More on Student Engagement

This article came from Faculty It contains some helpful hints for improving student engagement.

Reading Assignment Strategies to Boost Student Engagement

December 16, 2011

By: Sarah K. Clark, PhD in Effective Teaching Strategies

The typical college student dreads hearing, “Let’s review the chapters you read for homework.” What generally ensues is a question and answer drill in which students are peppered with questions designed to make clear who has and hasn’t done the reading. In reality, these exchanges do little to encourage deep thought or understanding of the assigned reading. They produce awkward silences during which students squirm in their seats, hoping to become invisible. Other times students decline to answer for fear of giving the wrong answer. Almost all the time a negative tone permeates the classroom during this review. I decided to restructure the way that I approached reviews of reading assignments, and found that by doing things differently, I could change both the tone and outcomes of the review activity. I’d like to share some of the ideas and techniques that I have found useful:

The Top Ten – Ask students to create their own “Top Ten List” of important concepts presented in the chapter(s). I encourage student collaboration in the creation of these lists. The activity provides a nice review of the material, and you’ll be amazed at what students consider to be most important. I use these lists as a starting point for discussions. They also let me know what areas of content need further explanation. For students who didn’t do the reading, the lists expose them to ideas in the text and that prepares them at least a bit for the subject of the day.

Secondary Sources – Gone are the days when the textbook is the only source of information available to students. With blogs, research articles, journals, informational pages, and news websites at the touch of a fingertip, students can easily learn more about the subject. After they’ve done the assigned readings, have students locate another viewpoint on the subject and bring it to class. In class, set a time limit (say 15 minutes) and have partners/groups discuss the reading material and their secondary sources. As you circulate around the room, you may hear some good examples that you can use later in the period. Interestingly, students often (without being asked) continue to bring in outside resources on the topics we study, which makes for rich and healthy discussions.

Journaling – For the ideas presented in the readings to become relevant, students need to articulate thoughts about what they are reading and they need to hear how others responded as well. I encourage my students to write journal notes, which I describe as what the brain is thinking while reading. Example: “Wow! I never considered how George Washington must have felt during this turbulent time in the nation’s history. I always thought of him as liking his role as president.” Students can share their journaling with a partner or small group. This exercise helps students get past initial impressions, and it connects what they already know to the new information.

Divide and Conquer – Divide up the next reading chapter among small groups of students. Student A reads the first section in the chapter, Student B reads the next section, and so forth. The next day, students meet in small groups and report on the section they read. Or you can have groups of students that read the same section meet with students who read different sections. Students become dependent on one another to create the full picture of what was in the reading material. My students seem to enjoy these group discussions, which are a way to become familiar with the material before being graded on it.

Using these and other strategies has really made a difference in my classes. More students are engaged in and contributing to class discussions, and they are moving beyond a simple repetition of facts and details. Students are digging deeper and connecting their world with other viewpoints, and that gives them a richer understanding of the content.

These new approaches are having an effect on me, too. I am more calm and confident in my role as a teacher and a learner. I find it easier to be more patient and thoughtful with my students. Most important, I have noticed that the classroom feels like a safe and positive place. Students show greater respect for one another and more appreciation of the material. In my opinion, all these responses make these changes worthwhile!

Dr. Sarah K. Clark is an assistant professor of elementary education at Utah State University.

Reprinted from “Making the Review of Assigned Reading Meaningful.” The Teaching Professor, 24.9 (2010): 2-3.


Thanks to all who attended our workshop on “The Problem I have with teaching is . . . .”, Dec. 2, 2011

[Image of Prof. Marvel wagon art from]

CTE Faculty Workshop, December 2, 2011

“The Problem I Have With Teaching Is . . . “

Frank Holt and James Garson, Moderators

Notes by Tamara Fish, Dave Mazella

 Participants began by filling in forms, completing the following statements:

“The problem I have with teaching is . . . “

“On the other hand, I am most satisfied/comfortable with . . . “

Biggest problem named: almost half of the attendees named “student engagement,” or its variants, such as student “apathy,” lack of “motivation,” “responsibility,” or “getting students comfortable enough to communicate what they do not understand.”

Other leading problems: leading discussion, lacks of student skills, lack of time (students and faculty), designing coherent syllabi or curricula, using technology effectively

Biggest satisfaction named: much less unanimity here, but some respondents named “students’ ‘getting it’ or finally understanding something”; student engagement; use of technology


Responses served as discussion starters on the following topics:

1.     Challenges of new technologies. Technologies discussed included:

  • Clickers, which cost $40 but students can use them in multiple classes. Suggestions included using clickers early in the class to test recall; later, during discussion, to gauge students’ understanding or ability to synthesize; to poll students and share results the next day; or to discover when students need intervention or remediation. Clicker technology is now available for Smart Phones.
  • Power Point. There are many ways to use Power Point ineffectively; students need instruction if they are to use it well.
  • Smart textbooks, such as those that connect with online support materials and learning environments. Only a couple of participants had used them and found them unimpressive, on the whole.
  • Electronic databases, resources. Online materials and library databases may allow faculty to reduce dependence on anthologies or purchased textbooks. Advantages include teaching students to research and gloss primary sources and allowing students access via tablets or other smart technologies. Disadvantages include the patience required of students to use them, the cost of printing, and the inability to annotate or highlight in ways to which students have become accustomed.
  • Lecture podcasts or videotapes. Students respond more favorably to lectures recorded by a “real person”—e.g., at a kitchen table with the dog in the background—than to perfect “talking heads.” Consider interspersing the talking head with text, images, graphics, etc.
  • Voice recording technologies for responding to students’ work. These include Wimba in Blackboard and Voice Thread (, which allows threaded discussions, marking up a document as one talks over it, etc.
  • Electronic conferencing technologies. Using multiple modes of conferencing allows options for students who may not be able to come to traditional face-to-face conferences. One option web conferencing option is PowWowNow (


