CELFS Teaching and Learning Network

How to better engage students in the learning process

by Viktoria Tafferner

engagedYawning, passive, phone-obsessed students … any of these can constitute a challenging class: what can you do to involve them?

Have you, as a tutor ever faced this issue? I have, which made me think of and search for alternative ways to improve student engagement in my classroom.

It is generally believed that learning improves when students are inquisitive, interested, or inspired, and that learning tends to suffer when students are bored, dispassionate, disaffected, or otherwise “disengaged” (The Glossary of Education Reform, 2014). This might be because they are shy by nature, or because they come from a different cultural/educational environment, which is very often the case with our pre-sessional students.

Classrooms in many Asian cultures have traditionally been teacher-dominated, where the teachers hold the knowledge and disseminate it to students who are accustomed to a receptive learning dynamic (DeWaelsche, 2015). According to Li (1998), students “have become accustomed to the traditional classroom structure, in which they sit motionless, take notes while the teacher lectures, and speak only when they are spoken to” (p. 691). This makes it difficult to get students participating during class activities. So, taking their cultural-educational background and their keen interest in technology into consideration, I have tried to think of ways to better engage them in the learning process.

Throughout the literature (see Towler’s literature review, 2010) if you search for “class engagement” or “student engagement” you may find that it can mean a number of things, thus different methods and approaches have to be applied in the classroom to achieve better student interaction.

To increase intellectual engagement, for example, teachers may create lessons, assignments, or projects that appeal to student interests or that stimulate their curiosity. In case of our pre-sessional students, the best opportunity for this lies in the literature review/research paper project, the topic of which is the students’ choice. To further raise interest in this project and foster an academic attitude in preparation for their future master’s studies I announced an “academic conference” where the students as “academics” in their own prospective fields presented their main findings to the class.

Their mini conference presentations turned out to be beneficial in a number of academic skills besides being intellectually challenging. The benefits included: gaining confidence and credibility when presenting; overcoming nerves when speaking publicly; developing audience interaction skills; as well as influencing and inspiring others. It helped to create and maintain a stimulating intellectual environment, discussion and discovery and lastly it improved their communication skills by raising awareness of both their verbal and non-verbal language.

Brainstorming can also be intellectually challenging: through a simple digital tool like AnswerGarden you can create a questionnaire and then share a link to it with your students. They can then add ideas related to a specific topic and these can be displayed on your board as they are added. AnswerGarden also allows you to export and save these as a word cloud, so students can then have their own record. (Peachey, 2016)

According to The Glossary of Education Reform, educators may use a wide variety of strategies to promote positive emotions in students that will facilitate the learning process. In order to increase emotional engagement we may provide counselling and/or set up peer mentoring. In this way, we can give students the support they need to succeed academically and feel positive, optimistic, or excited about their studies. At the end of the second week, I set up “study buddies” who are supposed to assist each other in certain tasks outside the classroom.

In order to build a sense of class community, I had the students spend some quality time together, such as cookouts/picnics, museum visits or short trips in and around Bristol, which I found positively contributed to their classroom performance and engagement as they could leave the feeling of alienation – a very common problem of international students – behind.

It is worth considering behavioural engagement here too, because it contributes to better adjustment and reduces stress related to performing in class: this may include established classroom routines, the use of consistent cues, or assigning students roles that foster independence. For example, if there are regular break out sessions; if students are asked (on a rotating basis) to lead certain activities; or if we use assessment in creative ways to bring peers together, we put the focus on their responsibility for becoming and remaining engaged in the learning process.

We can present the information and content that we want students to understand in form of questions and problems and have them solve them. I give them time to use the internet to search for the solutions and then collect the information they have found in the class. We will still have to fill some gaps that might remain and help the students understand how some of the information they find may not be valid or correct. If we push the initial responsibility onto the students, we empower them it will can give them a much stronger sense of responsibility: the skills that they are learning in searching for and solving the problems are just as useful as the solutions they find. (Peachey, 2016)

You can engage students in the classroom through their devices, which they seem to be glued to, through a backchannel. It is a simple chatroom that you can create for your students to join, then your students will able to communicate with you and each other using text during the lesson. This makes you part of the virtual discourse and you can use the backchannel to share links to digital resources with students, elicit responses from the whole group and reinforce task-setting. (Peachey, 2016)

Opportunities for active and collaborative learning are particularly important to foster social connections and being socially engaged in one’s class or study group greatly influences the students’ classroom performance and interaction. Problem-solving activities are a great opportunity for collaboration and interaction as well as online discussions or collaborative writing. To appeal to their tech side we can use digital tools to get students creating text together and peer editing the text simultaneously. Tools like Google Docs or the simpler PrimaryPad enable students to work synchronously on the same text from different devices while in the classroom and you can watch and monitor as they write through your own device. (Peachey, 2016)

The importance of engagement in the learning process and its relation to academic success is undisputed, thus it has become a significant consideration for educators both as a means of understanding student performance and behaviour and for addressing student needs. Above are just a few ideas and tools that can help to keep your students engaged in various ways through both traditional and innovative classroom (and non-classroom) techniques and to utilise the power of their digital devices in more positive and productive ways.


  • DeWaelsche, S. (2015). Critical thinking, questioning and student engagement in Korean university English courses. Linguistics and Education, 32, pp.131-147.
  • Li, D. (1998). It’s Always More Difficult Than You Plan and Imagine’: Teachers’ Perceived Difficulties in Introducing the Communicative Approach in South Korea.TESOL Quarterly,32, no. 4, pp. 677–703. jstor.org/stable/3588000.
  • Peachey, N. (2016). 7 ways you can use technology to engage with students. [Blog] Pearson. Available at: https://www.english.com/blog/ways-technology-engages-students [Accessed 25 Nov. 2016].
  • The Glossary of Education Reform (2014). In S. Abbott (Ed.), Hidden Curriculum. Retrieved from http://edglossary.org/hidden-curriculum
  • Trowler, V. (2010). Student engagement literature review.The higher education academy,11, pp.1-15.

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