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  • Writer's pictureDr. Caitlin Barnes

What Does Student Engagement Even Mean?

Updated: Feb 27, 2021

I think we have plenty of intrinsic motivation to get our students engaged. There’s a reason it is embedded in every educational conference and textbook on the market today. Unfortunately, student “engagement” appears to be a buzzword; a staple of any classroom which educators must aspire to have, but no one can actually explain what to do.

Countless times, I’ve attended webinars, workshops and even conferences all centered around this mysterious phrase “student engagement”. The presented ideas seem magical, like they will instantly fix all of the issues in my classroom as long as I can “engage” the students.

But as many times as I’ve attended keynote presentations or professional development sessions on student engagement, I struggle to come away with tangible and realistic practices I can actually implement into my classroom. It’s the same experience over and over. I feel motivated and inspired by the speakers to finally, successfully, get my students engaged!!

But then I turn around and say to myself… Wait, what was it I’m supposed to do?

Let’s forget about the stress of engaging our students for a moment and do a little shouting.

If you could summarize what an engaged student in the classroom looks like, what would they be doing?

Go ahead, shout it out at me. By all means, shout it out!

Or, for all introverts out there, feel welcome to chuckle on the inside and make a nice list.

I’m going to guess you said one of these things:

  • Paying attention

  • Taking notes

  • Asking questions

  • Caring about or interested in the content

  • Participating

And you’d be right. Engaged students tend to be one of these things. But take another look at that list. Are any of those line items something the teacher has control over? Nope. That is why student engagement is such an elusive topic, because it is the students who must engage. The action is done by the student.

I’ve read enough Eckhart Tolle to know that we as human beings can only control our own actions.

So, what can the teacher do? We need an action that will get our students to pay attention, to ask questions, to take notes and participate. But it’s more than just an action, because our action must cause a reaction from the students. Let me share with you a recurring message found in How Learning Works:

  • Motivation refers to the personal investment that an individual has in reaching a desired state or outcome (Maehr & Meyer, 1997).

  • Students’ motivation generates, directs, and sustains what they do learn (Ambrose, et al., 2010).

  • The importance of motivation in the context of learning cannot be overstated (Ames, 1990).

We must motivate students to engage. Motivation is the action, not engagement. And that is something we have control over and can influence. The idea that we, as educators, just have to motivate our students can shift our mindset in the classroom entirely. Instead of feeling like we have to be some sort of circus performer, forced to do things way out of our comfort zone, we can now step to the side and simply show our students the door, which they must walk through on their own.

Now that we’ve determined that the role of the instructor is to motivate students to take a personal investment in the class, let’s discuss the ways in which we can accomplish this.

Student Engagement Strategy #1:

Redesign your lectures to connect with your students

Some of us teach our students in the same manner we were taught. It is very common to try to just peak interest in the topic itself. We try to find the coolest parts about the content and push that out to motivate students.

But we can’t assume because we are interested in the topic that our students will be, too. If you feel you are doing everything you can to motivate and engage your students, and it’s not working, it may be because you are trying to motivate them in ways that would only motivate you.

This is why it is critical for us to make the content relevant and worth the time they invest in it. If you can find ways to connect content to relatable, commonplace interactions from their daily lives, you will be more likely to connect with them on a personal level.

This includes story telling, using case studies, and providing as many real-world examples of how the content affects them.

One of the most common questions students will ask you is “why do I need to know this?”

Firstly, if we can’t answer that question with a solid and meaningful answer, then we must ask the question... why is it being taught? But secondly, if you can answer it, you should spell it out for students as quickly as possible.

One of the most notable characteristics of Gen Z students includes an acute awareness of what is happening in the world. They are driven not by a paycheck, but by how they can contribute to their community or to society after they graduate. If there is no obvious reason why they should care about the topic and the course, then they are already disconnected.

Be able to explain not only why the course is important, but also why each activity is important. Describe how the coursework relates to the goals of the course and how it will help them meet those objectives.

It is not about changing the structure of activities or assessments to what you think may appeal to students. it is simply about being relatable. How would you describe this course to your colleagues, or to a friend or family member? It may help to pull from those casual conversations and present it in the same way to your students.

A great way to relate to your students is to use storytelling to connect the content to their lives. Make it hit closer to home.

To help students feel personally connected to the content, share your own personal journeys or experiences, or provide case studies and explain how it impacted other people. Showcase how the content integrates with what is happening here and now, using real world examples.

After all, we find more and more of our movies for entertainment somehow “based on a true story.” Even loosely-based, people connect with the real people who may have lived those lives. Do not underestimate the power of storytelling.

And truly, if you want to connect the content to students, try to get to know your students on an individual and personal level. Students will connect with the content if you customize the message to directly tie to the world they see around them.

