Creating Engagement in the Classroom

An Introduction to Creating Classroom Engagement: Understanding the challenges of the modern learning environment.

Remember your very first classroom? If your grade school was like most, it was a rectangular room, with the students’ desks lined up facing toward the teacher’s so you could see the chalkboard and pay attention to the lesson of the day.

The mimeograph sent a distinct scent wafting across the room, the overhead projector meant it was time to break out the pencils and paper, and the screech of the chalk across the slate blackboard spiked the hair on your neck on a daily basis. No matter where you went to school, you can probably relate to one—or all—of these classroom experiences.

But this ubiquitous, nostalgic classroom, like virtually every aspect of our modern lives, has evolved. Small, intimate male-based classrooms instructed by a single female teacher in a one-room schoolhouse are now full-on institutions, co-ed in faculty and students alike.

But as the buildings and institutions grew, the walls separating the classrooms slowly disintegrated. With the rise of technology and an overall encouragement of free thinking and creativity, students’ work today transcends the classroom and permeates every aspect of their life. Just because they left class doesn’t mean they’re done learning. Not today.

Online lessons, mobile learning apps, cloud-based services, and more allow students to interact and engage—constantly—with their material. This creates a problem, one we’ve encountered throughout the classroom’s history. Those transparencies on the overhead projector were once cutting-edge and amazing and instructors had to learn how to utilize them to best serve their students. There was a learning curve, but once it was conquered, learning was never the same.

The same goes for our modern learning environment. Some innovative, potentially confusing technology exists to aid our students, but soon, we’ll wonder how we ever taught without it.

From the professor…

In my first classroom, I had a computer and video projector. It’s what I expected in 1998 as a teacher at a modern educational institution. The technology enabled me to present my content to the entire class in a more interesting format with the goal of increasing their engagement. The better my content, the better the presentation, the better the engagement appeared to be.

In my second classroom (circa 1999), I had access to the Internet and so did my students. The technology enabled my content to be available both during the class and after the class, again with the goal of improving engagement. As I used more technology to track the student access (Google Analytics), I was able to prove engagement.

With each classroom since, there has been more technology provided by the school, and the support to keep it operating (thank you, IT departments everywhere). The challenge has been, and continues to be, my ability to apply it to my entire class in a way that actually creates engagement with each student.

From the student…

For Luke Sophinos, Founder and CEO of CourseKey and a junior communications student at San Diego State University, the change from high school to college was both challenging and enlightening.


After leaving his small hometown in Colorado, Luke arrived on the 35,000-student campus to find a maze. A new learning environment. A classroom packed with 500 students. Social pressures and anxieties. He transformed from 18-year-old Luke Sophinos, a promising student known on a first-name basis with his teachers, to the kid behind the guy with the hat to the right of the girl that keeps popping her bubble-gum.

This lack of individualized instruction is not our educators’ fault. Both teachers and their students are set up for failure in our current system: 500 students, one professor, daily lessons, and one hour to execute them. Good luck getting to know Luke Sophinos, prof.

About this series…

This entire series — Creating Engagement in the Classroom — co-authored by students and professors—sparks constructive conversations about an antiquated education system.

It feels like a waste of time to sit in huge lectures and not be able to ask questions, so I avoid signing up for them when I can because I often end up teaching myself the material later.” – Ana Cecilia Medeiros, SDSU Senior (International Business)

I like to engage most with professors who make sure to include me in part of the conversation. When I feel that the professor really values my opinions, thoughts and questions, I am much more comfortable contributing in class.” – Kelsey Moss, SDSU Senior (Journalism & Media Studies)

Honestly, I do not really feel like I meet or connect with many students in my large lecture classes. There are so many students packed into such a large room that it can be intimidating to try and approach a fellow classmate, even if it’s just for help with an assignment.” – Chelsea Baer, SDSU Senior (Journalism & Media Studies)

Identifying the right solution(s)…

Students want to be more involved in their education. Routinely sitting in class, jotting down notes, and leaving with their head down and laptops in hand is just not sufficient.

The first attempts to actively engage students through technology came from professors at the University of Illinois in 1999. These student-response-systems (SRS) are four-button hardware remotes that allowed professors to send out multiple-choice questions throughout different points of the lecture.

As mobile phones took off, the polling technology shifted from hardware to software using SMS text-messaging systems. Students are now being engaged through their cellular phones and were no longer required to purchase additional hardware that might only have been used in a single lecture.

Today, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programs provide educators the ability to use a range of mobile tools, making them an instant point of access to an infinite amount of information. Digital intelligence is the common language among higher education students and can act as an amplifying force for other areas of preferred learning. These types of innovations can transform a device from a “traditional classroom distraction” into a “dynamic engagement tool”.

Research on undergraduate education from the CCSSE Validation Research finds that the more engaged students are, the more likely they are to achieve their academic goals. The study concludes: student engagement matters.

One emerging solution is web-based applications, like CourseKey, a platform that can facilitate this end. These can promote remote collaboration and provide valuable data for the professor, potentially helping determine where the opportunities lie in a classroom to increase student engagement.

Moving forward…

The evolution of the classroom brings opportunity and responsibility for instructors. Lifelong learning for students relies on effective educating, and effective educating relies on listening to the students and taking the time to construct lessons that best encourage them to engage.

By leveraging technology for education, we can support the efforts of our teachers and increase the potential for this result. We can enhance the classroom forever.

Throughout this series of articles we will continue to address and discuss changes in the ever-changing modern classroom. The feedback we receive from educators and students alike is instrumental to our continued learning, and ultimately our success.

Join our conversation.

Leave a comment below to share your insights and experiences to contribute to our greater understanding of what works, and what works better. Share this article with fellow students and colleagues at your educational institution.

Follow authors Kevin Popović and Ryan Vanshur as we continue to share what we are learning. 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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