Evidence-Based Frameworks and Strategies for Keeping Students Engaged

Keeping students engaged in their learning throughout an entire semester is a challenge that exists across all disciplines and modalities. Though the ways in which you implement strategies for increasing student engagement might vary because of these factors, the good news is that the underlying principles remain the same. Below are some of the key methods and strategies that have emerged as common themes across many studies on the relationships between teaching practices and student engagement.

Foster a Culture of Growth, Trust, and Belonging

Part of a student’s engagement in a course is tied to the affective domain of learning, or a student’s thoughts and feelings about their own learning. Does the student feel like they belong in this learning environment? Are they respected by their peers and the instructor? Do they see their instructor as an ally in the learning journey, or as an adversary?

One aspect of the affective domain is whether an individual has a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. The Center for Learning Experimentation, Application and Research at the University of North Texas has a great list of growth mindset interventions instructors can implement. It is worth noting, however, that research seems to indicate the effectiveness of these interventions is contingent on the instructor’s mindset as well. Studies have shown that instructors with a greater growth mindset (as opposed to a fixed mindset) have smaller racial achievement gaps and inspire more student motivation in their courses.

The affective domain also includes students’ feelings of belonging and trust. While the degree to which you can affect these feelings has limitations, evidence-based practices usually boil down to how you interact with students and facilitate interactions between students. A few examples include using a welcoming tone in your syllabus, modelling inclusive language, and taking the time to get to know your students’ names. Even in asynchronous classes it is important to build trust with your students. For example, you might want to consider using a week-one survey to provide your students with an opportunity to tell you about themselves.

Break Up Lectures & Add Opportunities for Active Learning

When there is a lot of content that needs to be disseminated across the duration of the semester, lectures are a common method for communicating that information quickly and efficiently. But the longer and denser the lecture is, the more instructors risk losing their students along the way due to cognitive load.

One solution is to build pause points into your lectures. Students benefit from structured pauses during lectures as it allows them space to question, process, and reflect on the information that they’ve absorbed. For pre-recorded lectures, the same idea can be achieved by breaking up a long lecture video into multiple short, topical videos (research suggests 6-12 minutes is an ideal length for maintaining student engagement). Fortunately, Kaltura (My Media) makes it very easy to trim and save video clips from right within Canvas.

When adding pauses for students to digest information, it is also beneficial to create opportunities for active learning activities. These activities can be very brief, such as using an anonymous polling tool to check for student understanding during a lecture. For more in-depth active learning, consider making time for small group discussions, written reflections, and other exercises that require students to employ higher order thinking skills. For courses with an asynchronous component, PlayPosit allows instructors to add a variety of engagement activities to pre-recorded lecture videos, while Hypothesis may be useful for incorporating annotation and reflection activities into assigned readings.

Provide Transparency and Support

When a student needs to spend a lot of mental energy figuring out the logistics of how to complete an activity, they have less mental energy left to engage with the course materials themselves. Therefore, transparency and scaffolding are both key elements to designing engaging assignments.

The Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TiLT) framework is designed to help instructors write clear and descriptive instructions for learning materials and assignments. For this framework, lay out the task, purpose, and criteria for each learning activity. If a student knows what they are supposed to do, why they are supposed to do it (how it ties to the course learning outcomes), and how they are going to be assessed, they can go into the activity more confident in their ability to engage with it.

It is common for a student to stop engaging with a course if they feel like they don’t have the means or resources to complete the tasks they’ve been assigned. Proper instructional scaffolding can help counter this issue by bridging some of the cognitive gaps and reducing the number of students that fall through the cracks. For example, if the final assignment in your course is an 8-page research paper, consider breaking up the process into several smaller assignments, such as having students submit their topic, bibliography, and outline at various points throughout the semester. Other ways to provide scaffolding this assignment might include modelling (providing examples of papers that meet the outcomes of the assignment), incorporating instructor or peer feedback for the outline or an early draft of the paper, and providing a robust rubric to guide students on how to meet the assignment outcomes.

Additional Resources

Engaging students is a broad topic that we are only just able to scratch the surface of in this post. Below are some resources for further reading if you’d like to dive in deeper.

Questions?

As always, we welcome you to share your ideas for engaging students by dropping a comment below or emailing us at CATL@uwgb.edu. If you’d like to discuss any of these methods or ideas one-on-one, a CATL member would be happy to meet with you for a consultation as well.

The First Day of Class: Promoting Belonging from Day One

Sense of belonging is a key predictor of college students’ persistence and well-being (Gopalan & Brady, 2020). Instructors can promote that belonging through the creation of community in the classroom. This previous piece from the Cowbell (our CATL blog) outlines multiple strategies for fostering community, belonging, and trust in classes of all modalities and sizes.

It’s never too soon to think about the creation of community in your courses. Why not the first day of class? Well-known educator and author James Lang (2021) shared his thoughts on How to Teach a Good First Day of Class in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Read this engaging piece and learn more about the key themes he emphasizes for day one – curiosity, community, learning, and expectations – as well as concrete suggestions for achieving them. Looking for even more ideas? The teaching and learning center at Carnegie Mellon offers some great day one advice on everything from what to wear, when to arrive, and how to introduce yourself, through what information to collect from students, how to get them excited about the course content, and ways to establish a “culture of feedback.” Finally, getting your students interacting with one another (and talking!) on day one is important to setting the tone for the semester. If you are looking for some interesting icebreaker ideas to try, look no further than this piece from Ohio State.