Engaging Students

Meg Gorzycki, Ed.D.

What is Student Engagement?

The engaged student is a student who is active in the learning process and who assumes a large measure of responsibility for learning (Weimer, 2002; Austin, 1984). In engaging students, instructional strategies shift away from the exclusive use of didactic instruction to the use of various strategies that immerse students in “hands-on” and “minds-on” activities. Student engagement is also characterized by:

  1. High levels of student motivation to learn
  2. An emphasis on learning that explores the meaning and significance of what is learned (Barkley, 2010)
  3. Getting students to “do” as the experts “do” in the discipline (Edgerton, 1997)
  4. Routine involvement of students in class activities, such as analysis, evaluation, lab projects, collaborative studies, the application of knowledge, and problem-solving.

This tutorial will address:

Flipping the Paradigm

Practical Suggestions for Engaging Students

Flipping the Paradigm

In traditional paradigms of teaching and learning, class time is conceptualized as a platform for the instructor to impart vital declarative knowledge or to test the students’ recall of that knowledge, and out-of-class time represented the opportunity for students to read scholarly materials, complete assignments, share ideas about their learning in groups, and review information for upcoming exams. The “flipped” paradigm conceptualizes class time as opportunities to read, complete assignments, review student work, rehearse self-assessment skills, reflect upon the meaning and significance of knowledge, and debate controversial or confusing aspects of ideas, procedures, events, or conditions.

The advantages of flipping the paradigm and integrating “hand-on” and “minds-on” activity include:

  • It offers a venue in which the “humanistic” elements of learning may be augmented by exploring diverse perspectives and negotiating with others in problem-solving venues, and deeping their own personal response the human condition through reflection in a social setting (Nuckles, 1999)
  • It encourages greater student engagement which is  associated with increased student persistency to degree (Kuh, et. al., 2008)
  • It conveys the sense that teachers care deeply about what students think and are able to do  (Umbach & Wawrzynski, 2005).
  • It is especially helpful for low-performing students, first-year students, and is associated with significant increases in critical thinking (Carini, et. al., 2006)

Practical Suggestions for Engaging Students

  1. It is important to align activities with student learning outcomes and with competencies that have been articulated by agencies and organizations (such as a state board of registered nurses, a state teacher credentialing agency, or professional association of historians, for example) that represent the discipline, as Table 1 illustrates.
  2. Assessing the quality of what is done is just as important as getting things done. Providing students with the opportunity to reflect upon the quality of their work and the meaning of ideas, conditions, events, and so forth, helps students think as do experts in the discipline and to see the relevance of knowledge. As Table 2 illustrates, student activity itself becomes teaching material as student behaviors and debriefing about their behaviors provide insights to knowledge and skills that are difficult to contain is a textbook.
  3. As Table 3 illustrates, class activities should be structured to the extent that students have a clear understanding of what is expected, how to organize and use their time, where to go for resources, and what criteria will be used to evaluate their work.

Table 1: Alignment between Class Activities and Discipline Competencies and Student Learning Outcomes in History 333: World War I and its Global Fallout

American Historical Association Competencies (2008)

Student Learning Outcomes

Class Activity (Individual or Group)

Read primary sources and develop a historical context for these materials

Students will analyze primary sources, describe the historical context of documents, and interpret their meaning based on contextual knowledge

Student will read brief biographies of Otto Dix, Georg Groz and John Heartfield, examine several samples of their art work, identify the themes in the art, explain the historical factors that influenced their work and perspectives

Explore various viewpoints represented in multiple sources

Students will analyze the content of primary resources, compare and contrast the perspectives in each, and identify the functions of each

Read Rosa Luxemberg’s “War and the Workers,” 1916; Ben Salmon’s letter to president Wilson, 1917; Jane Addams’ letter to President Wilson; Kasier Wilhelm II’s Berlin Speech, 1914

Table 2: Engaging Reflection and Addressing the Meaning of Learning with Outcomes


Student Learning Outcome



Students will communicate effectively and professionally with patients and co-workers

Following a role-playing exercise in which nursing students practiced their communication skills, student were asked to spend 20 minutes reflecting on what they had experienced and writing about what they learned about themselves and vulnerable populations in the exercise


Students will demonstrate proficiency with negotiating an advertising contract with a client 

Following a role-playing exercise in which students pitched ad campaigns and their alternative to clients, students spent 20 minutes in class reflecting on what they learned about the nature of negotiation and how they might improve their negotiating skills in the future

Social Work

Students will identify vulnerable populations in society, their special needs, and the challenges to meeting those needs

After reading sources and viewing documentaries about Native American poverty in the US, students are given 30 minutes in class to reflect on their own beliefs about poverty, race, and prosperity; and to identify what they see as their own strengths and limitations in being an advocate for the poor

Table 3: Structuring Class Activities with Cinema Example

Student Learning Outcome



Procedures and Time Required

Students will demonstrate competency in film critique and articulating their findings

Students will critique each other’s films

Students have studied criteria and standards commonly used in film critiques, analyzed and evaluated sample critiques

Students will view a four-minute film clip and quietly spend 35 minutes critiquing the clip with a rubric and composing a three paragraph critique of the clip, which will be collected and assessed for its clarity, use of evidence for assertions, organization and grammar, and sensitivity to criteria

Video Case Stories of Student Engagement

Engaging Students with Clikcers: UT Austin Faculty

Erik Rosegard: Student Engagement Through Play.

Jen Vaughn,: Student Engagement Through Productions


American Historical Association. (2008). History discipline core: American Historical Association Tuning Project.

Austin, A. W. (1984). Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Development, 25(4), 2977-308.

Barkley, E. F. (2009). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Carini, R. M., Kuh, G. D., & Klein, S. P. (2006). Student engagement and student learning: Testing the linkages*. Research in Higher Education, 47(1), 1-32.

Edgerton, R. (1997). Higher education white paper. Unpublished paper for the Pew Charitable Trusts, Philadelphia.

Kuh, G. D., Cruce, T. M., Shoup, R., Kinzie, J., & Gonyea, R. M. (2008). Unmasking the effects of student engagement on first-year college grades and persistence. The Journal of Higher Education, 79(5), 540-563.

Nuckles, C. R. (1999). Student-centered teaching: making it work. Adult Learning, 11(4), 5-6.

Umbach, P. D., & Wawrzynski, M. R. (2005). Faculty do matter: The role of college faculty in student learning and engagement. Research in Higher Education, 46(2), 153-184.

Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-centered teaching. Five key changes to practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Additional Resources