Can't take my eyes off you- How to better engage with students
Have you ever seen students fail to pay attention in class? Have you ever seen students who were physically present but immersed in something else? Have you ever seen students nodding off in class?
It's in our nature to become easily sidetracked. Even the most experienced teachers occasionally have trouble keeping their students engaged in their classes. It has become more difficult to grab students' attention with the advent of hybrid and remote learning approaches.
According to research, engaging students in the learning process increases their focus and concentration as well as inspires them to develop higher-level critical thinking. Within the first few minutes of a class, students start establishing opinions on their classes and instructors. If instructors are unable to capture their attention immediately, engagement will suffer for the rest of the semester.
Here are several tactics that can be used by instructors to increase student involvement.
1. Build connections with students.
Studies show that building relationships with students and letting them get to know you will help them learn more. If you are familiar with students’ backgrounds and interests, you will be better able to connect the concepts taught in class to their daily lives. Additionally, you will enjoy teaching more.
  • Index cards. Suitable for onsite, small-size classes. You may make a list of each student's information on an index card before the first day of class, including their hometown, interests, field of study, previous internships, hobbies, future plans, and any other information they would like to share. In the first place, it makes it easier for you to get to know each student quickly. Secondly, you can use some of that knowledge in the classroom by combining the students’ gathered interests into the discussions and activities. Thirdly, it's more convenient for you to recall and manage the whole class. The cards can be stored in small file boxes for all time. It helps you remember them and your connection with them when former students seek you for recommendations years after they graduate, either in person or via email.
  • Online shared forms. Suitable for online classes or large-size classes. The same data can be acquired using an online information gathering form, such as "问卷星" in mainland China or Google forms abroad. This strategy has the benefit of allowing us to send the document to the students and get a large amount of feedback before our first class.


2. Cold call and warm call in the class.

Engage students, but pay attention when additional assistance is needed. If the same group of students is always answering each time and the other students do not participate, collective learning cannot take place. To encourage greater participation, teachers could make cold calls to students. Then they are all aware that you may contact them at any time. Teachers might make a warm call to students who are particularly wary or worried about that possibility so that they can prepare for it. Furthermore, you can emphasize that providing inaccurate answers has no negative effects on a student's grade. Based on my own experience, if I call on a student and he/she gets stuck, I'll ask other students to assist him/her. I frequently use the phrase "help them out," and students appreciate it. So long as students do the work before class, there is no disadvantage to giving incorrect answers.
3. Be meaningful
Engagement also occurs when we assign students tasks that are meaningful to them. Why is what we're discussing important? What effects will this have on students' lives? How does the subject relate to the student’s future studies, occupations, or other extracurricular interests based on what you know about them?
When the "So what?" question is addressed before the assignment is delivered and compelling examples are provided for the subject’s relevance, students are driven to complete the task effectively—not only for the grade.
If the classroom has productive prework activities, students may come to class more prepared to participate. Grades and reading assignments alone are insufficient to inspire students. We must widen our horizons and think creatively when designing prework activities. It's crucial to have them ready to interact. The assignments we provide students should answer the "So what?" question and require them to engage with the subject in some way so that they do not begin fresh in class.
4. Pace your lessons well.
According to studies, it's best to switch up the class's activities every 7 to 10 minutes to keep students’ attention. Additionally, it's a good idea to choose class activities that involve the students rather than giving lengthy lectures, which is a fairly passive approach. Verbal discussions and Q&As don't fully count as involvement, even though they offer some interactions and breaks from lectures. Here are some examples of how to break up lectures by changing the subject or delivery method:
  • Set an agenda. When students know about the plan beforehand, they are more likely to remain attentive. Students will benefit from seeing the class schedule written on the board or shared online. This is especially useful for lengthier classes, in which concentration is easier to waver. As students finish each component of the class agenda, they feel a sense of success, which improves their engagement.
  • Short videos. Play relevant and interesting video clips, then ask the class to comment on them. YouTube and Bilibili are undoubtedly excellent sources.
  • Polling apps. Poll the class sometimes to elicit quick responses from the students on a certain question or topic. Teachers can select the polling app that best fits their class settings. Students can vote or answer using their smartphones directly. Some online meeting platforms also offer polling tools for online classes, for example, LM Core offers Choice, JazzQuiz and H5P, which could be used for polling.
  • Group works. Encourage collaboration among students. Give them an assignment to accomplish in groups, and then let them present their work to the class as a whole. When doing this in person, building teams together and asking students to stand up to write on the board, give them a chance to move around throughout class. This may also be done in breakout rooms when doing it online by using the tools like Fair Allocation and Group Choice.
  • Leading dynamic discussions. Successful discussions seldom happen automatically. Teachers may establish specific guidelines and a clear focus for the discussion by preparing in advance. This will make it possible for the class to discuss major problems from various angles, which will spark students' interest in and involvement with the course materials.
5. Yes, we care.
Celebrate students’ accomplishments, especially those that occur outside of class, as a way to maintain the connection and level of engagement you have built up with students since the beginning. For example, I keep up with news and happenings on campus and interact with students on various social media platforms. When I learn of their accomplishments, such as landing a new job or an internship, I'll send a brief note of congratulations. And they are constantly appreciative of it. To me, engagement means showing your care to students.
Engaged students, lifelong learners.
“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
I want to be a teacher who does much more than simply convey a narrow body of knowledge to students over the course of a semester. I aim to arouse the intellectual curiosity of my students, encourage them to ask probing questions, and inspire them to take on challenging tasks. If we, as teachers, engage them, we can motivate them to perform well in our classes and to be useful lifelong learners.
Gehlbach, H., Brinkworth, M. E., Hsu, L., King, A., McIntyre, J., & Rogers, T. (in press). Creating birds of similar feathers: Leveraging similarity to improve teacher-student relationships and academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology.
Roberto, M. A. (2021). Engaging Students on the First Day and Every Day. Harvard Business Publishing Education.

Dr. Liang WEN,
Department of Strategic Management and Organisations

20 September 2023

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