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10 powerful ways to cultivate student engagement for academic success

Audrey Campbell
Audrey Campbell






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Student engagement can feel like an elusive concept in the busy life of a teacher, at every grade level and in any subject area. And yet, engaged students are those who make a firm commitment to learning and continue to see the most success. In fact, research shows that student engagement has been linked to improved achievement, persistence, and retention (Finn, 2006; Kuh, Cruce, Shoup, Kinzie, & Gonyea, 2008). These students make a notable effort to understand course material and incorporate it into their lives. Educators observe their engagement levels as strong relationships between themselves and course content, peers, teachers or professors, and the institution.

Across the past several years, many educators have found it challenging to sustain engagement levels while transitioning to virtual course formats or re-engineering their in-person experience. With new hybrid learning environments and online options, cultivating the sort of engagement and collaboration that have become synonymous with successful learning environments might, at times, seem nearly impossible.

In this blog, we’ll look at why student engagement is important, dissect some impediments to engaging students in a virtual world, and offer several ways to cultivate a learning environment where students can thrive.

What is student engagement?

Student engagement refers to the level of interest, attention, and involvement students demonstrate during learning activities, whether in person or online. It goes beyond mere participation and focuses on the emotional, cognitive, and behavioral investment students have in their education. Engaged students are often highly motivated, attentive, and actively seek meaning and understanding.

In their research article, “Mapping research in student engagement and educational technology in higher education: a systematic evidence map,” Melissa Bond and her team define student engagement as:

“[T]he energy and effort that students employ within their learning community, observable via any number of behavioural, cognitive or affective indicators across a continuum. It is shaped by a range of structural and internal influences, including the complex interplay of relationships, learning activities and the learning environment. The more students are engaged and empowered within their learning community, the more likely they are to channel that energy back into their learning, leading to a range of short and long term outcomes that can likewise further fuel engagement” (Bond et al., 2020).

Defining student engagement is the first step; next, educators and administrators must understand the value of student engagement and how it can affect student learning outcomes in the short- and long-term.

Why is student engagement important?

Student engagement is important for myriad reasons: engaged students are more likely to excel academically. When students are invested in their learning, they exhibit higher levels of comprehension, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. They are also more likely to retain information, apply knowledge to real-world scenarios, and achieve better grades. Student engagement and authentic learning go hand-in-hand: when students are required to engage in meaningful activities and actively think about what it is they are learning, it fosters their intrinsic motivation to succeed.

Student engagement also fosters personal growth by nurturing self-confidence, independence, and a love for learning. Engaged students develop a sense of ownership over their education, becoming lifelong learners who actively seek opportunities to expand their knowledge and skills. And when educators can support learners with differences, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and BIPOC students, there is an even deeper connection and a sense of belonging among diverse groups of students and their teachers.

Finally, a classroom with high levels of student engagement creates a positive and vibrant learning environment. Engaged students contribute to a supportive and collaborative atmosphere, where everyone feels valued and respected. This, in turn, enhances peer-to-peer interactions and promotes a sense of belonging and community. When students feel seen in the classroom, research shows that dropout rates are reduced significantly, increasing the amount of time students spend in the classroom and thereby increasing the chances that they will grow and learn.

Impediments to student engagement in the virtual world

It is challenging for students to transition to virtual learning, particularly because of the barriers to engagement in the online environment. They may be unfamiliar with virtual environments or the requisite technology and may need help adjusting to online learning. This includes developing more self-discipline and deferring immediate gratification.

Instructors who are themselves new to online teaching also have to learn how to properly design courses, improve their online teaching skills, and learn the best practices for the environment, rather than trying to migrate in-person classes to a virtual setting. They must set clear course expectations for students, including updating honor codes for online learning environments, and work to understand that there are new possibilities in remote learning that are not available to classes held completely in person.

Despite all these challenges, instructors can and should build community in an online classroom, for even in virtual interactions students can find ways to engage with their teachers, their peers, and the material.