  • Effective use of new technologies requires training, planning, practice, and effort.
  • We may not know about available technologies until we bump up against them. Meanwhile, teacher inertia keeps many of us teaching as we were taught.
  • Effective change takes time—sometimes years—and happens incrementally, not all at once.
  • Use of technology requires a contingency plan in case it fails, which it will.
  • Incorporating new technologies takes a lot of work up front but, once in place, can save time, requiring only updates and revisions.
  • Technologies should fulfill a pedagogical need and should be carefully incorporated into course design to accomplish defined ends. Think carefully: What do you really want students to get out of the experience?
  • The number and variety of technologies can be overwhelming. Jami Kovach (Information and Logistics Technology), has published a paper that categorizes and analyzes instructional technologies: Here are the links to the papers that she mentioned: snyder_jarbe_2010_pre-inst_imp_stud_coll; Snyder_BCQ_2009_(teaching_teamwork)(1);WC-IAR_Paper_(v17-submitted_to_DSJIE_3’11)(1)
  • Recognize that technology does not have to be perfect; e.g., lecture podcasts can contain stumbles.
  • Leonard Bachman (Architecture) also provided links to two articles, one a large-scale evaluation of the effectiveness of technology-based teaching (finalreport(1)), the other a publication of his own on this topic.

2.     Student apathy. Suggestions for addressing this pervasive problem included the following:

  • Mandatory attendance. Students who are not actively there (e.g., who are texting, sleeping) are marked absent.
  • Intrinsically engaging topics. What typically goes over well with students in the class?
  • Story telling. Start class with a story; use stories to get information across; tell you own life story, especially if it will help the students to connect with you or your subject area.
  • Group or pair activities. Even in large lecture sections, students can discuss ethical dilemmas or historical analogies, figure out their relationships to the material, etc.
  • Minute papers. Use at beginning or end of class; these can be ungraded.
  • Share your interests. How does what you teach connect with your personal areas of interest or activities?
  • Role playing. Have students adopt the persona of a historical character, research that character, and speak or write in the character’s voice.
  • Polls. Use clickers to poll students (“the odder the better”) and share results the next day. Poll results can supply data for discussions of gender, cultural, or other implications of results.
  • Online discussions. Use Blackboard, blogs, or other discussion forums to keep the discussion going outside class. Students can both post questions and respond to one another. Monitor and choose some responses to take to class for discussion.
  • “Trick” or force students to do things they won’t take the initiative to do on their own.
  • Recognize the “imposter syndrome.” Research shows that apathy or lack of engagement is especially high among first-generation college students, who may feel they don’t belong and may be found out. 51% of U of H students are the first in their families to attend college.
  • Let go of your power in the class from the beginning. Don’t try to play the expert; let your “normal awkwardness” or nervousness come out. Be open, present, and authentic.
  • Use active rather than passive learning.

3.     Teacher boredom. What if you are bored with a class you have taught dozens of times? Suggestions:

  • Consider teaching hybrid courses.
  • Have the students teach the course to the professor.
  • Place student research at the center of the class.
  • Throw away your notes each semester so as to have to reconstruct the course.
  • Devise better, more relevant examples.
  • Order a new textbook so you can’t rely on the old one.
  • Don’t’ bring your lecture notes to class.
  • Teach a course outside your familiar field.

 4.     Providing timely feedback on students’ final papers. How does a teacher return papers in a timely fashion without regretting not having written enough/the right comments? Suggestions:

  • Assign more frequent, shorter papers throughout the semester.
  • Use Turnitin’s Grade Mark; typing comments requires you to think more about them.
  • Allow students to do the commenting during peer review.
  • Collect final projects incrementally, having students workshop each piece along the way.
  • Consider whether written comments on final papers are a waste of time since research shows that students don’t read them anyway.


The discussion concluded with a lively exchange about lateness policies and time management.  The group decided that one of the upcoming workshops should have the topic of, “Rules worth enforcing.”

If you have additional comments or suggestions for this or upcoming panels, please hit “Comment”

Tamara Fish/DM

Building Pedagogical Bridges: English Department Fifth Annual December Teaching Conference, Dec. 6th, 2011

I’m posting this notice to alert the pedagogically-minded on campus that the English dept. will be hosting its December Teaching Conference next Tuesday, Dec. 6th, from 8:30-1:50 in Roy Cullen Hall.

Here is the program:


The CTE’s own Allison Laubach Wright and Bruce Martin will be chairing and presenting at a roundtable on critical teaching in a diverse environment, and I’ll be chairing an interactive panel, along with Kate Anderson of English,  on Threshold Concepts in literary studies and linguistics. Hope to see you there.