Student Engagement in the Classroom


Here we’ll use the definition offered by Claire Howell Major and Elizabeth F. Barkley in their book Engaged Teaching: A Handbook for College Faculty. Student engagement is the “mental state students are in while they are learning, at the intersection of thinking and feeling” (p.119).


A student-centered learning environment is one where students are actively engaged with course content, their peers, and the instructor. But many students, particularly first-year students, may come to college with the expectation that their instructors are the arbiter of knowledge and that their role is to sit passively, take notes, and study independently. This preconception about what a college-level course is supposed to look like, can create a barrier to student engagement and prevent students from initially participating in more innovative learning activities (Ellis, 2015). The imperative to improve engagement within a classroom context is even stronger when we consider that students who report meaningful interactions with their instructors and peers demonstrate higher gains in learning (Endo & Harpel, 1982). The purpose of this resource is to introduce small changes that can create meaningful and intentional connections between you and your students, and increase student engagement with course content. 


To begin with, instructors can cultivate a sense of student engagement by introducing themselves as individuals and not just as instructors (Nunn, 2019). During the first few class sessions, it is important for instructors to convey genuine enthusiasm for the course and for their students, and to demonstrate their own active engagement with their discipline. This can occur through telling brief stories about one’s path into their field, showing photographs from research trips, or offering small, local tidbits such as where the “best” cup of coffee on campus is.


As you consider selecting specific teaching tactics or learning activities to address student engagement issues, it is helpful to first identify the kind of engagement you are seeking from students. What, specifically, is the nature of the problem you and your students are experiencing? Is in-class attendance low? Are students reluctant to engage in discussion? Or are students struggling to participate in in-class activities? There are three broad categories of student engagement:


Kind of engagement What it can look like
Student-to-student engagement Having students work collaboratively, discuss, or build community connections that will strengthen their feeling of belonging in a course.
Student-with-content engagement Students demonstrating their understanding of a course text or concept, asking questions to stretch that understanding, or making connections between course content and experiences outside of class
Student-to-instructor engagement Students coming to student hours (office hours), answering or asking questions during an open Q&A time, or providing real-time feedback to an instructor through non-verbal cues (e.g. eye contact, head nodding, etc…)


Before you review the application options below, take a moment to review your course’s student learning outcomes to make sure that your chosen intervention supports your overall goals for your course. 


Instructional Contexts:

The suggestions below are best-suited to face-to-face or hybrid teaching, but other contexts are highlighted where applicable.

Things to consider:

Particularly in larger classes, students may believe that attendance and participation are synonymous- that merely being present counts. But an engaged classroom is one where students are active participants, with clearly-defined roles and tasks that need to be accomplished. In large classes, small-group activities may be an ideal choice to improve student engagement. Studies suggest that small-group activities promote student mastery of material, enhance critical thinking skills, provide rapid feedback for the instructor, and facilitate the development of affective dimensions in students, such as students’ sense of self-efficacy and learner empowerment (Cooper and Robinson, 2001)[1]. Whether you choose small-group activities are not, it is important that you clearly communicate your expectations for student engagement in the classroom, both at the beginning of the semester and throughout the term. Consider defining how participation in your course looks. It’s important to communicate your definition of participation in your syllabus, during class time, and continue to reiterate your expectations throughout the semester in class and during your student hours.


