The Dark Art of Teaching – Student Engagement

Published by UCLan Centre for Collaborative Learning on

Author: Rory Parkinson – Lecturer in Healthcare Ethics & Sociology as Applied to Medicine and Healthcare, University of Central Lancashire

Engaging students in our teaching sessions can be challenging. Have you ever had that class where no matter what you say to them, you have someone in the back row playing on their phone? Have you ever asked a question and had no response? Well, firstly let me say, “You are not on your own!”. Secondly, I have been teaching for over 12 years and engaging students has had its peaks and troughs, you may do one thing in one session, and it was highly engaging, students got ‘stuck in’. Then you may do the exact same session, but it falls on its face with engagement, again “You are not on your own”. Before you carry on reading I will say this, I am not an oracle who is ‘all-knowing’, nor am I a ‘perfect teacher’ who never has, or still doesn’t, have engagement issues in the classroom. However, what I will say is that from my experience you can do things to minimise and reduce the possibility of poor engagement, and that is what I want to share with you.

Engagement issues could be because of many reasons, and some of these sit with the students’ themselves, whether it be a bad day, or other pastoral reasons, keeping this in mind can help us from being overly critical of ourselves. This acknowledged, I will look at three key areas I consider to supporting higher engagement, The Setup, Managing the Resources and Activities, and Behaviour Management.

The Setup

We should know in general how many students we will have and how long we have them for, this provides us with a basic framework of the boundaries for the session. Consider what do you want the students to know by the end of the session (Learning outcomes/objectives)? How will I test all students about what I want them to know (formative assessment and activities)? I generally work on the 20:10 rule, 20 minutes maximum of ‘content delivery’ and 10 minutes of activity and feedback, of course the activity time can change depending on how demanding it is, but keep to the 20 minutes of content, students will start to lose concentration after then and drift away into the astral plane.

Once you have established the learning outcomes/objectives (LOs), with activate verbs (this helps the testing and measuring of understanding), think about what you can do to test these. Is it a group discussion and feedback to the class, is it a quiz or poll, or are they doing a matching activity? The key point here is that the learning objectives are being measured and each student in some way is being tested – we will discuss how you might do this in more detail later. This technique of teaching and testing each LO systematically is call ‘chunking’. Chunking can help you to plan and see where the lesson is going, using the LOs as a guide for what is being delivered and tested. As you can see, planning the session is very important to engagement, just having the chunking with the timing allows a clear and logical structure to a session, it allows you to test all students about what I want them to know, and it helps the students know what they will be learning in the session.

Managing Resources and Activities

Resources and activities need to be considered, put the ownness of learning on the students. They cannot learn via osmosis; they cannot sit there and absorb information effectively. Let the activity and resources do the work to allow students to think, not only will this engage them by keeping them busy, but it will help solidify content and heighten their understanding by moving them to higher order thinking. An element of good educational practice is to “support and develop learners’ confidence, autonomy and thinking skills”, keep this in mind. One of my favourite resources is a wordsearch, this can be done at the start as a recap activity, or even in the main body. Now, I hear you “but a word search is a bit… childish, Rory”, I thought this too, however, not necessarily. Think about a concept or an idea that they need to learn, what are the key words that are related to this, and can these be categorised in some way? Use these words in the wordsearch, then add another element to the wordsearch, such as asking students to put these words into categories relating to the concept or concepts (this is good for competing ideas). You can even then take this one step further and ‘stretch and challenge’ the students. Could they apply the concept to a real-life example? Could they evaluate the concepts? Could they justify which one they think works best? When they have completed the wordsearch and activities you can then ask students to feedback to the class on their answers, this will promote discussion about the topic you are exploring and lead to some really grounded understanding. And what have you done? Not much other than make a wordsearch and some questions.

As an example, I can use this for political ideologies, looking at the key concepts of left and right wing ideologies. I may have given a little delivery on this, set out of the class work for them to bring to class, or have a glossary of terms for them if they get stuck. Students will find the words, put them categories of left or right, then consider where they have seen these in the real world with some evidence to back it up. Then to stretch/challenge I might pose a problem that society is having and ask students to consider what each ideology may say is a possible solution. We would then have feedback, probably from groups or pairs, which will lead to discussion. This takes student from identify, outline, explain (as they have to understand what they are), analysis/justification, evaluation and application/synthesis. And all I did was a wordsearch, asked some questions and have some specialist knowledge. What I consider next is; does this meet the learning objectives I set and does this test them on what I want them to know? In this case it could be ‘Identify and explain political ideologies’ and ‘Apply and justify political ideologies to a societal issue’.

