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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


Four Ways to Increase Student Engagement

Recently, I asked a faculty focus group what they hear students “say” in class. The top answers didn’t surprise me, but they did reveal a pattern in kids today:

  • “I’m bored.”
  • “This is too hard.”
  • “Will this be on the test?”
  • “What does this have to do with my life?”

Granted, these are honest statements made by teenagers. They reveal a “Touch Screen Generation” who has short attention spans, poor communication skills, a desire for relevance and a high need for external stimuli. They are not bad kids or even slow kids—but they are kids who require faculty to learn how to foster student engagement. This is one of the toughest challenges for most teachers today. We demonstrated this fact last year, when we completed a pilot program in Georgia public highs schools with our Habitudes curriculum. When we assessed over 900 faculty and 17,000 students, we heard about “disengagement” from both sides. Many of the troubled or “at risk” students have gone from angry to apathetic.

Four Changes We Can Make

I just completed a qualitative study among students in higher education institutions. I asked the students what elements they appreciated most when learning something new in an academic or non-academic environment. They were given plenty of options, as well as free space to write in their own answer to the question. Their top four responses were enlightening. They preferred:

  1. Story vs. Didactic. They want teachers to use real-life tales or case studies to instruct them.
  2. Conversation vs. Monologue. They want teachers to include “chat” (interaction) in the midst of the lecture.
  3. Visual vs. Verbal. They want teachers to utilize metaphors and images to anchor big ideas.
  4. Simple vs. Complex. They want teachers to summarize complex, main ideas into simple phrases.

Did you catch that? They love narratives. They love interaction. They love pictures. They want us to make the complex simple. They’re asking for stories from real life that they can talk about and make sense of; they want to attach a metaphor to help them remember what they learned and they want a single take-away…not so many they can’t retain them all. My question is: just like great cross-cultural missionaries, shouldn’t we find ways to connect with the people we’re attempting to reach? Wouldn’t it make sense to use the vehicles of communication they prefer?

Based upon our research, we’ve just released a new resource for educators to use as they equip young leaders on campus. We call it: “Case and Point.”

It is a series of case studies, containing relevant stories (item one above), about students who faced a dilemma as a young leader. Questions come next, as your students unpack the story and make sense of what they would do in a similar situation. (Item two above). Then, we share a Habitude that teaches a principle students can practice or apply in that situation (item three above). Finally, we help the students summarize their take-away (item four above).

The case studies include scenarios with Resident Advisors, Student Government Officers, Club Leaders, Peer Mentors and other leadership roles. The discussions revolve around issues like conflict resolution, morals and ethics, relationship skills, integrity, communication, justice, discipline, collaboration and more. This tool could be ideal for starting conversations in meetings with student leaders while using the four elements students are asking for above.

I recently had a teacher ask me what to do about today’s entertainment-addicted student. I asked if she’d ever looked up the word “entertainment.” One dictionary defines it this way: “To capture and hold one’s attention.” Perhaps we need more entertainment in class. Using the four elements above does not mean we delude the rigor of our instruction. It simply means we deliver it in a way that engages them.


photo credit: dcJohn via photopin cc


  1. Kevin on September 9, 2013 at 8:21 am

    Is this really the best way forward? It seems that the suggestions pander to students’ deficiencies rather than addressing the altered teaching paradigm. Granted, it is important that students are engaged in studies and that the age of the droning lecture is past. However, as great as these buzz words sound, they might devalue the complexity that we will then complain later our students don’t understand. Sometimes a lecture is necessary. Sometimes things can’t be reduced to a catch phrase that they can later spit out on a test. Sometimes hyperbole further confuses an issue or fails to embrace the entirety of a concept. Will close be good enough later in Life? But perhaps the biggest thing these goals avoid is the fact that learning is hard; sometimes students need to learn to suck it up and deal. If they miss this lesson, they miss a lesson of Life. How we teach teaches as much as the lesson taught. If we cave in and give them only the ways they “like” to learn, we have subliminally taught them that they can get anything they want.

    While I appreciate calls to shake up education and include multiple teaching methods to reach all students (something I routinely do in my own classroom), I hesitate to embrace “entertaining” a student. Such a notion seems to place the opinion of success in the student’s hands, dramatically affecting the power paradigm (and there is a power war in the classroom). After all, the teacher is the one with the knowledge; it is student’s unfounded arrogance speaking when they think they don’t need it. An arrogant mind can never be taught, and unfortunately in today’s world, we cater to that mind in attempt to bring it round rather than breaking the system that has encouraged its existence. Perhaps we should find ways of addressing the notion why kids think they don’t need to learn things rather than finding a way to keep their incubators cozy, warm, fully serviced and unchallenged.

    • Tim Elmore on September 11, 2013 at 8:38 am

      Great comments. I agree with your sentiment—in fact, it’s what I’ve been saying for years. We must address the “why” students must learn. What I would say to your comments about pandering to the student is simply this: we must begin where they are, and build a bridge to where they need to be. I believe the suggestions I offer (based on research) are one place we could gain traction, to create incentive and move them toward maturity. All good communicators take responsibility to connect. Frankly, I am with thousands of educators each year and I see way too much “old school” thinking where the teacher acts as the dispenser of knowledge. They no longer are. Information is ubiquitous. We don’t need teachers for information but for interpretation…and the change must begin with us.

  2. Suzanne Crosina-Sahm on September 9, 2013 at 11:52 am

    I went to elementary and high school in the ’70s and college in the ’80s and the best teachers I had were already employing these strategies. This isn’t something new, it’s becoming a lost art.

  3. Melody Leow on September 15, 2013 at 4:31 pm

    Just the other day, I had a classmate say about a class: “I don’t see how this class connects with my life!” It is indeed true that the iY Gen desire to see the correlation between what they are being taught and how it affects their life. Maybe if teachers would take the time at the beginning of each semester to explain the “why” of the class, students will be much more engaged and eager to learn.

    • Tim Elmore on September 16, 2013 at 1:25 pm

      So true, Melody. There are times when we get so caught up in our fast-paced lifestyles that we don’t even take the time to ask “why”. Yet when we do stop and reflect, I believe students would connect the dots and see the meaningfulness behind the curriculum.

  4. Amy on September 16, 2013 at 9:26 am

    I appreciate the thoughts in this article. I think it is good to think about how we can connect to this generation. It is important to ask students how they learn best in today’s world because if we do not do that we will never capture their attention. We must be sure to maintain a balance between entertaining them in the way they understand entertainment. Today’s entertainment world is filled with fast and furious access and answers to everything; learning does not work that way. Students need to learn that learning takes time, and that not all of it will be engaging or entertaining.

    • Tim Elmore on September 16, 2013 at 1:41 pm

      You are spot on Amy, it is a balance between entertaining students and understanding entertainment. I believe that the more we can instill meaningfulness in the less entertaining moments, the more the students are willing to stay engaged in the material.

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Four Ways to Increase Student Engagement