Jonathan Ware, Department of Sociology

In my Social Psychology class, we had just finished an in-class activity where my students were applying theories of power and how group structures play a role in interpersonal power relations. My students were segmented into groups of three and four and spent roughly 15 minutes completing the activity and were discussing among their groups. When we came back together as a class, I asked what I thought was a simple question: have you seen power imbalances in the groups you belong to? My question was met with dead silence, several of my students scrolling on their phones or attending to whatever was on their laptop screens. This was a response I had become all too familiar with this quarter. This apathy from my students had me wondering how other instructors went about improving student engagement.

What is Student Engagement?

Student engagement can be understood as the time and energy expended by learners in educational endeavors and associated pedagogical practices taken by institutions (Kuh et al. 2008). Zepke (2015) posits that student engagement is also the socio-cultural ecosystem wherein engagement links students’ experiences and prior knowledge with course material and the wider community outside of the classroom. Understood this way, engagement then incorporates emotional and cognitive factors.

Common Strategies

In their synthesis of literature on student engagement, Taylor and Parsons (2011) identified six broad elements that comprise best practices for improving student engagement:

  1. Interaction: This includes learning from and with each other and moving beyond “the sage on the stage,” providing myriad opportunities for dialogue/conversation, and connecting learners with experts and expertise from outside of the classroom.
  2. Exploration: Employing inquiry-based and problem-based learning in the classroom where the learner is able to find answers for themselves. You can engage more in class by having students learn by doing than solely just reading about or being lectured about a topic.
  3. Relevancy: Relating what is covered in class to real-world scenarios; this helps to illustrate to learners why this material is worthy of their time and attention. Activities and curricula should demonstrate the three R’s: relevancy, responsibility, and reality.
  4. Multimedia and Technology: Including a range of media in the classroom and incorporating technology into curricula can help provide learners more accessible and relevant information from experts and sources outside of the classroom. Moreover, these tools can also help students be more autonomous in the learning process and can simultaneously help develop information literacy and critical thinking skills. However, it is important to understand that technology is a tool and like other tools in an instructor’s toolkit, they must be used with thoughtful consideration for specific classroom contexts.
  5. Instruction: For more engaged students, pedagogical practices should be constructivist as opposed to dialectic. That is, it should be centered on a substantive relationship between instructor and student where learning is reciprocal and collaborative.
  6. Authentic Assessment: Assessments should be intentional and student-centered, focusing on how students learn. Assessments should also provide learners skills that are transferable to other contexts and should reflect the interests of students in the classroom, not just the instructor. Instructors should also employ a range of assessments that are conducive toward constructive guidance for learners.

It is important to note that each of these elements are interrelated with the others, with specific strategies able to incorporate more than one element at a time. In fact, constructing curricula and assessments with most or all of these elements in mind can better facilitate improvements in student engagement.


Kuh, G.F., Cruce, T.M., Shoup, R., Kinzie, J., and Gonyea, R.M. 2008. “Unmasking the effects of student engagement on first-year college grades and persistence.” The Journal of Higher Education 79(5):540–563.

West, John and Will Turner. 2016. “Enhancing the assessment experience: improving student perceptions, engagement and understanding using online video feedback.” Innovations in Education and Teaching International. 53(4): 400-410. 

Zepke, Nick. 2015. “Student engagement research: thinking beyond the mainstream.” Higher Education Research & Development 34(6):1311-1323.

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on December 5th, 2019.