Best Practices for Engaging Students

Between Summer and Fall 2020, about a dozen instructors who expressed having success with engaging students were interviewed about their strategies. This document summarizes key ideas. While the ideas were originally intended for remote teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic, this page has been edited to apply to a wider range of teaching modes. For the actual responses to interview questions, see the Engaging Students Interview document.

Establish Expectations

  1. What is your vision for what a well-functioning course would look like?
  2. What do you and your students need to do to achieve your vision?
  • Explain the options for engaging (e.g., raise hand to speak, write in chat or back channel tool during synchronous class, post questions to online class discussions, etc.).
  • Express your expectations for frequency of participation.
  • Share examples of the types of questions, comments, and discussion you want to see.
  • Offer students low-stakes opportunities to practice questioning, commenting, discussing.
  • Ask students to establish group norms for acceptable interactions.
  • Address slumps in expected engagement by talking with students and making adjustments.
  • Use techniques such as exit slips and in-class activities to provide opportunities for students to meet expectations rather than simply grading attendance.

Build Community

  1. What are students’ needs given who they are (e.g., first-year) and where they’re located (e.g., in the classroom or at a distance)?
  2. How can you connect the content to students’ personal and cultural frames of reference?
  3. What do you share about you, and what is your in-class or on-screen presence like?
  4. How do you want students to relate to one another?
  • Survey students to get to know about their backgrounds, majors, and professional interests.
  • Tell stories about your experiences (professional, personal, observational) before class.
  • Help students make social connections by sharing music, comics, books, and movies.
  • Welcome students as they enter the class space (whether physical or virtual).
  • Use announcements not only for course reminders but also for upcoming opportunities and points of interest.
  • Meet with each student individually or in groups at least once in the semester.
  • Use current day contexts as a way to approach the course content.
  • Plan activities that will prompt students to share and correct understandings with one another.

Facilitate Lessons

  1. What frequency is useful for you to check on students’ understanding?
  2. How can you set up students for success in their responses to your prompts?
  3. How can you use activities to reinforce the type of engagement you want from students?
  4. How can you use written and verbal cues and/or technology to initiate participation?
  • Check in with students frequently (e.g., every ~5-8 minutes) to check on understanding.
  • Let students know in advance if you’re going to call on them, so they can prepare.
  • Pose some questions verbally and others in writing (e.g., using tools such as Zoom polls, chat, or Kahoot).
  • Provide clear activity instructions and guidelines, including how you expect students to engage.
  • Coach students during competitive or collaborative games or other compelling activities.
  • Avoid overwhelming students by trying to do too much in too short a time.
  • Remain for additional discussion after class ends.

Support Collaboration

  1. How can you structure collaborative experiences such that students will clearly benefit from working with their peers?
  • Encourage in- and out-of-class collaboration using documents in Office 365 and Google Suite.
  • Provide meaningful, 10+ minute assignments for small groups in the classroom or in Zoom Breakout rooms.
  • Form groups according to logical clustering (e.g., time zone, topics of interest, etc.).
  • Share examples of quality discussions and/or expected deliverables, so students can calibrate.
  • Facilitate extended, asynchronous conversation with tools like Canvas Discussions and Microsoft Teams.

Solicit Feedback

  1. How can you check in with students about their feelings of curiosity, energy, and excitement?
  2. How can you motivate good work and accountability through feedback?
  3. How can you gauge students’ awareness of expectations for work?
  • Use whiteboard annotations, chat, and polls to collect measures of students’ state of being.
  • Implement periodic peer evaluation to reinforce student accountability for engaging.
  • Implement regular low stakes assessments to help students take stock of their own understanding and determine where they need to budget time to engage more deeply.