportunity to make an enormous impact by connecting with students, and helping them to connect to your course. How do you do that? With people — connect with your students and help them connect with one another.

Student-Teacher Connections

Be visible and easy to reach in your course

  1. Post  videos to give  students a sense that they are seeing you regularly
  2. Use multiple modes of communication: announcements, email, chat, virtual office hours and video conferencing.  
  3. Be responsive. Let students know when you’re available and how long they can expect to wait when they try to get in touch.  
  4. Feedback: Instructor feedback on student work is, in many courses, the primary way instructors  communicate with individual students. Your feedback can initiate conversations and start a process with a student of finding their strengths and connections to the course. Consider using a personal rather than formal tone  in written comments. Try using video and voice to give feedback.
  5. Poll your students a few times during the course of the semester to ensure that your teaching approach is student-centered and meeting their needs. Be responsive and ready to shift your approach based on their responses! Students will appreciate and respond to transparency and responsiveness. 
  6. Your students may be looking for employment in your field down the way and this is an opportunity to provide the necessary skills they may need down the road. Share stories about working in your subject and connect students with professional journals, conferences and other opportunities. Encourage active engagement outside the classroom such as giving points for noticing or attending related current events. 
  7. Personalize your course activities. Your students are diverse. Not only may they approach learning differently (e.g. prefer to listen to a podcast instead of watch a video) but they also may be interested in a particular topic you are covering. Provide assessment choices for students  when possible so they may chase down their interests.  

Student-Student Connections

Help students connect with one another

Your first thought — and dread — may be groupwork. Prepare students for success in groupwork by keeping the stakes on the assignment low and explicitly making “collaboration with peers” one of your objectives. Try pairs and small groups first, experiment with letting students propose project topics first, and let the students form their own groups based on interest in each other’s project ideas. Encourage interaction  with group meetings, video calls, and a robust chat and collaboration space.

Make it easy for students to contact each other directly.  Initiate the practice by using chat tools informally and/or use a tool, like Slack, that makes direct-messaging easy.

Make discussion and peer review central in your course. Model good, responsive discussion practices for students and experiment with the tools available — try emoji  responses! Google docs + folders are great tools for peer review. Slack, WordPress, and social media (including Facebook, Twitter) are great for discussion.

Student-Self Connections:

Help students connect to who they are, their interests and motivations

  • Listen to students, ask questions, check in regularly, adjust your plans based on what you learn. A mid-course survey using a tool like Google docs can help with this.
  • Allow for choice in assignments — in topic and/or form. Are your students doing presentations? Instead of slides, encourage them to try Thinglink, Prezi, Explain Everything, video, and more.
  • Invite students to connect with the material, with you and peers with personal stories. What do they bring to this material?
  • Help students see the connection between what you do in the classroom and what they do — and could do — outside the classroom. How does what we do in here matter out there?

Any tool that helps support communication in your course will also support engagement, if used well:

Questions and Considerations

Academic writing about student engagement discusses  both instrumental and  intrinsic engagement, often favoring intrinsic. Instrumental engagement largely involves rewarding the behaviors that the teacher is  seeking. This is how traditional Western education has worked for a long time — grades, discipline, certificates, diplomas, gold stars on the class chart (not all intended primarily or solely as engagement mechanisms). For those for whom this instrumental approach works, it can still elicit many of the positive connections and impacts listed above. On the other hand,  it’s been argued that intrinsic motivation encourages “substantive and sustained engagement.” Intrinsic motivation is about students finding their path into what your course is working on and engaging in it largely out of interest. This sort of engagement is facilitated by offering choice and building openness into a course.

Research Foundations

Dixon, M.D. (2010)  Creating effective student engagement in online courses: What do students find engaging?  Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(2), 1 — 13.
Kahu, E.R. (2013). Framing student engagement in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 38(5), 758-773.
Chih-Yuan Sun, J. & Rueda, R. (2012). Situational interest, computer self-efficacy and self-regulation: Their impact on student engagement in distance education.  British Journal of Educational Technology, 191.