10 Ways to Cultivate Student Engagement in Higher Education

Engaged students are those who make a firm commitment to learning. They take pride in making the 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, professors, and the institution.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many educators are being challenged to sustain engagement levels while transitioning to virtual course formats or re-engineering the in-person experience. In such a forced and rapid transition, cultivating the sort of engagement and collaboration that have become synonymous with successful learning environments can be a real challenge.

Impediments to 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, be careful not to dominate all course interactions, and work to understand that there are new possibilities in remote learning that are not available to classes held completely in person.

The 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.

Today, professors in the virtual and on-campus spaces share best practices that work well across environments. Here, we explore some of the ways that university educators can foster engagement, regardless of format.

  1. 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.

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.

  1. Set Clear Expectations

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.

  1. 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.

  1. Encourage Goal-Setting, Competition, 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.

With each student’s goals defined, the next possible step is to create healthy competition (not comparison) between students and with oneself. Who can reach the milestones quickest? How quickly can the student attain the next milestone? What are some ways the student can set a personal best and then beat it the next time around? This approach also tends to take some of the student’s focus off grades; making it about learning outcomes for the student boosts interest and engagement.

Finally, 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. 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.”

  1. 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.
  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. Feedback and Sharing Information

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Learn more about ExamSoft’s retention and remediation capabilities.


Sources:

Guide2Research: 50 Online Education Statistics: 2020 Data on Higher Learning & Corporate Training

EdTech: Best Practices for Engaging Students Online

Inside Higher Ed: Moving Classes Online Is Hard. Online Discussion Can Help

Stanford University: Student Engagement Online: What Works and Why

Purdue University: Community of Inquiry Framework

Pronto: The Complete Guide to Creating a Student Engagement Survey

Flipd Blog: 5 Strategies to Improve Student Engagement (With Less Technology)

Resilient Educator: Engaging Adult Learners, Part 1: How to Avoid Being Boring and Confusing

Sign up for resource updates

ExamSoft Exam Software