Maximising student engagement

Capturing students’ attention is an important element of teaching effectiveness. However, it may sometimes appear as if students are not paying attention, are reluctant or unwilling to raise hands, don’t ask questions or take the initiative, or sit silently, when you ask a question. It may also appear as if some students do not make eye contact with you or try to avoid your gaze when you ask questions. 

It is important to note that some of this could be cultural. In some countries, it may be common for students to ask questions of teachers, to seek clarification or to volunteer their ideas in class. In Switzerland (and in many other countries) this is not so common and so many students are not in the habit of responding to teacher’s questions, or of asking questions when they don’t understand.  In some cultures, making eye-contact with an authority figure is also regarded as rude. So even if students sit quietly and avoid your gaze, it does not mean they are not listening intently.

At the same time, a quiet class can be frustrating for a lecturer, especially if you feel you are not getting feedback on what students understand and on where they are having difficulties.  Here are some ideas that may help you to get students to participate a little more:

  • Students may need time to build the habit of participating in class. If you want class participation, build in some participation activities from the beginning of term and persevere with them for at least a few weeks.  Once students get used to participating it will become easier for them.
  • Sometimes teachers ask rhetorical questions, which they then immediately answer as part of their lecture. So, when teachers then look for student responses, the class often assumes this is another rhetorical question which does not require an answer from them.  If you want students to answer a question in class you may, therefore, need to make that clear to them. Introduce a question by saying something like, “OK, I’m going to ask a question and I’m looking for you to give me the answer”.
  • If you ask a question, give students time to think about it before looking for an answer. You may have to be comfortable with a few moments of ‘awkward silence’, while you wait for students to think, but if you jump in too soon by answering your own question, then they will know next time to just wait until you provide the answer.  If you don’t get any answer at all, then maybe propose a “think, pair, share approach” (described below) rather than volunteering your own answer.  
  • If students are slow to ask questions in public, you can use the SpeakUp app to set up a temporary, anonymous chatroom.  Using this, students can ask questions anonymously and can rate each others questions.  You can set aside a few minutes to address the most popular questions posed by your class that week.
  • If a student asks a question or answers a question, let her or him know their input is valued. Try to avoid responses that suggest the question is redundant (like, “OK, I explained this a minute ago but let me go back over it again”) or that their answer seems stupid. Of course, you do not want to tell a student that an incorrect answer is correct, however you can let them know it is incorrect gently by saying something like, “A lot of people give the same answer – it is quite a common error”, or “You are nearly there, but not quite”. 
  • A student with a question may not know if the question is a good one. In addition they may not be sure how to phrase it. If you ask them to first have a brief discussion with a classmate before asking for questions from the whole class, then they will have a chance to form their question and get feedback on whether it makes sense before speaking up in front of the whole class. This may give them the confidence to speak up (this approach is called “think, pair, share”).
  • In larger classes, you can use “clickers” and “concept tests” to get students to think about the lecture content, to apply it, and to give you feedback on how well they understand the material. 
  • If you do not want to spend time on questions and discussion in class but would still like some student feedback on what they do and don’t understand, ask them at the end of the class to write a short summary of the main points of the lecture and the points they struggled with. These can be left anonymous and collected by you. From the student’s point of view, doing such a summary will help them organise their thoughts and understand the lecture material better. From your point of view it is a great source of anonymous feedback (this approach is called the “one minute paper”).

Students engage for various reasons, but mostly they tend to work more if they see the applicability and utility of what you are asking them to do. You can find some further ideas in “Engaging my students“.