Engaging Students

Enrich the learning environment by actively involving your students in the learning process. The class as a whole will benefit from the many contributions of ideas, perspectives, knowledge, and experiences of one another, in addition to the instructor. Expose students to various ways of thinking and practice the skills together to provide meaningful growth and deeper expansion of knowledge.

The following strategies can shift learners from passive students to active contributors in your class. There are also a variety of strategies that instructors can use in large courses to actively engage students and build a positive sense of community.

Co-create a Shared Learning Community

A sense of belonging and social connectedness are directly linked to student academic achievement and course completion (Eyler, 2018). Your learning community can bring extra layers of belonging with a shared sense of identity, purpose, goals, values, and experiences.

The following tips will help students share parts of themselves, become proactive members, and better understand their role in the learning community.

Form Connections

  • Build in regular interaction and shared experiences. Consider some simple ways to strengthen a sense of community in your course, including dedicating class time for community-building and ice-breakers to share parts of themselves and learn about each other. 
  • Learn about your students directly with a pre-course survey and check in with your students regularly to see if things are working for them. Consider the CTI’s mid-semester feedback program.

Set Clear Expectations Together

Allow students to take some ownership of their learning experience as members of a learning community. They will be more invested and engaged in the content and learning experiences. You can outline any of the following together as a group:

  • Community ground rules, policies, and core values that work for everyone
  • What a successful learning environment looks like
  • Roles of students and Instructors
  • What does participation look like
  • How we will support each other and where to go for help
  • How decisions will be made
  • How our personal goals will be incorporated
  • How we will hold each other accountable
  • What the benefits are of having different minds and perspectives in the community. Differences and disagreements are essential to learning.

Draw from Students

  • Use effective questions to practice and assess critical thinking. Instead of giving students the answers or providing critical thinking in your lectures, help them to practice higher-level thinking and contribute arguments during class. You can also have them practice this using discussion board writing, live polling, or social annotation.
  • Provide safe opportunities for them to share their work and ideas with the class. Spotlight specific students’ great work and reference previous ideas that have been made by individual students throughout the semester. Students will be more engaged and motivated if they see people notice and care about the work they are producing.
  • Incorporate their perspectives, opinions, values, stories, and beliefs into the flow of activity.
  • Tap into their cognitive, psychomotor, and affective domains. Instead of only assessing what they know, consider using class time to demonstrate what they can do, as well as identify their attitudes and values.
  • Help them recognize and express how the content and learning experiences are meaningful to them, relate to their lives, and their utility in the real world (eg. a reflection prompt to share in groups or as a class, a class discussion on how skills will be useful in the field).

Practice skill-building in class

The following are evidence-based pedagogies used for engagement at Cornell:

Increase student motivation and participation

  • Spark intellectual curiosity: Think about what you can do in the first week to leave students with a desire to know more in each class. Try modeling curiosity in all its forms and expressing burning questions about the content. Start each class with a question to explore that students can answer by the end or have large overarching questions to answer by the end of the semester. You can even reward intellectual curiosity and make it something you will be looking for this semester. (e.g. have students pose thoughtful questions during class discussions, lead a discussion, or spark curiosity in classmates on discussion boards, podcasts, or social annotations.)
  • Break up the lessons: Try to change things throughout the period to spark interest, keep attention, and prevent monotony. This can include mixing up any of the following options: discussion, lecture, slides, video, group activities, independent thinking, or writing activities. Instructors will often break them up into 10 or 15-minute segments of the class or even for short 2-5 min activities.
  • Give students choices and options: Provide choices for various activities, assignments, projects, course materials, and/or formats. It can still be equitable as long as the same learning objectives are being met. When it’s a choice, students are more invested and can utilize their interests and strengths as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach. This is also a form of universal design for learning that can address different student accommodations and remove barriers to learning.
  • Acknowledge when things are challenging: Prepare them ahead of time when difficult content is approaching and what resources they have at their disposal to work through it. Provide support to keep them engaged and prevent them from disappearing or blowing something off when it gets too hard. Describe how you and previous students worked through this material in the past.
  • See more ways to increase student motivation and participation.

For those teaching large classes, see additional large lecture engagement ideas.


Chipchase, L., Davidson, M., Blackstock, F., Bye, R., Clothier, P., Klupp, N., Nickson, W., Turner, D., Williams, M. Conceptualizing and measuring student disengagement in higher education: a synthesis of the literature. (2017). International Journal of Higher Education, 6(2). (Accessed on July 26, 2022).

Eyler, J. R. How humans learn: the science and stories behind effective college teaching. (2018). Morgantown, VA: West Virginia University Press.

How to solve the student disengagement crisis. (2022). The Chronicle of Higher Education. (Accessed on July 25, 2022).

McMurtrie, B. A “stunning” level of student disconnection. (2022). Chronicle of Higher Education. (Accessed on July 24, 2022).

Mintz, S. An epidemic of student disengagement. (2022). Inside Higher Ed. (Accessed on July 26, 2022).