What are examples of student engagement?

From Kindergarten to graduate programs, student engagement may look a bit different, but it all has the same underlying tone: individuals interacting with topics, materials, peers, and instructors in a motivated, interesting manner. Almost any educator can tell you an anecdote about a lesson or activity that really landed well with their students, where the class may have been focused, energetic, and/or delighted by the time spent learning.

Let’s consider of a few of the following examples of student engagement, which can be adapted for specific subject areas or grade levels as needed:

  • Active learning: Hands-on activities, group discussions, and problem-solving exercises that actively involve students in the learning process. This can include experiments, role-playing, debates, and project-based assignments.
  • Technology integration: Digital tools and platforms to enhance student engagement. Utilizing interactive presentations, educational apps, virtual simulations, and online discussion boards can facilitate active participation and collaborative learning.
  • Differentiated instruction: Teaching methods that cater to individual student needs. Incorporating a variety of instructional approaches such as visual aids, multimedia resources, and kinesthetic activities to reach students with different preferences and abilities can increase engagement.
  • Real-world connections: Classroom content that relates to real-life situations to make learning more meaningful and relevant. Encouraging students to explore current events and conduct research connects their knowledge to practical applications in their lives.
The student engagement format is finally ripe for success

Fortunately, many of the learning theories, pedagogies, and practices that stimulate engagement in face-to-face settings often work well in virtual settings. This should come as good news to many of the educators who are transitioning temporarily or permanently to the online market, which is expected to reach $336.98 billion by 2026. This projection is likely to see an update sooner rather than later due to the pandemic.

In the early days of virtual learning, educational institutions made many investments in understanding how to cultivate engagement online, given the lack of immediacy and control that on-campus educators are used to. The successful application of research helps to explain why 52% of graduate students in the U.S. found their online, college-level education provided a better learning experience than their college-level, in-class education, according to Guide2Research.

10 ways to foster student engagement

Today, teachers and professors in the virtual and on-campus spaces share best practices that work well across environments. In addition to the examples above, here we’ll explore some of the thoughtful ways that you can foster student engagement, regardless of format.

