Techniques for Student Engagement

min read
EDUCAUSE Exchange | Season 2, Episode 3

What are some of the techniques and tools being used to engage students? A variety of instructors and technologists discuss their approaches to keeping students invested in their courses.

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Gerry Bayne: Welcome to EDUCAUSE exchange, where we focus on a single question from the higher ed IT community and hear advice, anecdotes, best practices, and more. In the last year, increasing attention and intentionality has been given to student engagement as we've shifted into multiple modes of learning and support. Student engagement must take into consideration the interests of the student, emotionally, physically, and contextually to work. So on this episode of EDUCAUSE exchange, we ask several higher ed leaders, what are some of the methods we can use to engage students this year?

Tom Cavanagh: There are a number of things that our faculty have been doing that I think are really creative.

Bayne: That's Tom Cavanagh, vice provost for digital learning at the University of Central Florida.

Cavanagh: So for example, one of our faculty has been working on this open pedagogy project where students create these openly licensed or open access photo voice projects within Pressbooks, which is kind of an open access digital publishing platform, and have been asking students to comment at least recently about how COVID or other things have affected their community and their environment. And they've put up some really interesting things, like a student went back to their home country of Brazil and discovered problems of sewage and sanitation, and they've done a video, a diary of that. The pandemic through the eyes of a COVID nurse, as well as through a K-12 public school teacher have been really interesting. That's one example of how we've tried to use some media in some courses to have students reflect.

Bayne: One Spanish professor shows video at the beginning of each class that she shot when visiting Cuba and relates it specifically to the current class topic.

Cavanagh: According to her, it's really engaged them. It's prompted a bunch of questions and additional discussion, and it's made even the online aspect of the courses that we've been teaching remotely, just as engaging as a classroom experience.

Bayne: And Tom wasn't short on citing other ways that the University of Central Florida tries to engage their students.

Cavanagh: Things like an online student lounge and the discussion board where students can kind of get together and vent, or maybe ask questions of each other. Being much more intentional about the use of announcements online. Particularly video announcements, so that faculty can be much more present. Personalizing the experience as much as possible. We've been recommending to faculty that they use students' names intentionally. Maybe try to keep some sort of informal list of details about the students, such as their military experience, if they just moved, if they have a new baby or something, to try and get to get to know them on a personal level, and then work that into your communication. We've been recommending also tools like Flipgrid that allow students to connect through these really short videos and get to know each other, not just get to know the faculty member, in a new media facilitated way.

Bayne: Renee Pfeiffer Luckett is director of learning technology development at the University of Wisconsin system administration. And working in system administration, she comes from more of the technologist's viewpoint than the instructors.

Renee Pfeiffer Luckett: What really this is all about is a digital learning environment that we designed based on Malcolm Brown et al, when he did his next generation digital learning environment. We sort of stole a couple of those letters of the acronym and created our own. And really at the very forefront of it, our focus was on students, and being student centered in the technology that we developed for them. So essentially our digital learning environment is made up of three key technologies. Of course, the LMS along with a media management platform and web conferencing. So those are our three enterprise tools that we put together and created this environment that's really accessible.

We wanted to make sure that we weren't putting up barriers for students to learn. So we definitely knew that accessibility was a front and center consideration when doing the design. We also knew that we wanted to have a very collaborative environment so that students could freely exchange ideas and materials across system. Prior to this environment, we had very independent campus focused technology systems. And so when we rolled out this new digital learning environment, we made it system-wide, which was the first time the LMS provider had really done something at that scale, because we're quite large.

Bayne: Renee says another essential piece of the technology puzzle for engagement is interoperability, so they can bring things in and take things out of the digital learning environment.

Pfeiffer Luckett: We have over 70 or 80 third-party tools now plugged into our digital learning environment, and our campuses can come in and out of these different technologies quite easily. And because they can, that means the students can as well. And instructors.

Bayne: And they aren't just implementing these systems without looking to the present and the future of how well it serves the students.

Pfeiffer Luckett: Right now, we're doing a study to actually evaluate how successful we were in implementing this new DOE, and how it impacts students. It's a student centered research project, so we are actually going to do a system wide look at how they are interacting with the environment right now, and where we can do better, if there's any gaps that we can fill. We're always trying to find new ways to make the environment better for students.

Bayne: With the struggles of teaching in 2020, there was such a huge reduction of physical engagement with physical spaces, such that students and campus services had to work much harder to serve students social and cultural engagement.

Shannon Dunn: And this is particularly important I think to student wellbeing and mental health.

Bayne: Shannon Dunn is assistant director for the UFIT Center for Instructional Technology and Training at the University of Florida.

