5 Proven Ways to Achieve Active Engagement in the Classroom

By: Ann Gagne

Every passionate educator craves active engagement in the classroom. Whether you are a seasoned professor or a novice instructor, one of the biggest challenges you can be sure to face is how to get and keep your students engaged.

Finding ideas that guarantee engagement is often difficult because there is no one-size-fits-all model to engagement, especially when taking into account different modes of instruction and different course subjects. All instructors need go-to teaching strategies when attention seems to be waning.

Here are five proven approaches for active classroom engagement that work regardless of if you are teaching in-class or online. These are ideas that have been used in my own classrooms and compiled from colleagues teaching experiences across the globe.

1. Connect To You

Often the best way to reinforce ideas is to allow students to connect concepts explored in class to their own life experience or program of study. This works for general education electives but also for any course regardless of mode of delivery.

In this activity which I call “Connect to You” the students are challenged to connect a particular idea or concept to themselves in whatever way they wish. They can do this through a short written assignment, an impromptu video, a small presentation, or a visual component. For example, if the topic is ethical communication strategies the student could pull an example from their own lives where they feel they have not been treated ethically by a customer service representative. When they share their experiences with the class, they are actively engaging, and in turn creating a larger pool of ideas for their peers to access in order to further analyze the module or lesson topic.

I often have engineering students in my literature classes and this teaching strategy works well- especially because many come into the class wondering how literature can be relevant to their very scientific studies. I have students read a poem and challenge them to connect the gender issues to their own potential workplace. Many give presentations or write essays on the gender gaps in wages or demographics of their workplace, which is an excellent way to connect the text to their everyday lives.

2. Create and Make

Creation leads to meaningful learning; when students make things it forces them to use their knowledge base as well as analyze and synthesize ideas. A student’s creativity is one of your best untapped resources. Every student is creative in their own way.

Getting students to create and make also allows students to take advantage of technological resources which creates a more active classroom and gets undergraduates to engage with ideas and refine their skills. What about using toothpicks and modeling clay to create molecules in a biology class? The more creative students will enjoy the hands-on challenge and those more scientifically inclined will be able to make 3-D structures of what they have until now understood through flat textual representation.

3. Collaborate with Peers

When we were in Kindergarten our teachers used to say “sharing equals caring” and this same philosophy can help increase engagement in any class. The moment you ask students to share or collaborate they have to bring their collective knowledge to the table and fill in the gaps in order to communicate ideas and work as a team.

Students often resist groupwork or teamwork because it can feel uneven and, ideally, professors want everyone in the group to be able to participate. However, you can use small break-out collaboration sessions as opportunities to engage with ideas and create teachable moments where students help each other with any missing pieces that their peers require. All members are then actively engaging and contributing in a meaningful way.

Break the class into groups of four students each. If some students in the group are unsure about the material or concepts make two of the students “information distributors.” The role of “information distributors” is to make sure that the other two students are brought up to speed on the major ideas or themes; having two people with this role ensures that there is no imbalance of power. The purpose of the collaborative exercise is usually to produce a small piece of writing (500 words maximum) or a 5–8 minute presentation on the main theme of the class for that day. The break-out sessions last about 30 minutes (5 minutes for the information distributors to make sure everyone is on the same page & 25 minutes to work on their collaborative piece) so the students need to be active and focused to complete the task at hand.

4. Blog, Journal, Discuss

Being able to reflect is important both for educators and for students. Taking the time to think about what has been discussed and to propose an intervention into the material is one way to get students engaged with the content and thinking about how everything fits together. Blogging or journaling (which is a low-tech way of achieving the same outcome) practices develop students’ communication skills but also put ideas in relief in a way that engages latent literacy skills.

In order to determine if ideas can be applied or analyzed, reflection is key and having small blogging sessions gives a students a barometer on their own meaningful learning. It also allows them to actively engage with the material in a much more dynamic way than a lesson or lecture. The best way to ensure engagement and privacy is to host the blog or discussion within a password protected classroom engagement platform, and to make posts visible to students in the class. A good strategy with blogs or journals is, for example, to assign 6 (at a minimum of 250 words each) and then grade the best 5 out of 6 which can function as part of a participation grade for the course.

Grade descriptors may also ask students to respond to at least 2 other classmate’s posts if they want to earn the maximum grade. This way they are both actively reflecting on concepts from class but also addressing their peers responses, promoting discussion.

5. Go Social

There are many social media tools (some of them which have a low tech barrier) that you can integrate into your curriculum or active classroom in order to increase student engagement. Most of these social media tools can be used to help the students connect beyond the classroom environment and see how concepts and ideas work in the real world. Many instructors use Twitter in the active classroom and use hashtags as way to both push and pull information to and from the educational space.

However, Twitter is only one of many social tools that you can use in the classroom. What about LinkedIn? LinkedIn is a great tool get students engaged especially if you are teaching communications or a social science course. If you happen to be teaching HR, LinkedIn works as a database of case studies of what you should and should not do in order to get hired. Students can analyze pages to see how others disseminate their skill sets to the world. How do you present yourself, how do you present what you know? All of this is seen in LinkedIn and this is but one example of how you can use the social aspect of social media as way to actively engage the students with the material.

Even fashion design, for example, can have a social aspect using LinkedIn. What are the people wearing in their profiles? What does clothing in those profile pictures tell us about people? There are many angles you can explore with social media and you can use it to reinforce points or synthesize ideas. Since social media is always changing this is again a more dynamic way of bringing ideas and content into your classroom.

Active Engagement in the Classroom Can Be Fun

By asking the students to respond to ideas in different ways, we can make active engagement in the classroom fun. Alternate between the strategies mentioned above so that in any 14–15 week course you are using each at least twice. Some can be used more often than others, depending on what works. Asking students to connect concepts to their own field of study is great reinforcing technique. Social media can function as an efficient way to summarize key points from each class or lecture every week. Creating something tangible in class, collaborating on a presentation or written piece, or asking students to blog or journal on an idea are strategies best spread out throughout the term so active engagement remains high.

Are there some teaching strategies that we have missed? Is there something you have implemented in your spaces that has students reflect on meaningful learning and active engagement? Share your strategies below.

Top Hat is designed to connect professors and students in the classroom and to create a more engaged and active learning environment. If you’re interested in a demonstration of how Top Hat can be used in your classroom, click here.


Originally published at blog.tophat.com on July 29, 2015.

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