increase student engagement

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

Four Ways to Increase Student Engagement