Engage your Students

Engagement is essential for learning. In order to maintain interest, manage a working knowledge, and eventually master a topic, skill, concept or idea, students need opportunities and environments that support reflection, practice, constructive feedback, and collaboration.  (University of Delaware – Center for Teaching and Assessment of Learning)

An often-repeated quotation about learning comes from Chickering & Gamson (1987):  “Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write reflectively about it, relate it to past experiences, and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.”  Employing active learning strategies is one way to promote student engagement and deeper learning.

What is active learning?

What is active learning?

In an active learning class, students are actively engaged in the learning process. “Active” in this context means being cognitively active (i.e., when we categorize information, rank, relate, discuss, teach etc.) There are endless ways we can actively engage our students in the classroom – for example through problem solving, class discussions, role-playing, simulations and concept mapping. See here for a list of active learning activities arranged by complexity and class time commitment.

What are the benefits of active learning?

There is a large evidence-base that supports the benefits of active learning. Active learning:

      • Improves student outcomes
      • Fosters critical thinking and problem solving skills
      • Gives students ownership of their learning and build life-long learners
      • Fosters positive attitudes towards learning
      • Makes learning visible so we know when to scaffold the learning process and provide feedback

Why is active learning effective?

Neuroscience has shown that learning occurs when many neural pathways are activated at the same time. The more ways we work with something to be learned, the better we learn it. Active learning, in other words, promotes higher order thinking and fosters deep learning or learning that will be retained for a long time. Interested in neuroscience and active learning? See The Neuroscience of Active Learning – Writing Across the Curriculum (cuny.edu)

John Biggs (1999) described the benefit of active learning by comparing two students with different approaches to learning in a lecture-only based class. Susan who is motivated, comes prepared, listens actively, and asks questions, versus Robert who is less motivated, does not come prepared, may or may not listen, and does not ask questions. The result? Only Susan benefits from this lecture-based class even though we wouldn’t know. Asking students to work with the material by having them solve a problem, summarize the most important points, or take a side in a debate, benefit both learners, gives them ownership of their own learning and allows us to “see” the learning that is or isn’t taking place so we can step in and provide the appropriate feedback and guidance.

Considerations When Choosing Active Learning Activities

Students may be working actively with the material though not learning what they are supposed to learn. It is important to be mindful and deliberate with the tasks you are asking your students to engage in, and ensure they match your learning outcomes (see section titled Course (Re)Design).

The following ideas will help ensure that your learning activities are effective and purposeful:

      • Course alignment: Ensure that the activity is aligned with the learning outcomes of the class or unit. How will this exercise help them solidify their understanding or practice the skill they are supposed to develop?
      • Blooms Taxonomy: Make sure the activity you are asking the students to do encourages the appropriate level of thinking. If you want your students to summarize or evaluate, make sure this is in fact what you are asking them to do.
      • Emotional safety vs. participation: Consider the balance between psychological safety for all students while ensuring individual accountability when you design active learning activities. In other words, make sure all your students participate while fostering a friendly learning environment. There should be no free rides in active learning. Assigning roles to students, asking them to do or think and prompt them to prepare to share, is a good way to ensure individual accountability. See some ideas here.
      • Practice time: Keep in mind that the more time you give your students to practice the wanted skills the better prepared they will be for the assessment.
      • Feedback and scaffolding: Make sure you gather information from your students as they are working on your learning activities, and provide appropriate feedback to scaffold and improve their learning process.

Examples of active learning activities

More resources

The Dawson Active Learning Community of Practice (DALC) Dawson-D-Logo-Large


9 benefits of active learning and why your college should try it – from Nureva

Active learning – from the University of Minnesota

Facilitating Discussion

Cultivating Community with a Pedagogy of Play Dawson-D-Logo-Large

What will improve a student’s memory? – from American Educator




We want motivated students because they work harder and smarter, learn in a deep way and make the classroom environment more exciting. So, what can we do to help out students become motivated in their learning? Motivational theories provide us with the following guidelines (Mckeatchie, 2011):

      • Create a psychologically safe learning environment. We can’t learn if our bodies are in ”fight or flight” mode.
      • Recognize that human beings appreciate control and autonomy. Provide choice for your students. For example, give students a choice of three different submission dates or assignment topics. (Self-determination Theory)
      • Foster intrinsic motivation by proving the right amount of challenge, arouse students’ curiosity, engage them with active learning and show your own enthusiasm for the course. (Intrinsic vs, Extrinsic motivation theory)
      • Provide extrinsic reward that has a focus on informative feedback to help students improve for next time around (Intrinsic vs, Extrinsic motivation theory).
      • Make the value of the course known. Explicitly show students why they are learning what they are learning and why it will be relevant to them in the future. Likewise, explicitly state the goals and learning outcomes of the course, provide examples of what a good performance looks like and how they are being evaluated (Expectancy-Value Theory).
      • Set high expectations but provide support and opportunities for practice so that students can achieve a successful outcome. (Expectancy-Value Theory). Make sure the task you are asking is within the students’ zone of proximal development.
      • Foster adaptive attributions by helping students attribute failure to effort and not ability. Encourage their effort and the importance of learning strategies and help them re-frame their thinking (Attribution Theory).
      • Likewise, help foster a growth mindset by encouraging effort rather than innate ability (Growth Mindset)

More resources

Motivating students – from Vanderbilt University

Motivation – from the Education Hub

Actionable strategies for increasing student motivation and engagement – from Gettingsmart.com

Making the most of the first day of class

Making the most of the first day of class

The first class with your students is the perfect time to set the stage for the type of learning environment that you want to foster over the course of the semester. You will have a room full of nervous, and hopefully excited students and you have their attention! Mckeachie (2006) describes a number of excellent ideas to make that first meeting as effective and fun as possible. This site provides a summary:

    • More resources

Classroom icebreakers – from Tophat

Last Modified: January 15, 2024