Principles of Student Engagement

by MU Instructional Designers
March 21, 2024
10-15 min read

Engagement is essential for learning, and it looks different in different learning environments. Messiah’s Office of Faculty Development defines student engagement as

“…the student’s psychological investment in and effort directed toward learning, understanding, or mastering the knowledge, skills, or crafts that academic work is intended to promote” (section “e” of 6 criteria for teaching).

A useful way to think about student engagement is to break it down into these three elements:

  1. Student-to-Student
  2. Student-to-Content
  3. Student-to-Teacher

Continue reading for some strategies that promote student engagement.

Student to Student Engagement

icons of student figures representing student to student engagement

Student to Student Engagement

Creating space where students can form relationships with each other is vital to sustaining engagement. Students need to check their learning with each other in informal ways in addition to more summative assessment activities. When students have the opportunity to connect, the level of trust that develops can improve the learning environment. When that happens, students are more willing to engage with each other and the content of the course.

Best Practices

Provide Clear Expectations

Students need explicit directions when collaborating for an assignment. In an asynchronous environment, this is even more important since there is less opportunity to ask questions informally. Let students know what behavior is expected, such as netiquette in online discussions or roles in groupwork. In particular, engaging controversial topics requires setting ground rules to create space for all voices to be heard.

Make Collaboration Meaningful

Students need opportunities to work together in order to make meaning from course materials, but those opportunities have to genuinely benefit from a group approach. When assigning a group project, make sure that one of your objectives for the project is to have students work collectively to reach a conclusion, present information, or debate a position. Ideally the project allows a small group of students to report back to the larger class with new knowledge that they can share or a project that allows them to collectively determine a course of action or position. These types of activities benefit from the multiple voices in the group. Everyone has something to contribute, and students can practice various leadership roles within the group.

Scaffold Effective Collaboration

Group Work Design

In addition to establishing clear expectations, you often need to provide supports to help students meet those expectations; students don’t arrive at your class knowing how to work together in a group. They need to have parameters for how group work will be accomplished in your class. This is a valuable life skill they can take with them to future classes and job locations, but they need to learn it first. Try a checklist of group expectations or having the group assign positions to each member, clearly outlining expectations for each position (check out our sample group scaffold activity from DIGL 101 for inspiration).

Group Work Management

In “Let’s Give Our Teaching Language a Makeover,”Jennifer Gonzalez suggests that instead of stating the obvious (that the group is having trouble), you can give students agency by “pausing” and asking the group members to articulate the problems and then brainstorm solutions (promote metacognition). In UDL terms, this supports the principles of providing multiple means of engagement and action/expression. You are providing an opportunity to improve self-regulation, self-assessment, and reflection and allowing students to use their own executive functions to monitor progress.

Peer Review

Clear expectations are also important for peer review activities. Students need to learn how to provide effective constructive criticism. We recommend that you provide a rubric for them to use for the review so they can learn what to look for and that you model peer review best practices.

Sample Strategies

  • Suggestions for an introductions discussion board.1
    • ask students to share one photo they already have on their phone.
    • which picture best . . . ? (e.g. shows how you feel about your weekend?) and WHY?
  • Use a general discussion board for student questions/comments (note: this is required for fully online courses at Messiah).
  • Create topic-based online discussion boards that truly foster discussion/collaboration.
  • Create peer feedback opportunities.
  • Create group work opportunities.
Student to Content Engagement

icons of student and book representing student to content engagement

Student to Content Engagement

Students need to connect meaningfully to your content to learn. To promote this connection use multiple means of representation (UDL) and active learning strategies.

Best Practices

For best practices, see Create Content.

Sample Strategies

  • Use use a mix of text, audio, and videos. (UDL Checkpoint 2.5)
  • Ensure videos are captioned (and audio is transcribed). (UDL Checkpoints 1.2 and 1.3)
  • Use guiding questions for readings. (UDL Checkpoint 6.3)
  • Provide templates, graphic organizers, and concept maps to support note-taking. (UDL Checkpoint 3.4)
  • Provide interactive content when possible, e.g. virtual models. (UDL Checkpoint 3.3)
  • Keep videos under 10 minutes, ideally under 6 minutes (Guo, Kim, & Rubin 2014). (UDL Checkpoint 3.3)
  • Check out the suggestions in Low-Risk Strategies to Promote Active Learning in Large Classes. These strategies can work for smaller classes as well.

Student to Teacher Engagement

icons of student and teacher figures representing student to teacher engagement

Student to Teacher Engagement

This form of engagement can be especially important in online courses, where it can be more challenging to humanize the learning experience. The efforts teachers make to add their own personality, experiences, and interactions are what make an online course different from a set-it-and-forget-it correspondence type of course or an AI-facilitated one (Pritts, 2023).

Student to teacher engagement means forming a relationship built on mutual trust and shared learning goals. When teachers are responsive to student needs and flexible with options, they create a safe space for students to take risks. This encourages students to engage with content and peers in a deep and meaningful way. Check out Michelle Pacansky-Brock’s infographic for quick tips on how to be a “Present Professor.”

Best Practices

Set Clear Expectations

Students need clarity on what they can expect from you and what you expect from them in terms of behavior, communication, etc. These expectations can include response time to emails/questions, timeliness of assignment feedback, office hours protocol, and email etiquette.

Keep It Student-Centered

Effective student to teacher interaction should be focused on the student, with a friendly but professional tone. It’s important to be flexible whenever possible, seeing the student holistically, with external pressures that impact performance in your class. This allows for a student/teacher relationship of trust to develop.

Sample Strategies

  • Send a welcome email/announcement at the beginning of the course.
  • Respond to student emails promptly, and clearly state what students can expect your response time to be.
  • Create regular announcements and communications throughout the course.
  • Hold regular office hours/synchronous appointments. Just saying office hours “by appointment” can be distancing for some students; set a designated time and make appointments as needed.
  • Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan offer a framework for office hours that varies the level of interaction. Check out Inclusified Office Hours for more details.
  • Provide detailed and timely feedback for student work.
  • Engage in online discussions; actually post and reply within them.
  • Share personal experiences, as appropriate.
  • Create your own content, whenever possible.
  • Use a mid-semester check in (poll or survey) to make minor course corrections that make students feel seen and heard.2

Learn More!

If you’d like to learn more about student engagement principles, check out our Engagement Principles Annotated Bibliography for more resources.