Creating Engaging Environments


Encourage Student-Student Interactions

Research has indicated that student retention is optimized when voices other than that of the instructor is heard.  Furthermore, students learn important speaking skills when this behavior is encouraged.  Additionally, classrooms that encourage student to student interactions facilitate knowledge construction.  Chickering and Gamson (1987) also indicate that learning environments that engage students and encourage student to student interactions lead to greater learning.  For example, role playing activities, case studies, and simulations encourage this type of interaction.


Solicit Student Input

Students more often feel a sense of ownership or belonging when their ideas are incorporated into the classroom discussion.  Garcia and Pintrich (1996) suggest that environments tended to be perceived as more engaging when students are provided opportunities for input. Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, Whitt, et al. (2005) have also suggested that getting to know students and using their input builds a sense of community and facilitates the learning process.


Provide Clear Expectations/Standards for Student Performance

Tinto (1987) found that productive learning environments that are characterized by or include a discussion of expectations for student behavior tend to be very productive and engaging.  Ryan and Deci (2000) suggest that communicating clear expectations and constructing assignments and experiences so that students are sufficiently challenged sparks their sense of self-determination and aids in learning.  For example, communicating that students have historically performed well on this task and that you can too if you approach this assignment in a systematic way.


Create a Positive Classroom Environment from the Get-Go

Researchers such as Carol Dweck and Barbara Fredrickson have found that when students are in a positive mood and frame of mind they are more engaged in learning. In addition, students tend to be more creative and better at problem solving. One way to create a positive classroom environment is do invite students to recall one moment or event that went well over the weekend, the week, or the day of the class. Then, have students savor the experience—recalling the vividness of the moment or event, including their feelings and sensory experiences. Students may also be invited to share those experiences with their peers. The instructor can thing move into course discussion.


Use Humor Appropriately

Kaplan and Pascoe (1977) found that use of humor significantly improved retention of materials.  Ziv (1988) and (Wanzer, Frymier, and Irwin, 2010) also found humor to have positive effects on cognitive abilities and learning within classroom environments.


Engage Through Routine and Ongoing Feedback

Introduce the role of feedback as a way of monitoring and exploring learning and engagement, which go hand in hand. The more students are engaged the likely they are to learn. One way to increase engagement is through routine and ongoing feedback. One way to do this is to say: “An important aspect of our class will be to have an ongoing conversation about two things. The first relates to the content itself. What is being learned? What specifically has come across for you that is either new or represents an evolvement of something you already know? The second thing is our process in class. How is the process we are using to learn the content? What is working? What could we do differently that would help with deepening the connection to the course content? When it comes to feedback about engagement (process), keep in mind that students may be apprehensive out of fear of hurting the instructor’s feelings or repercussions for speaking up. One way to address this by saying: “When it comes to us talking about how the learning process is going please understand that I value feedback. It is an opportunity to for me to change things up to better fit how you learn. It’s part of my professional development. I’m not perfect and expect to learn along with you. Your feedback is part of my learning process.”


During each class, periodically pause to gain feedback about those two things:

  1. Content/Outcome: What specifically is coming across and being learned? What difference can the learning making for the student?
  2. Engagement: How is the approach of the instructor and the process of learning?

It is then important that the instructor respond to the feedback and make adjustments accordingly. Because we are using routine and ongoing feedback adjustments may occur class to class.


Acknowledge First

When students contribute to discussions and perhaps have interpretations of course material that are inaccurate (e.g., a student provides a definition that is incorrect) or potentially inflammatory to others, acknowledge the student first before offering a correction or different view. Acknowledgment involves attending to what students have communicated both verbally and nonverbally. It lets them know that their experience, points of view, and actions have been heard and noted. It also serves as a prompt by encouraging further communication. A basic way to acknowledging is to say, “Uh huh” or “I see.” Another way is to reflect back, without interpretation, what was said. For example, one might say, “You feel strongly about that” or “I heard you say this issue makes you angry.” Acknowledgment can also be conveyed by attending to nonverbal behaviors. For example, one might say, “I noticed your expression when you spoke about your experience with the topic.” Acknowledgment increases the likelihood that the student will feel hear and subsequently be open to the modification of their answer or difference of opinion. An example of using acknowledgement before offering a different perspective might be, “This sounds like an important issue for you. And I wonder if there are other points of view that are different but also valid.” Or, “Thank you for your answer. This is a tricky concept that students often find confusing. Let’s see if I can clarify it a little better.”

Some specific ways to acknowledge include paraphrasing and summarizing. Paraphrasing can be used as a way to confirm what has been said by using a condensed, nonjudgmental version of what the youth or other involved has said. Summarizing offers a way to check out what has been said by pulling together what a student or other has said over a period of time (i.e., a few minutes of conversation or different segments from different points of a conversation). Summarizing provides a brief synopsis to acknowledge, clarify, and gain focus.

Use Positive Language

Language is a vehicle for learning and change. Consider everyday language as it relates to interactions with students and colleagues. Although certain terms are an important part of various disciplines (e.g., pathology, rule, cure, etc.), when such terms are used to in the context of engagement they can inhibit learning. Instead of viewing describing a student as “resistant” consider the student’s behavior as communication about his or her learning style. Then try to generate alternatives views that will create opportunities to engage the student. Using the example above, the student might be viewed as, “having a persistent difference of opinion.” After reframing the student’s form of communicating or relating, consider ways of engaging the student differently. Also consult with colleagues to generate more ideas. Below is a list of words that can both inhibit and promote engagement.
























































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Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987).  Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education.  AAHE Bulletin, 39(7), 3-7.

Garcia, T., & Pintrich, P.R. (1996). The effects of autonomy on motivation and performance in the college classroom. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 21, 477-486.

Kaplan, R. M., and Pascoe, G. C. (1977), “Humorous lectures and humorous examples: Some effects upon comprehension and retention,” Journal of Educational Psychology, 69, 61-65.

Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J. H., Whitt, E. J. & Associates. (2005). Student success in college: Creating conditions that matter.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000).  Self-determination theory and the facilitation of instrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being.  American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

Tinto, V . (1987). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ziv, A. (1988), “Teaching and learning with humor: Experiment and replication.” Journal of Experimental Education, 57, 5-15.