Student-to-student engagement challenges
  • Think-pair-share – In this simple exercise, the instructor poses a question or problem to the class. After giving students time to consider their response (think), the students are asked to partner with another student to discuss their responses (pair). Pairs of students can then be asked to report their conclusions and reasoning to the larger group (share), which can be used as a starting point to promote discussion in the class as a whole (Angelo and Cross, 1993). This exercise helps promote engagement because students feel greater responsibility for participation when paired with one other student; lack of participation becomes obvious and problematic. In addition, the inclusion of “think” time and the initial opportunity to talk about a response with a single peer reduces the anxiety some students feel about responding to instructor prompts.
  • Comment Templates- Offer students a discussion or commenting “template” that goes into detail about how to engage each other with civility. Include items like “address using first names,” “make eye contact,” and “restate the comment you are responding to prior to responding.”
  • Note-taking Pairs- Designate time during several class sessions for students to review their notes collaboratively from the past few class sessions. Give them specific prompts to review with each other, and try to shuffle students up so that they are working with different peers each time. 
Student-with-content engagement challenges
  • Minute paper – This classroom assessment technique (Classroom Assessment Technique Teaching Guide) can also be used to promote student engagement (Angelo and Cross, 1993). At the end of a class activity or class time, students are asked to spend one to three minutes writing the main concepts or ideas presented as well as questions that remain. These papers can serve multiple purposes: they can be used by the instructor as a formative assessment technique, they can serve as a tool to promote metacognition, asking students to consider what they do and don’t understand, and they can be used as the basis for small or large group discussion. As with the think-pair-share technique, the minute paper gives students time to compose and articulate their thoughts, increasing their comfort with asking questions or entering discussion.
  • Muddiest point paper – This modified version of the minute paper asks students to articulate the concept that is most unclear to them at a given point in the class (Angelo and Cross, 1993). It serves the same functions, and has the same potential uses described for the minute paper.
  • Clicker questions – Questions that can be presented as multiple choice questions are particularly amenable to use with “clickers,” or classroom response systems (e.g. Kahoot, PollEverywhere). All students in the class are asked to choose a response to the question, and the results can be displayed in real time. If the instructor wishes, student responses can be tracked, either to serve as an attendance measure or as a formative assessment tool. This approach has the benefit of broad student participation as they engage in the mental work of answering the question. In addition, clicker questions can be used to foster discussion very effectively (Crouch and Mazur, 2001); if a significant fraction of the class answers incorrectly, then student groups can be asked to discuss before re-voting.
  • Exit Ticket Questions- What? So What? Now What? Students answer these three questions (either in writing or orally) at the end of a class using their notes. 
    • What- a recap of the day’s content. 
    • So what- why does it matter and for whom? 
    • Now what- What are you going to do with this information? 
  • Reading audit- Students respond to the following prompt: Which of the readings/videos that were assigned for today’s session was most useful for your learning and why?
  • Just Google (or TikTok) it- Use student attachment to smartphones to encourage them to search for a topic, idea, or course-related individual on their phones in class. Have them share what results they get. This is a good jumping-off point for discussions about validity of information, search interfaces, etc… 
  • Pre-reading Questions- While there is no set template for preparing reading questions to share with your students as they prepare for class, there are some general principles that you can follow: 
    • Make questions open ended (e.g. How? Why?) rather than asking questions that can be easily answered with one or two words. 
    • Ask students to relate content to something else, either another reading or their prior experiences. 
    • Tie the questions as closely as possible to your student learning outcomes and your major assignments.
Students-to-instructor engagement challenges
  • Hot zones- Create “participation hot zones,” where students know if they sit, they’ll get called on. Give them a few points for volunteering to sit in the hot seat. Bonus: you can learn names in small batches.
  • Take a vote- Provide moments throughout the semester when students can choose between two pieces of content, two topics to explore, or two case studies to evaluate. Make a plan for how to engage the students whose choice was not the winning vote (e.g. give them time to explain why they chose the other option, mix them up with those who did choose the selected option and task those students with drawing them in, etc…)  
  • Name cards- Have students in larger classes write their names (in large print!) on pieces of paper hung over their desks or the backs of chairs, so that you can call on students by name as much as possible. 
  • Equity cards- Make a stack of playing-card style cards generated from students’ pictures (from the class roll). You can shuffle these and call on people at random from the card pile. Think of this as a gamified version of cold-calling that has the added bonus of making it easier to memorize student’s names.
  • Student hours or help hours- Encourage students to visit you in office hours by calling them something else. Meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups is a great way to engage with students more organically, but some students are unsure what office hours are really for. A quick name-change can increase attendance.


Angelo, T. and Cross, K (1993). Classroom Engagement Techniques, 2nd Ed. Jossey-Bass

Barkley, E. and Howell Major, C. (2022). Engaged Teaching: A Handbook for College Faculty, Jossey-Bass. 

Cooper, J. & Robinson, P. (2000). Getting Started: Informal Small‐Group Strategies in Large Classes. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. 17 – 24.

Ellis (2015), “What discourages Students from Engaging with Innovative Instructional Methods: Creating a Barrier Framework” Innovations in  Higher Education 40:111–125 DOI 10.1007/s10755-014-9304-5

Endo, J. J., & Harpel, R. L. (1982). The effect of student–faculty interaction on students’ educational outcome. Research in Higher Education, 16(2), 115–138.

Nunn, L. (2019) Teaching the Whole Student: College Belonging is a Gift not an Accomplishment. Innovations in Teaching and Learning, vol.11.