Dunn: Because we know that even prior to the pandemic, students across the country, not just at UF, were reporting isolation and depression and seeking support and record numbers.

Bayne: She says that one of the biggest shifts she's seen over the past year is an attitude of appreciation for the students and the complexity of their lives.

Dunn: I think we've learned a lot more acutely that student engagement often is driven by what's happening in the moment in the classroom, but not only what's happening in the classroom. And I think that we can expand our approach. What does student engagement look like to advisors, to student services, to mentors, to wellness coaches? And as we think about how to make our institution student centered, and to value the holistic student experience, how can we expand our approach to student engagement to support those goals?

Bayne: Kathy Pelletier, director of the teaching and learning program here at EDUCAUSE, says that the hybrid form of course design is also part of supporting the goal of treating the student as a whole complex person.

Kathy Pelletier: I think in terms of what's happening in the classroom that maybe is perhaps driven by what we've learned in 2020, is recognizing that we really need to see students as human beings and that we need to see faculty and staff as human beings, and leveraging that increasing compassion and flexibility and awareness of all the things that we bring with us when we show up in class. That's probably one of the reasons why campuses might be turning to a hybrid future, because it allows for more flexibility, more choice on the part of the student, and just more ways for students and faculty to come together and learn. So that's really exciting to me.

Bayne: Speaking of the holistic experience, incorporating play into course design can help students to feel more connected with their instructors and with each other, reduce stress, and prime students to engage in learning about emotionally heavy topics. Lisa Forbes is assistant clinical professor in the counseling program and in the school of education at the University of Colorado Denver.

Lisa Forbes: I teach a very serious subject area. We have a lot of objectives to reach, but I find that if you can just do a little bit of play at the start of class, only for joy, then it actually makes the learning process easier. Faculty have to work not as hard to get their students engaged because you've given two to 10 minutes for this play that's just silly and goofy. So when it's virtual, I'll do silly computer games. I don't know if you've heard of Flappy Birds. I say, "Okay, you have two minutes to play this game. The winner gets a sticker. Go." And then I have them unmute themselves and just fun and goofy.

So I think a lot of times faculty don't make space for that. But what I found is if there's joy and excitement and laughter in the classroom, it makes people feel safe. If they feel safe, they're more willing to be vulnerable. And if they're more willing to be vulnerable, then they're more likely to be willing to take risks and take chances, which leads to failure, which leads to better learning. So I think it's a really valuable process that sometimes doesn't get the credit it deserves in higher education.

David Thomas: I think the way that that play creates comradery in a class isn't unusual or even unfamiliar.

Bayne: David Thomas is executive director for online programs at the University of Denver, and along with Lisa Forbes, he created Professors at Play. A community of educators exploring how to make higher education more engaging, connected, meaningful, and fun.

Thomas: If you're at a football game and you don't know the five people to your right or the five people to your left, but when the team gets to touchdown you all are high fiving each other, it's like all of a sudden you feel this connection and community among perfect strangers. And so in a class, it really does release some of that. All of that comfort, all of that safety, all that community then allows for the students to feel able to be vulnerable. And vulnerable is a tricky word because we have this sense of what it means around sharing your feelings or whatever, but in a classroom, vulnerability means I'm willing to make mistakes. I won't feel ashamed of making mistakes. If you make a bad move in a game, or you miss a golf shot, or you hit the tennis ball crazy, nobody feels shame. They just go, "Ah I shouldn't ..." They feel like it was a mistake. But we create classroom structures where vulnerability feels like you're not smart, you're not prepared, you don't understand this. Instead of it's just a mistake. So I think the investment upfront in play, and again, what we call from Professors at Play connection formers, is incredibly valuable in helping the students just start to feel safe in the classroom.

Bayne: If you'd like to find out more or participate in the Professors at Play community, you can find it at On their site you'll find videos, community, and more around engaging students with play. That's I'm Gerry Bayne for EDUCAUSE. Thanks for listening.

This episode features:

Tom Cavanagh
Vice Provost for Digital Learning
University of Central Florida

Shannon Dunn
Assistant Director, UFIT Center for Instructional Technology and Training
University of Florida

Lisa Forbes
Assistant Clinical Professor in the Counseling Program and in the School of Education
University of Colorado, Denver

Kathe Pelletier
Director, Teaching and Learning Program

Renee Pfeifer-Luckett
Director, Learning Technology Development
University of Wisconsin System Administration

David Thomas
Executive Director for Online Programs
University of Denver

Recommended Resource

Professors at Play

Lisa Forbes, "Play in the Time of COVID-19," EDUCAUSE Review, November 5, 2020.