Student engagement in the classroom

By Frances Kalu, Teaching and Learning Specialist, University of Calgary in Qatar and Patrick Kelly, Manager of Learning & Instructional Design

The term student engagement describes participation in activities that lead to high-quality learning (Weimer, 2012). Studies demonstrate that when students are engaged in their learning, they show sustained behavioral involvement in the learning process (Zepke & Leach, 2010). As educators in higher education we can use a variety of methods to foster student engagement both in and outside of our classrooms. To explore this idea further, we hosted an unconference session on student engagement at the 5th Annual Conference on Postsecondary Learning and Teaching.

We used a ‘world-café’ approach, where participants moved around in small groups at set times, discussed questions and shared insights with the larger group. Specifically, participants rotated in small groups to discuss the following three predetermined questions:

  1. What does student engagement mean to you in your course?
  2. How do you foster student engagement?
  3. What have your challenges and successes been?

Three themes on student engagement emerged from the discussion: having a sense of belonging to a community, active learning strategies or activities with which both instructors and students engage, and students having transformative experiences. A commonality among these themes is that both the instructor and the student play essential roles. Additionally, the themes from our unconference session align with learner-centered principles identified in research on higher education (Kenny, 2014).

These themes are discussed in more detail below:

Community: Fostering a community that encourages student engagement

Participants saw the process of building a community within the classroom as a great strategy for student engagement. They identified the merits of other processes, such as building safe and collaborative learning environments, acknowledging different experiences, including students in discussion about expectations, and connecting with students by using their names. Participants mentioned other strategies for building communities, including being explicit with students about the importance of being engaged, facilitating classroom discussions about engagement, demonstrating enthusiasm as an instructor and supporting students in the learning process. In return, participants believe that in order to be engaged in the classroom, students need to be motivated, active learners, and to have enthusiasm for their own learning.

Strategies and Activities: Engaging students in the classroom using active learning strategies

For participants in our session, getting students engaged in classrooms involved the use of various strategies and activities. Examples of strategies included using hooks to captivate students and increase curiosity in learning; providing clear explanations of intended learning outcomes; and giving students feedback on their learning. Another example was connecting student learning to real-world contexts so that students can see the relevance of their learning (for example, using authentic case studies in small groups, assigning roles to students for structure during analysis, and inviting students to present on current issues related to learning). Other strategies include using in-class activities such as interactive questions, TopHat for immediate feedback and discussion prompts, peer instruction such as jigsaw, competitions and the use of creative projects.

Transformative: Making learning a transformative experience

Transformative learning experiences occur when students experience fundamental shifts in their thinking, when their thinking becomes broader, more reflective and inclusive (Henderson, 2012; Brock, 2009). Participants in the unconference described transformational changes in student attitudes toward learning. These changes included increased confidence in student engagements, both with one another and toward the material. Students were also more likely to ask questions, demonstrate interest in content beyond the assessments, and exhibit receptive behavior to new or differing ideas. Student transformation also included critical and creative thinking, challenging concepts, and having a passion for learning. One participant summarized the notion of transformative learning with the following description: “students are not the same people by the end of the course or even a class.” Some practical strategies to encourage such transformation included the use of reflective questions or other reflective exercises, and challenging students to make connections to other course content or experiences. While reflecting on our un-conference experience, it became apparent that student engagement means different things to different people across diverse contexts. However, we found a common thread woven into participants’ discussions: the strategies that educators use to promote good learning also promote student engagement. Conversely, student engagement is about both the instructor and students being engaged.

References

Brock, S. (2010). Measuring the importance of precursor steps to transformative learning. Adult Education Quarterly, 60(2), 122 – 142.

Henderson, J. (January 17, 2012). Transformative learning: four activities that set the stage. Retrived from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/transformative-learning-four-activities-that-set-the-stage/

Kenny, N.A. (2014). Learner-Centred principles for teaching in higher education. Calgary, AB: Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning.

Weimer, M. (2012). 10 ways to promote student engagement. Faculty Focus, https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/10-ways-to-promote-student-engagement/

Zepke, N. & Leach, L. (2010). Improving student engagement: Ten proposals for action. Active Learning in Higher Education, 11(5), 167 – 177.

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