Student Engagement Strategy #2:

Redesign your activities to be action-based.

Creating online activities can be just as elusive as student engagement. Mostly because it is outside of the comfort zone of familiarity for most educators.

But if the goal is to motivate your students to participate, the best motivator is assigning participation for a grade.

Now, participation itself means the students must do something. When it comes to student engagement, reflect on what meaningful action the students should take.

How do we do this?

The first step is to establish a rock-solid objective for the activity. Be sure to use action verbs like the ones listed in Bloom’s taxonomy, and have clear assessment goals.

When you write an objective as it is meant to be, you’ll have both what the student will be doing as well as how to assess mastery of that action.

See, already we are inspiring action!

The second step is to create or find an activity to meet the objectives you’ve just written. If you want to create something from scratch that is unique and customized to your content, I suggest use of the inquiry-based 5E lesson design.

The 5E’s are:

  • Engage

  • Explore

  • Explain

  • Elaborate

  • Evaluate

I highly recommend this strategy, especially for those creating lessons for the first time.

In short, you create a hook for students to capture their attention, then explain how it relates to the content. After this, the students get to work reviewing, writing, researching or other actions you have selected for them. Once they complete those actions, they reflect on their own learning and then are assessed by the instructor.

While these 5 E’s lend themselves really well to the math and science disciplines, you can use them for any discipline to structure your action-based assignments. The 5E model has been around for years. However, if you have never seen it, it can take some time to think through the process and how it works for your content.

If you want to find an existing activity, I recommend open education resources. There are free repositories of lessons within Merlot, or OER Commons. Textbooks are getting more and more prepared for the online audience, with plenty of resources, activities, lessons, videos and presentations to help get the ball rolling.

Additionally, one of the best ways to keep your students engaged with activities or homework assignments is to insert variety into what students are doing.

Consistency is important in an online course so students don’t miss important deadlines. However, that does not mean the assignments have to be repetitive.

For example, if you have an assignment due every week you can switch up what the students complete each week. Week one might be a case study review and online discussion. Week two could be creating a PowerPoint presentation to demonstrate their understanding of the content that week. Week three could be a hands-on activity, where students construct something, demonstrate a topic on video, or interview a subject matter expert.

The assignments are consistently due each week and students get to complete new experiences throughout the duration of the course.

Creating well-written objectives and constructing an action-based lesson, perhaps utilizing the 5E model, takes a bit of trial and error to master. It takes thought and time to strategically plan.

The essential point here is to have students do more than just reading and taking quizzes.

Ask questions and solicit responses, begin conversations and guide the discussion, have students explore case studies and talk with each other about implications. Incorporating various action verbs is an excellent way to get your students more involved in the work throughout the course.

It might also be an excellent outlet for your own creativity.

Student Engagement Strategy #3:

Create opportunities for interaction.

The research supporting student interactions within any class, not just online but in-person as well, is overwhelming. It’s not just interaction among students, but student and instructor interactions. Students learn not only through text and research, but also through listening to others’ thoughtful contributions to the course. It's so important, I recommend it as one of the top 5 things to do in an online course.

It’s fairly simple to do this in-person, as you can give prompts and encourage students to discuss in the class. The instructor guides the conversation and encourages new considerations.

These meaningful interactions must be carefully planned in an online class. There are two common ways online courses build interaction among students, which are discussion boards and group assignments.

Students are getting more and more familiar with how to interact through online group work, and discussion boards have been around forever. These are go-to components for online collaboration and interactions.

If you are new to online coursework and are looking for an easy way for students to network or interact, then group work and discussion boards are the perfect place to start.

Additionally, every online faculty member should post the rules for professional and appropriate behavior in the course. It is very rare when an instructor has to explain to students to be fully clothed in an in-person course, but from personal experience I can tell you that this is a common conversation for online faculty and their online students creating videos for presentations or other assignments.

I created Netiquette guidelines instructors can incorporate into their class for free, due to high demand and extreme importance in our ever-growing online world. Send us an email to get a free copy of the Netiquette guidelines.

Aside from Netiquette, there are some more innovative trends in the category of student interactions - one of which is to embrace the hashtag through social media platforms. Using a course-specific hashtag makes it easier than ever for students to find legitimate resources online and post them to the course feed.

There are also new apps, like Flipgrid, that take discussions to a new level by incorporating customizable video chats.

Video assignments are a great way for the students to get to know each other. We all know that inflection is often lost in text-based conversations, which can lead to misunderstandings. Video captures inflection, but also student personality and energy.

Students can visualize and relate to others’ humor or passions. Students opposed to showing themselves on camera don’t have to show their faces. They could submit an audio file or flip the camera around. I usually have one or two students who really like the option to not show their faces.

[Check back for my upcoming blog about video assignments! Coming soon!]

