Six evidence-based practices for creating engaging learning experiences in graduate programs

gradstudents-01Do we need to engage students in graduate programs? Furthering your education after a first a degree is usually a personal choice, made to improve your knowledge and skills in your chosen profession, or start a career in academia. Having this background, an assumption can be made that graduate students will be driven and engaged throughout their program. Pontius & Harper (2006) note that although there is a lot conversation on student engagement in higher education, it is mostly centred on engaging undergraduate students. They highlighted reasons this might be the case including the fact that graduate students have experienced undergraduate education and can adjust to graduate school easily.

Johnston (2013) refutes this as he believes that graduate school is an entirely different experience from undergraduate studies and every graduate student might not be fully equipped to handle the challenges. In addition, adult learners’ come into school with diverse skills, experiences, and sets of expectations, making it imperative that their educational experiences should be tailored to address their learning needs

Evidence in the literature points to effective strategies in teaching and learning that could be used to engage students in graduate programs. The following evidence-based practices broadly summarize literature related to creating quality learning experiences for graduate students.

  • Focus on Knowledge Application and Integration Experiences that focus on knowledge acquisition through the creation of opportunities for students to synthesize, connect, and apply their learning, foster engagement in graduate programs. Academic coursework is viewed as beneficial by graduate students when combined with practical application, as it creates an opportunity to synthesize prior knowledge and academic learning through application in diverse environments (Renn & Jessup-Anger, 2008; Melnyk, Fineout-Overholt, Sadler, & Green-Hernandez, 2008; Bensimon, 2009).
  • Create Opportunities for Quality Interactions with Faculty Members and Peers Graduate students suggest that quality interaction with faculty and peers is important to their success in graduate school. Quality interactions with faculty include experiences such as prompt feedback on their work and providing sufficient opportunities to engage in interactions that increase their intellectual abilities (Hartnett & Katz, 1977; Bensimon, 2009). Arbaugh (2000) and Pontius & Harper (2006) also emphasize the importance of providing meaningful opportunities for student interaction in graduate courses, in order to both enhance student learning experiences and to build a positive learning community.
  • Provide Practical and Relevant Learning Experiences Designing practical and relevant learning experiences enables graduate students to become actively engaged in their learning, and see points of transfer between their education and future practice. Providing educationally purposeful opportunities for engagement creates opportunities for graduate students to become reflective learners who in addition to acquiring theoretical knowledge, can apply learning in practice (Bensimon, 2009). Course work that is seen as relevant to their future roles is also key for graduate students’ transition into practice (Renn & Jessup-Anger, 2008). For example, the use of case studies, projects and problem-based learning (Renn & Jessup-Anger, 2008; Johnson, 2013) provide authentic opportunities for students to apply learning.
  • Actively Engage Learners The use of active and interactive teaching methods has been shown to strengthen graduate student learning experiences in both online and face-to-face environments (Bensimon, 2009; Bollinger & Martindale, 2004; Morey, 2001; Arbaugh, 2000). Interactive learning strategies may include activities such as: small group and paired discussions, online discussion forums, case studies, role play, debates, in-class peer review and critiques, problem sets, and collaborative problem-solving.
  • Set Clear Expectations Setting clear and high expectations ensures graduate students are aware of what is expected from them throughout their courses and program of study which keeps them purposefully engaged (Bensimon, 2009). On the curriculum level, this involves ensuring intentional course sequencing to support students’ learning progression throughout their program of study which helps students make necessary connections about and across various courses (Beebe, Mottet, & Roach, 2012). Having this clarity of expectations throughout their course learning experiences also fosters autonomy and responsibility for learning, as graduate students become more self-directed and take greater control of their progress (Freeman, Chambers, & Newton, 2016).
  • Design Effective Assessment Appropriate assessment strategies support learning and academic growth by providing evidence of student strengths and abilities, as well as provide an understanding of areas for improvement (Freeman, Chambers, & Newton, 2016). Graduate students also note the importance of receiving prompt and effective feedback on their work and seeing clear alignment between assessment and expectations to be successful in their learning as graduate students (Hartnett & Katz, 1977; Anderson & Swazey, 1998). Building on this understanding can help instructors design assessment strategies that improve the success of student learning in graduate programs.


Anderson, M.S. & Swazey, J.P. (1998). Reflections on the graduate student experience: An overview, New Directions for Higher Education, 1998(101), pp. 3-11

Arbaugh, J. B. (2000). How classroom environment and student engagement affect learning in internet-based MBA courses, Business Communication Quarterly, 63(4), 9-26.   Retrieved from|A68534546&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon&userGroup=ucalgary&authCount=1

Beebe, S.A, Mottet, T.P. & Roach, K.D. (2012). Training development: Enhancing communication and leadership skills (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon

Bensimon, E. M. (2009). Foreword. S. R. Harper & J. Quaye (Eds.), Student Engagement in Higher Education: Theoretical Perspectives and Practical Approaches for Diverse Populations. New York, NY: Routledge

Bollinger, D.U. & Martindale, T. (2004). Key factors for determining student satisfaction in online courses, International Journal on e-Learning, 3(1), p. 61 – 67. Retrieved from|A116143489&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon&userGroup=ucalgary

Freeman, S., Chambers, C. R. & Newton, R. (2016). Higher education leadership graduate program development, New Directions for Institutional Research, 2015(168), p. 79 – 89. doi: 10.1002/ir.20162

Hartnett, R.T. & Katz, J. (1977). The education of graduate students, Journal of Higher Education, 48(6), p. 646-664. doi: 10.2307/1979010

Johnson, K. (2013). Creating experiential learning in the graduate classroom through community engagement, American Journal of Business Education, 6(1), p. 149 -154. Retrieved from

Melnyk, B. M., Fineout-Overholt, E., Sadler, L.S. & Green-Hernandez, C. (2008). Nurse practitioner educators’ perceived knowledge, beliefs, and teaching strategies regarding, evidence- based practice: Implications for accelerating the integration of evidence-based practice into graduate programs, Journal of Professional Nursing, 24(1), p. 7 – 13. Retrieved from

Morey, A. (2001). The Growth of For-Profit Higher Education: Implications for Teacher Education, Journal of Teacher Education, 52(4), p. 300 – 311. Retrieved from

Pontius, J. L. & Harper, S. R. (2006). Principles for good practice in graduate and professional student engagement, New Directions for Student Services, 115, p. 47-58. doi:10.1002/ss.215

Renn, K. A. & Jessup-Anger, E. R. (2008). Preparing new professionals: Lessons for graduate preparation programs from the national study of new professionals in student affairs, Journal of College Student Development, 49(4), p. 319-335. doi: 10.1353/csd.0.0022

About Frances Kalu 2 Articles
Frances Kalu, PhD(C), is a curriculum development specialist and faculty member at Educational Development Unit, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning. Frances works with faculties on curriculum review and development projects by providing educational opportunities to create an understanding of the curriculum review process through the development of research-informed resources, facilitating retreats and workshops, and providing individualized support as required by faculties. Frances has an interest in developing foundational understanding of curriculum and the role curriculum plays in education. Her research interests include identity development, intercultural competency among faculty members, and inclusive education.

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