Creating Engagement in the Classroom: Connecting with Students

How classroom engagement improves student learning outcomes and why classroom management is becoming increasingly difficult.

Connecting with students has meant different things to different teachers over the years.

When Socrates taught his students, one could assume “connecting” meant they understood the insight and information he provided. Rachel Carson, author ofSilent Spring, said, “If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.” Albert Einstein touched on connection when he said, “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”

As the role of the teacher changed, so did the concept of “connecting.”

A strong “connection” between students and teachers may lead to a student’s advancement beyond academic success, encouraging them to grow and prosper in both their personal and professional endeavors. Teachers possess skills, knowledge and experience that are invaluable learning tools not offered in the classroom. When students and teachers connect beyond the curriculum offered in the course, they open the door to new experiences, opportunities and paths to success.

For a professor, facilitating and nurturing this connection becomes a crucial objective, one that constantly evolves in today’s academic landscape. But it’s not impossible. We must turn to history and look ahead to best determine how to create this connection now and into the future.

What history shows us…

Although the relationship between students and teachers has grown, so has class size. What used to be 20 to 30 students has grown into 200 to 300 students in some schools. A teacher, like any person, has a limited capacity of how many names, faces and facts we can remember. Dunbar’s number, researched and determined by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, asserts that humans are capable of maintaining 150 social relationships at a maximum.

As the classroom grows, sometimes well beyond 150 students, so does the requirements for connecting with each student. A face with the name, a fact or quirk about them and some shared experiences can lead to successful teaching relationships, but even with the best of intentions, there exists a physical limitation on the part of the teacher.

A firsthand account from the professor…

In a typical classroom, I have about 50 unique students. Each has a unique name, and, of course, each has a unique student identification number. At the beginning of each semester, this is what I know of them, and it forms the foundation for our relationship.

As each week progresses, I learn which students show up for class, and I notice those who do not. I also start putting a face with the name through participation. The students who ask the most questions become the faces I recognize more than others. I just see them more because we’re interacting regularly.

And the more I interact with them, the more they interact with me. This increased level of engagement increases the number of questions, the number of answers and the knowledge transfer they receive. Others who watch this engagement get something, but I don’t believe it’s the same as it is for those asking the questions. Their questions mean something more to them than someone else’s questions will. My answers to them generate a different feeling than answers to someone else.

This is the part of our relationship I can customize for my students, when time permits, that seems to make a difference to the success of the student. The more engaged a student, the greater the learning. The more unique their experience, the greater the relationship. The greater the relationship, the greater the outcome.

It all starts with me encouraging their participation and generating a worthwhile takeaway once they do interact.

A firsthand account from the student…

I have always admired educators who try to shake up the class with creative engagement strategies. These professors understand the importance of tapping into the back-end classroom tools students put in place. The front-end tools are your standard (LMS) Learning Management Systems, ebooks, or any tools put in place and managed by the instructor with the participation of the students. On the other hand, the back-end tools are created and managed by students without the educator’s knowledge.

It is common for students to create Facebook groups with a designated, shared cloud storage where they collaborate on projects, share class information, stay updated on assignments, and form study groups. Most of our class-related engagement occurs outside the lecture, usually through mobile devices. However, there is always one person in class who never gets an invitation to this educational party – the professor. It’s not because we don’t like them; there is just rarely an attempt to engage with us outside of scheduled office hours.

There are, however, a few exceptions who dare follow their students into the realm of mobile learning.  Those who do foster strong connections with their students tend to have the problem of classes filling too quickly due to high demand. That’s a good problem for them to have.

Ratemyprofessor is one of the most widely used tools by students when registering for classes. Ever wonder what students think of your class? Take a look. A testimonial found on prasies Dr. Melinda McClureat San Diego State University, demonstrating the impact an engaging class can have on a student:

“By far the best methods teacher in the credential program! It was a blessing to have her. We learned so much from her. She is extremely knowledgable and does everything she can to help you succeed. I actually looked forward to going to this class as it flew by because we were learning and having fun at the same time.”

“Working together with other students on projects, live chat rooms, and study groups is the best way to engage other students,” says Derek Argonza, a graduate student at SDSU. “Social media groups are also very useful for planning events and outreaches for students that have specialized hobbies. In the end, it takes leadership of outgoing students and professors to create a welcoming atmosphere to make sure that nobody is left out.”

What works…

One of the more creative ways to engage a classroom with a little time and a bit of colored paper was submitted by SDSU Alumna and new addition to the SDSU Biology Department, Tanya Renner. She recently came back to teach one of the classes she took when she attended SDSU as a student. One of her engagement techniques simply required colored pieces of paper. Students would hold up different colors to represent their response, creating a quick visual aid of the classroom comprehension and transition points of the lecture.

Many publishers like McGraw-Hill and Pearson Education are developing adaptive-learning programs that help personalize the learning experience based upon the individual learner’s progress during chapter exercises and homework assignments. These cutting-edge approaches are helping improve student learning outcomes outside of lecture hours.

Inside the classroom, there are tools like CourseKey. A flexible Q&A system allows me to easily administer real-time, formative assessments that offer visual results as soon as the last student response is submitted. The ability to gauge my student audience with non-graded polling allows for a secondary, more qualitative look at what my students are retaining.

Each methods offer good ways to create engagement by keeping your finger on the pulse of the class. These data-driven approaches to engagement allow educators to become more flexible and proactive when early indicators of failure begin to show.

Where we go from here…

As we’ve talked about throughout this blog series, education is constantly evolving. As classroom sizes grow, the strong bonds once held between teachers and students are slowly dwindling. A connection between students and teachers is now in higher demand than ever, and as we know, it has the potential to yield many opportunities. However, it’s not too late to turn things around. With the assistance of mobile technologies in the classroom, teachers can once again retain and rebuild the strong relationships that make both sides more successful.

For professors: How do you stimulate engagement in the classroom? What techniques or activities do you have in place that consistently generate results?

For students: What can a professor do to make you feel more willing to speak up and engage? What makes you feel comfortable and ready to ask questions/participate?

Leave a comment below to share your experiences.

As we continue to explore more issues like this one in the blog series, our collective contributions will prove valuable. Share the article with a friend or colleague and see what they can come up with, as well.

Follow authors Kevin Popovic and Ryan Vanshur as we continue to share our own experiences and insights. Please connect with us on LinkedIn to speak directly.

Download ebook: Creating Engagement in the Classroom


San Diego State University Lecturer Kevin Popović and SDSU student Ryan Vanshur combine their learnings about improving the classroom dynamic with their mutual experience and research, creating an insightful look into the strategies and technologies that influence today’s faculty and students.

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