Additionally, instructors must learn how to perfect discussion board prompts and carefully plan out all interactions so that the objectives are met head-on. Just like in-person interactions and discussions, the instructor cannot simply sit back and remove themselves from the action.

It is important to remain present in conversations and guide students to new ideas. The best part about remaining present in student interactions is that it also checks the box for student to instructor interactions at the same time.

Student Engagement Strategy #4:

Build a community of learners.

My sister teaches third grade, and every year she spends the first two weeks of class teaching the students the rules of the class. Not just where things are and what they will be doing, but creating an environment of accountability and community with the students. No bullying is tolerated, speaking out of turn is addressed, and good behavior is rewarded with kind words (or sometimes stickers).

After a strict first couple of weeks where she consistently demonstrates appropriate behavior and establishes the ground rules for the course, she and the students move into a rhythm of equal parts trust and respect.

Although mistakes are made sometimes, mostly the students do not want to disappoint their teacher or their classmates by behaving badly.

This is truly a community of learners.

It’s common practice in K-12 for teachers to ask their students what good rules of the classroom should be. Each student gets to choose a rule they feel would best benefit the classroom community for the rest of the year. It is such a simple, yet entirely effective way for students to not only feel part of a community, but to take ownership of their own class. They are less likely to break a rule they made themselves!

I tell you this because higher education can learn a lot from K-12. But, I also want you to remember that list of characteristics we made that describes an engaged student.

Do you think a student will fully join in and provide an opinion in discussion if the student is worried about how the other students in the room will react?

Do you think students will ask questions if they think you will act like the question is ridiculous?

Or if the other students will think they are not smart enough to know everything?

All of those fun, interactive discussions and hands-on activities will fall flat if your students are too scared or uncomfortable to talk.

Both the crucial role of the instructor and activities conducted the first week of class can help build a community of learners within your course. You can have the coolest activities on the planet, utilize the most popular apps, have fantastic discussion prompts, and be the most knowledgeable person in the field in your area and still not have engaged students. And the reason is very simple.

Community engagement is not about you, and it’s not about the activities. It’s about the student experience.

Students must feel safe to discuss their ideas with others in the class and with the instructor. This begins with upholding the interaction rules established by the teacher and students, along with complete acceptance, and awareness of, the diversity within your class.

Foster an environment of respect and success, and students will be more likely to participate in activities. If you let them know you care about them, they will feel accountable for the actions they make in the course.

Student Engagement Strategy #5:

Let the students have a voice.

This one is summarized into one magnificent action: give the students ownership of their work.

A great way to give students ownership is to ask them their thoughts! Student feedback is crucial to guide the development of the course. You could post polls for quick feedback.

But it doesn’t stop there.

The next step is to actually implement the changes the students requested (if they are good, valid suggestions of course).

When your students see that you value their feedback it not only makes them feel good, it also builds trust between students and the instructor.

Another way to motivate students to participate in activities is by letting them choose how they demonstrate mastery of the material. We all know that not all students do well on multiple choice exams. They are great for some, but not all. Let your students choose whether they submit a research report, or a narrated PowerPoint presentation, or a video submission.

Now, I can actually hear your comments as you doubt the equitable nature of allowing students to turn in whatever they want. There is more to it, and it all goes back to the objectives.

For example, in my own class, I have an assignment where students have to discuss the considerations for living on another planet. I give them full freedom to submit any of those options I just mentioned, as well as other suggestions like creating a travel brochure outlining the pros and cons of living somewhere other than earth.

No matter which option they choose, I have strict expectations and criteria for their submissions. Every submission must provide the same information so that everyone is covering the same important content. It also ensures that they all meet the objectives I’ve established.

But the results are astounding.

Semester after semester, my students rave about how this is their favorite assignment. Not only are they hitting all of my criteria, they get really into it and end up spending far more time creating this assignment than any others. They go above and beyond the required expectations.

If they had just chosen the research report, they would have been done much faster! But this creative freedom means they have taken ownership of it. It inspires their passions. They enjoy the creativity. They are proud of the final product. And I truly enjoy seeing what they come up with each semester. I look forward to it every year.

As an added benefit, the students will remember this activity and all they learned by completing it for years to come.

At the end of the day, engagement is not just one thing you do. It is not something you do once and then it’s done. Engagement is a commitment to motivate your students throughout the duration of the course. To inspire them, and to encourage them to do well.

If you are serious about engaging your students, then consider all aspects of your course to give your students an engaging experience, not just an engaging lecture or engaging activity.

It’s true that if a student does not want to be active in the class there’s truly nothing we can do. Because the action to engage lies within the student.

But for those students who can be inspired to succeed with proper motivation, your actions as the instructor - and, of course, your strategic course design - can make a lasting impact.

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