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5 Tips to Creating a High-Engagement Classroom

A few days before every semester begins, I practice what it’s like to be a disengaged student. It’s during a special time called faculty in-service when my colleagues and I are subjected to whatever it is the administration decides is important. Let me say, some award-winning doodles have been drawn over the years.

Am I a bad student for being utterly disengaged? Some instructors would say so because I have the choice of whether to participate and engage. Others would disagree and point to an environment at the in-service that does not foster engagement. In reality, my choice and the environment are connected. A good environment will make the choice to engage easier. Great environments seem to bypass the need to choose all together and make engagement automatic.

Here are five tips to increase engagement in your course:

  1. Be persistent and consistent.

Students may be apprehensive to engage or conditioned from previous classes that high engagement is optional. It may be difficult and even uncomfortable for you and the students to develop a class culture that expects engagement. Whatever strategies you end up employing try and stick with them even if it’s awkward, even when nobody responds, and even when you get lackluster results. Keep trying, tweak your strategies, but don’t abandon the effort. Students will become more comfortable once the culture is established and presented consistently throughout the term.

  1. Warm up.​

Whether it’s a question on the board, a practice quiz, group homework review, or journal entry, have an activity that requires engagement as soon as students walk in the room. This sets a strong expectation and tone, which in turn helps the students focus throughout the rest of the class. It’s also a great opportunity for you to chat with students and make them more comfortable talking with you.

  1. Make engagement tangible.​

We often rest our expectations of engagement on a few informal student activities that students should do “just because”— students talking with each other, responding to questions posed by the instructor, and “paying attention.” These are all activities that can be skipped or have been done inadequately.  More importantly, they don’t result in anything students consider meaningful. Instead, make the results of engagement tangible and more direct. Have students write formal responses to your questions, make journal entries, draw diagrams or flowcharts, fill out a worksheet, or create a group presentation. These activities should be turned in to you or, better yet, become part of a portfolio that represents their engagement and learning throughout the semester.

  1. Make connections.

Did you ever bail out your favorite teacher when nobody else in the class would respond to their question? Positive feelings toward the instructor can break down barriers to engagement. Make a dedicated effort every day to have one-on-one interactions with students, even if it just a few seconds with a few students. Show them you are a regular human being and talk about things other than class. Encourage students by complimenting their work and asking if they would be willing to share it with the class. Even if you can’t reach every student, the rest will notice your positive interactions. 

  1. Stop talking.

The main reason I disengage during faculty in-service is because someone talks at me nearly the entire time. I know it’s going to happen, and I disengage before walking in the door. I’m already disengaged for next year! Talking to your class is fine, but you shouldn’t expect your students to jump in with brilliant insights, questions, and thoughts. After all, how annoying would that be to be constantly interrupted? All the activities discussed above require dedicated breaks where each individual student is allowed and expected to engage. You may have to reduce the breadth of information in your course, but students are much more likely to learn what is covered when you put a focus on them discussing or writing about what they’ve learned.

These tips are all about creating an environment where students are more likely to engage. Use them to close paths that lead disengagement make them wide open toward engagement, so it seems like the only obvious way for your students.

About the Author

Jason Carlson is a biology instructor at St. Cloud Technical and Community College in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He teaches general biology, nutrition, microbiology, and human biology. His educational interests include active learning and online classes. Before moving to higher education, Jason was a high school and middle school science teacher as well as a track and field coach. Jason is a co-author for the Mader/Windelspecht series of biology textbooks and a contributor for the Mader series of lab manuals. He also serves as a digital author and creates videos and learning resources including the BioNow video series.

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