Cultivating Student Engagement

Over the course of the 2020-21 academic year, faculty experimented with a range of different approaches and activities to increase student engagement during remote instruction. With a return to campus, we can leverage what we learned to offer students the best learning experiences we can provide.  

Below we offer four suggestions for positively impacting student engagement that cut across teaching modality. We also offer links to video recordings of relevant faculty development sessions.

1. Develop a Daily Check-In Ritual

While most all instructors have been aware of the value of a well-designed first-day of class ice breaker, what the pandemic made clear is the payoff for a more ritualized beginning of class check-in. Since none of us really had the “how was your weekend?” generic question to fall back on, many of us took more time thinking about how to ask students where they were—emotionally, spiritually, psychically, and physically. During the pandemic, faculty found the use of the poll feature on Zoom to be incredibly valuable in this endeavor. As we return to campus, being sure to maintain these kinds of check-ins will not only improve well-being, but also provide ways for students to more quickly develop relationships with each other. Using the quiz feature on Canvas might be a way to continue the anonymous engagement in-class.

2. Organize the class into small groups from the outset

One of the most powerful ways of leveraging connection between and among students is to directly and consciously build it into the architecture of your course. No matter how large or small the class, consider assigning students to small groups by the second or third week of class. These can become their permanent discussion groups and can be combined and recombined into larger groups throughout the semester. Whether you’re teaching in-person or on Zoom, students can come to know one another and better able to provide support to and for each other. This kind of a move can also effectively de-center the instructor as the site of power/knowledge in the class and push toward more transformed pedagogy. Connection with and in small groups also has the potential to increase student sense of belonging overall.  

3. Use social contracts

Social contract theory has a long history as connected to the field of philosophy, but the general idea can be used to build community and enhance student engagement in the classroom. In this context, a social contract is an agreement among a group of people that allows the members of the group to understand each other better and then develop explicit parameters about how they will behave as a team. It includes norms for behavior—how they will work together, communicate, make decisions, share information and support each other. This creates a sense of shared purposed that also leads to better collaboration." Particular collaboration methodologies such as Agile and Scrum often build social contract development into their processes.  

A social contract may be created by a whole class, or individual student groups. The creation of a social contract is usually a low-stake assignment in terms of course points/grade value, but an instructor can discuss it as a high-stakes activity for classroom engagement and student learning.   

The most powerful aspect of assigning students the opportunity to create a social contract is that development opens a space for honest conversation about the ways that individual people understand the role and purpose of conversation about values. Individuals begin by writing their thoughts about the specific behaviors that express particular values relevant to classroom learning. An open discussion ensues in which the group works to collaboratively write statements about what the values look like in their particular classroom. Some possible values to focus on include: 1) Trust; 2) Respect; 3) Openness; 4) Courage; 5) Success.

It is crucial that you work with students to discuss the values in terms of actions and things we can see and measure, and not just ideals and general statements. It is imperative that we not judge the interpretations of the values and privilege one form of trust over another. Making sure to allow student knowledge to guide the creation of the social contract is most important.   

4. Include embodied activities and practices

The pandemic has brought many different lessons to us, one of which is the clear reminder that all of us have bodies and that our bodies are integrally tied to our ways of knowing. Regardless of the class you’re teaching, whether it is in person or online, it is a good idea to invite students—as they are able—to take a moment to stretch, move, connect with their bodies. If you’re not sure what this would look like, or what you could do, we offer three “starter” suggestions below.  

Faculty Development Session Videos 

Lessons from Remote Learning: New Strategies for Class Participation and Assessment

The unique challenges of this past year forced many of us to rethink our teaching strategies, contributing to the transformation of our courses to be much more inclusive and interactive. In this silver linings session, we will discuss what we learned during a year of remote instruction about how to engage students and encourage participation, as well as how to utilize assessment for this purpose. Bring your discoveries as well as your frustrations. Our aim is to share new techniques and insights we can bring to our Fall face-to-face classes. 

Communication Associate Professor Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin, Humanities, History and Social Sciences  Associate Professor Carmelo Esterrich, Photography Associate Professor Greg Foster-Rice, Art and Art History Assistant Professor Onur Öztürk  

Black Box Burnout

“Black Box Burnout,” or the fatigue that sets in after weeks of teaching and learning in remote classrooms, has been one of the greatest challenges instructors and students alike have faced during a semester like no other. In this session, panelists will share insights about how to encourage meaningful engagement, create an emotionally and intellectually nourishing classroom environment, facilitate productive group work, and make breakout rooms less awkward with respect to students’ agency and privacy. 

Facilitators: Professor Beth Davis-Berg, Associate Professor Greg Foster-Rice, Dance Chair Lisa Gonzales, and Assistant Professor Lauren Peters