Revising a Course to Improve Student Engagement
Photo by Danny Meyer, University
First, the bad news: There is no cure-all to improve student engagement.
But that doesn’t mean it’s time to throw up your hands in despair and give up. Student engagement is complex, with several factors that can contribute to your efforts.
I’ve had multiple faculty in our college request that I write something about student engagement, so I’ll outline a few strategies to help you improve student engagement in your classes. But I would also like you to share your own stories about what works or doesn’t work, so let’s use this post as the jumping off point.
Define Your Audience
Let’s consider each of your courses individually. You most likely aren’t going to use the same student engagement strategies for a freshman core course that you would use for a senior-level course for majors in your program.
A good place to start is to develop a student profile for each of your courses. If you really feel like you have a broad range of students in your course, you can maybe create 2-3 profiles, but then you need to cap it. The idea is to help you identify the characteristics of the students in your class. I recommend answering these questions in a student profile:
- Motivation for taking the course
- Previous knowledge about the subject
- Knowledge gaps
- Study habits
Once you’ve done this foundational work, the other pieces will be easier to work on.
Benchmark and Define Success For Your Audience
Take a few minutes to reflect on your course and journal about your student engagement status. What are the students doing? What piques their interest? What would you like to improve?
Just as your student profile varies for each of your courses, so does your definition for success. Identify ways that you can benchmark and measure your success. A lot of times we associate class assessments with the success of your course, but that doesn’t always work when we’re considering student engagement.
Instead, maybe you want to keep track of the number or the types of questions students are asking. Or maybe you want to document the student interactions on discussion boards. Another idea might be to have students estimate the time they invest in group project work. The point is, there are lots of different options.
Consider the 3 Parts of Student Engagement
The Community of Inquiry (commonly referred to as CoI) theoretical framework represents a process for creating a learning experience based on 3 types of student engagement: student-student, student-instructor, and student-content. I’m simplifying it, but CoI is a powerful instrument for helping you identify how you want to improve your course.
When you start considering the 3 types of student engagement, not only will it help you better define success for your course, but it will also help you choose strategies to get there.
For example, if you want students to interact more with you and/or with each other, maybe what you actually want to do is work on building community. And if you want students to engage more with the content, maybe we need to look at some of the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to identify areas where we can add some variety and empower students by giving them options for assessments or activities.
Go Back to Course Design Basics
The bottom line: student engagement is hugely dependent on your course design.
For example, if you haven’t built in any self-assessments or low-stakes assignments, your students may not know that they are struggling. If they don’t know they’re struggling, chances are they probably aren’t asking as many questions.
And yes, it might make you groan to hear this, but it’s also a good idea to go back and review your learning objectives or outcomes. Why? Because if you’ve used Bloom’s Taxonomy to create your objectives or outcomes, you are probably familiar with the Lower Order Thinking Skills (LOTS) and the Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS).
Generally speaking, the LOTS sometimes create fewer opportunities for student engagement. Think about it: LOTS require things like memorizing, defining, comparing, and gathering.
In contrast, the HOTS can be more conducive to doing things: testing, critiquing, building, and programming.
The key is to develop appropriate objectives or outcomes that also lend themselves to student engagement.