  • Focus on active learning. Engagement strategies are effective when they are based on learning theories that stress active learning. When educators focus on getting students to “do” something, rather than “learn” something, the results are often impressive. Have students get cognitively or physically active. Develop activities in which they collaborate in group assignments, solve problems together or individually, or get involved in experiential learning projects involving dialogue and shared research. Presentations, debates, “pop” speeches, and competitions are all teaching strategies that emphasize active student effort over passive instructor-led presentations.
  • Set clear expectations. It is important to keep in mind that active learning exercises tend to reward extroverts, while introverts may suffer. Appearances can be deceiving, as students who listen and take notes are actually engaged, often more than the extroverts who chime in intermittently. Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking”, suggests grading students based not simply on the quantity, but the quality of students’ contributions.Too much complexity in engagement expectations — through course syllabi and course introduction presentations — tends to diminish student enthusiasm. Simple, clear, and consistent requirements for how students are to engage in the classroom or online, with instructors, peers, and with coursework, are effective. Adding layers of criteria, exceptions, and complex deadlines creates a heavy cognitive load. Use simple recurring deadlines with clear requirements, such as, “Post one question and three responses each week by Friday.” This enables students to develop an enthusiastic habit of inquiry.
  • Break content into “chunks”. Student attention spans vary, as do the neurological limits of memory and retention. Attention- and memory-related attrition should be kept in mind as you develop course content. Start classes by letting students in on the day’s intellectual agenda so they know what they can look forward to. This will keep more students interested. Break courses into “chunks” and avoid packing presentations with too many concepts. Fewer ideas with more in-depth exploration tends to result in less attrition.
  • Encourage goal-setting and failure. Incentivize students to create their own goals for the course and to develop personal milestones that will signal their own progress. This transfers the ownership of engagement from the educator to the student by getting the student enthusiastic and motivated. If the student wants to attain expertise or even a high grade, the best path will be one that he or she defines.It’s also important to create scenarios in which failure is a real possibility. The academic environment should be seen as an incubator for ideas, for experiments, and for the essential learning opportunities that failure provides — without the more severe outcomes of real-world failure. Lauding the most innovative ideas, even the ones that might not work, allows students to see their teacher celebrating creativity and not just focusing on what is guaranteed to work. John Dewey, an early educational reformer, said, “Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.”
  • Apply the community of inquiry (CoI) model in online discussions. The proven CoI model for maximizing engagement in online discussions was developed by researcher Randy Garrison. Its objective is to build a foundation of social and teaching presence to stimulate cognitive presence in a course. Here is what the terms mean, according to Purdue University’s CoI framework:
    • Cognitive presence: The extent to which students can construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse.
    • Social presence: The ability to perceive others in an online environment as “real” and the projection of oneself as a real person. This involves open communication, affective expression, and group cohesion.
    • Teaching presence: The design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the realization of meaningful learning. This involves instructional design, facilitation, and direct instruction. Students themselves must have a teaching presence in the community, which is gained through discussion of their own inquiries.
  • Use engaging formats. Video and multimedia presentations are vital to successful online and on-campus courses. Video in social media has trained today’s students, even beyond what television did with prior generations. By integrating these formats in “chunks,” with audio presentations, text documents, and note-taking, it is easier to break up the monotony that would otherwise lead to dwindling engagement.
  • Prioritize student autonomy with less instructor control. One of the most difficult adjustments on-campus instructors make as they transition to the virtual world is in relinquishing some of the control they have in the classroom. Online engagements should not be micromanaged for accuracy, grammar, and compliance with rules. Instructors should avoid moderating posts and intervening in incorrect answers. The best approach is to step back and monitor for active and meaningful engagements. Interact enough to facilitate, rather than lead discussions. This supports student autonomy and provides a sense of ownership, developing greater student motivation, which ultimately improves engagement and performance.
  • Offer consistent feedback. Today’s students want to know, qualitatively, how they are performing. What are their strengths and weaknesses? What are the most important areas for improvement? When, in addition to summative exams, there are formative assessments with actionable information as to what students can do to improve, that creates student ownership of their performance, in both virtual and on-campus environments. ExamSoft’s Strengths and Opportunities Reports, generated through the ExamSoft platform, help students understand their deficits and adjust study habits accordingly. It is especially useful after poor performance on exams. The reports can also serve as a reason for instructors and students to meet to review the information and areas to focus on, increasing engagement and communication, and reduces the focus of simply arguing for a higher score. In some cases, the reports serve to notify the instructor that an educational intervention is needed.Additionally, both Turnitin Feedback Studio and Gradescope allow educators to provide meaningful, formative feedback to students on assignments (even at scale!), encouraging student growth and self-reflection in the learning process.
  • Consider remediation. When the actionable information presented through feedback (or the ExamSoft Strengths and Opportunities Reports) involves a specific plan for performance improvement and the student can see results through improved test scores, remediation is a very effective tool in boosting engagement. Not only that, remediation boosts engagement in those most likely to disengage and to perform poorly as a result. Focus on qualitative assessments and specific remediation work, especially for students who are struggling.
  • Test, evaluate, and make continuous improvements. Today’ s best educators see themselves as works in progress. Goals are never fully realized because so many of the factors that contribute to positive educational outcomes change more quickly than they ever have in the past. Ultimately, the best way to sustain high student engagement and performance is through rigorous self-testing, evaluation, and continuous improvements.
In conclusion: Ways to cultivate student engagement

Student engagement is the key to unlocking student success, even in the era of virtual learning. By nurturing active involvement, educators can inspire a love for learning, foster critical thinking, and create an inclusive and supportive learning environment. Implementing various strategies, from active learning to technology integration, will empower students and equip them with the skills necessary for their academic journey and beyond.