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American Today

Education & Teaching

Head of the Class: How to Build Student Engagement

By Adrienne Frank

School of Communication professor Chris Palmer schooled the teachers this month at a workshop on student engagement.

Sponsored by the Center for Teaching Excellence, the “teacher tune-up” featured tips on how to develop a vibrant, productive, and memorable course.

Below are some of Palmer’s pointers on how to foster student engagement and enthusiasm in the classroom:


Describe the class format. For example: “Our format will combine discussion, presentations, guest speakers, case studies, in-class screenings, and analysis.”

Spell out expected behavior. For example: “More than your physical presence is required in class. I am looking for attentiveness, vitality, and enthusiasm.”

Describe expected professional behavior. For example: “Students are expected to act in a professional manner, meeting deadlines, solving problems, cooperating with classmates, and generally contributing in a positive way to the class.”

First Classes

Learn students’ names. Create an environment that encourages learning and participation by using name tents or taking pictures of students. One workshop participant suggested uploading photos into your e-mail program, so each message is accompanied by the student’s photo.

Ask students to introduce themselves. Have them add something about themselves, like what they plan to do after completing their studies.

Meet one-on-one with students. Your goal is to treat every student as an individual. Make an effort to get to know individual students’ interests and concerns and to acknowledge their individuality.

Establish a grading standard. Build in assignments, quizzes, or other gradable events early in the semester so students can judge your reaction to their work.

Classroom Atmosphere

Convey your passion. Many professors like to walk among the students, be physically active and animated, and use their whole body and voice to reflect their fascination with the subject matter.

Encourage high performance. Students should take risks, and teachers should challenge students with more work than they think they can handle, encouraging them to develop high-level critical and analytical thinking skills.

Make every class writing-intensive. Include a variety of writing assignments throughout the term, informal and formal, in-class and out-of-class, “thinking” pieces, interpretive essays, research papers, reports, and journals.

Manage large lecture-based classes. Set a box by the door for feedback, and begin or end your lectures with items from the box. Make eye contact and don’t teach to the front of the room or only to a select group of students.

Classroom Specifics

Show up early for class. Greet students and engage them in conversation. Arrive meticulously prepared, with backup plans and extra magic markers or chalk.

Take roll. Most students prefer their professors to care enough that they want their students to attend. This helps you and the students learn names and build a sense of community.

Start with a student summary of the last class. Ask a student to summarize the main points from the last class. This provides continuity and helps students with oral communication.

Complete the class. Reinforce and underscore the two or three key messages or learning points you’d like the students to leave with. Have students write a “minute paper,” asking them “What is the most significant thing you learned today?”

End class on time. Show consideration for the value of the students’ time.

Classroom Interactions

Reassure students you will circle back to them. If two or more students raise their hands at the same time, reassure the students not selected that you will come back to them.

Find a student’s strength. If one student is adept at a skill set, point it out and have an expectation for the student to be the “expert.” This raises the student in the esteem of classmates and encourages the student to stay abreast of the topic.

Encourage shy students to speak. Protect the soft-spoken and encourage shy students to speak. Don’t allow the long-winded or loud students to dominate.

Listen actively to students during discussions. Indicate that you are totally committed to listening and understanding what each student has to say by nodding, smiling, and maintaining eye contact. Give critical feedback, but look for ways to compliment the students for their observations.

Ask early for feedback from students. One month into the class ask for feedback from the class. It will give you valuable information about what is and is not working, allowing you to tweak what you are doing. Always report back to the class on what you learned from the feedback and the changes you intend to make as a result.

Beyond the Classroom

Manage your office hours. Encourage students to drop by even if they don’t have specific questions. Leave your door open during office hours unless you are discussing a personal issue with a student. Have a sign-up sheet on your door so students don’t have to wait.

Reach out to students who miss a class. Contact any students who don’t show up to class to find out if they need help.

Respond to e-mails and calls from students. Respond promptly—within 24 hours—to student e-mails and messages. If you can’t fully respond right away, write a brief response saying you will do so in a few days.

Give students feedback on papers. Provide meaningful comments on homework assignments. Students appreciate rigorous, detailed feedback that is constructive and encouraging.

Submit short proposals early. Have students submit short proposals about papers and projects well before due dates; offer extensive feedback to keep them on track.

Call the parents of outstanding students. Toward the end of the semester, select the top half dozen students in your class, and ask their permission to call their parents so you can tell them how well their son or daughter has done in your class.