Actively involving students in learning: Considerations when approaching a new semester

As you approach the end of this semester and begin to anticipate the next, your attention may turn to making preparations; refining courses in order to improve upon curriculum delivery and exploring new ways to engage students.

At the 8th Annual Teaching and Learning Conference held at Elon University in August, Dr. Ed Neal, former Director of Faculty Development at UNC-Chapel Hill offered a session entitled The Threshold of Consciousness:  How to Wake Up Your Students! Dr. Neal provided a number of useful suggestions for engaging students in the classroom.  Many of the strongest ideas he proposed hinge upon setting students’ expectations, from day one, of how the learning experience will play out when class meets.  With this in mind, here are some highlights of Dr. Neal’s presentation on engaging students through active learning, offering ideas that can be implemented during early course meetings, and additional thoughts on engaging students throughout the entire semester.

The First Day of Class

The first meeting of many undergraduate course sections plays out in a familiar, lock-step routine: The instructor introduces him or herself, the syllabus is distributed and pored over, then students are released with the promise that the class will begin to dive into course material when it next meets. This first class meeting, Dr. Neal suggests, should be considered an opportunity to grab students’ attention, create excitement about what they will be learning, and motivate them to become engaged during subsequent course meetings.  He offered the example of an Archaeology class where, on the first day, the instructor distributed artifacts to students and posed questions such as, “What do you think this artifact is?” and “What do you think it may have been used for?” An exercise like this can serve to generate a great deal of interest about the course subject among students.  Students have a limited amount of time, and will typically choose to do more work for a course in which they are stimulated by the material.  Developing this interest from the outset can pay dividends when an instructor attempts to actively engage students during later meetings.

Another way to foster interest in a course during the first meeting is to talk to students about the learning goals outlined for the course and why those goals are relevant to them, both in the educational context and in the larger context of how what they learn can be important to them outside of the classroom.

Dr. Neal also promoted the broad idea of creating an “absence of fear” in the classroom.  Doing so develops a level of comfort that encourages students to participate and become involved.  One step toward this goal that can be taken on the first day of class is to offer students an opportunity to get to know each other.  This might be accomplished through an activity as simple as a standard “icebreaker,” asking students to pair off and introduce themselves to a classmate.  Not only does this allow students an opportunity to get to know one another, but it gets them talking, sending a subtle message that, in this class, they won’t be simply sitting, listening, and taking notes.

It is interesting to note that, on average, instructors wait less than one second after asking students a question before they themselves answer it.  In an effort to get students involved, a good practice is to pose a question to students, then wait patiently for an answer.  It’s sometimes difficult to deal with a long period of silence when you’re leading a class, but when a faculty member fights the urge to jump in and let students off the hook, it communicates to students that an answer is expected of them.  It is important to begin this early in the semester so class members quickly understand that their participation will be a common practice in the class.

Beyond The First Day

Class Discussions

Leading class discussions is an effective way to help students become more absorbed in course material.  Well-led, well-organized, and participative discussions lead to more higher-level reasoning than traditional lecture.  When planning discussions for class, Dr. Neal advises that faculty members ask themselves, “What do I want students to have learned by the end of this discussion?”  Before beginning the discussion, share these learning goals directly with the class.

When discussion takes place, it’s important to maintain Dr. Neal’s “absence of fear” among students.  Participants should be rewarded for offering their thoughts and ideas.  They should never worry that their contribution will be “shot down” or minimized by the instructor.

Another idea to consider if discussions are to be used frequently in the class is to involve students in the development of a set of “ground rules” for how discussions will play out through the semester. The discussion is truly theirs. It is taking place for their benefit and therefore allowing them to help design the structure of discussion affirms that fact to them and helps create some sense of “buy-in.”  Students can also be charged with the responsibility for enforcing the discussion policies they create.  Eventually, says Dr. Neal, your students may end up becoming so involved that they end up posing relevant questions to each other, carrying the discussion deeper and further on their own.

Writing Exercises

Given that it’s impossible to write without thinking, using short writing exercises in class is a great way to encourage students to focus substantively on course material while still in the classroom. Writing exercises can be used at the beginning of class, when an instructor might ask students to spend two minutes stating the main points of an out-of-class reading assignment.  Similarly, the instructor may choose to finish out a course meeting with a short writing exercise, asking students to talk about the main points discussed during the class session.  There are countless ways in which writing exercises can be used at any point during a class meeting, and they needn’t take more than 5 minutes.  Once students have completed writing assignments, the instructor might randomly select one or two students to read their work, or pair students up to compare and contrast what they’ve written.

These are just a few of the proposals and broad concepts offered by Dr. Neal during his session. Further information and a whole host of additional suggestions are available on his session handout, available online.


Discussion photo by Earlham College, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license
Desk photo by cdsessums, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license.