Of course, there are many other ways of framing activities/resources, this is just one idea. One thing to consider is having fun and letting the students enjoy learning, if you have fun, they will also have fun, and, most importantly, engage!

Behaviour Management

We have looked at a few points that you can do to engage your student, and, hopefully, if these work, poor behaviour in the classroom maybe reduced. However, behaviour management is something I must have in my mind at most points of a session. If I was to say “this tactic is 100% fool-proof” I would be lying, also if I was to tell you about all the things I have tried to reduce poor behaviour this article would be the size of an encyclopaedia. But all is not lost! There are somethings you can try to reduce poor behaviour and increase engagement in your classroom.

Before I start let’s just understand what I mean when I say ‘poor behaviour’. This is not things like bullying, shouting, abusive language and aggression, these things are not tolerated, and a zero-tolerance approach should be taken with these to ensure a safe environment. I sincerely hope you have not come across this type of behaviour, and if you have, I hope that you have had the correct support to deal with it. What I mean when I say ‘poor behaviour’ are things like; students looking at their phones when you are talking; students talking over you or another student when they are giving feedback; and generally, not paying attention. Once again, there are many things you can do, but I want to talk about just two things you can try to reduce this behaviour and increase engagement, proximity and direct questioning.

Proximity is a subtle way of curbing minor poor behaviour, normally I will employ this while either giving a bit of content delivery or when there is discussion and feedback ongoing. You know that student right, the one who is sat at the back of the class, on their phone, just not paying any attention, yep, you got them in your mind? One thing you can do while talking is move about, no need to stay at the front of the class, you are not a comedian at The Apollo. While talking just walk over and stand close to them, don’t talk to them just carry on, they will soon put their phone away. One important thing about this tactic is that you stay there until you have finished talking, then quietly thank them for putting their phone away. Don’t make a song and dance about it, other student will notice regardless, and that student will more than likely reduce that behaviour. This can also work if there is ‘chattering’ from a few people while you or others are talking, just walk towards them and they will soon quieten down, if not, while they continue to talk, just thank them for quietening down while others are talking. Thanking them for a behaviour they have not stopped already shows what your expectations are, slightly passive aggressive, but it works, remember that email you got when they thanked you for doing something before you have done it? Yep, same thing.

Direct questioning is not just good for engagement, but it can also reduce low level disruptive behaviour. A direct question is one that you ask directly to a student, as opposed to an open question that allows anyone to answer. Have you ever just said “can anyone tell me…”, I have, more than once, but I have reframed from this for some time now. The issue with open questions is that it allows those who are not engaged to get away with not being engaged, and allows them to show poor behaviour. Knowing that ‘I will never be asked’ allows them to make the decision to not engage with no penalty. Therefore, how do you know that they are learning? How can you test the lesson objectives against them? When you open a question you will always have stronger learners answering, and although it is nice to have someone who has been paying attention to answer, does that benefit the whole class? I may be assumptive here and say ‘no’ it does not.

Firstly, it can be difficult to know everyone’s name is a class, especially if you are guest lecturing, only have a few sessions with them, or you have a lecture theatre with 100s of students. So, we will look at how to address this first. If I am in a classroom setting with about 40 students, I will have a register or list of student names next to me, another way could be for them to do a paper register as they enter, you then have all their names. You can also use table tents, were they put their name on a piece of paper and fold it and put it in front of them, which can be a fun activity for them also, I sometimes ask them to draw what they want to be when they are ‘bigger’, cheap laugh but it works. If you have a 100+ lecture theatre, it isn’t plausible to have all their names (well it maybe for you but not for me) so the best way for direct questioning to work is to physically take a microphone over to the student, but will get to this. Secondly, when asking a question, ask it out loud first, then just pick someone to answer from your list of names or physically going over to them. What we are doing here is setting our expectations for learning, I ask the question first so everyone has chance to think about it, if I say the question after their name other students may switch off, I want them all to think about it then I will pounce! You can then follow on from there, if you want, you can then start to dig deeper, engage in further questioning and even ask others could they add to the answer or come up with an argument for it, this Socratic questioning really helps embed knowledge, but I am not here to talk to you about Socratic questioning, so I will put a pin in it for now. By targeting students, you do a couple of things. Firstly, you give the learning environment a ‘fear factor’, students know when you ask a question anyone of them could have to answer it, so they better listen and have something to say! This improves engagement, if they are looking at their phone and you call them out it’s quite an embarrassing situation. Second, you are checking on learning (formative assessment) of all the student to the best of your ability, this is because they all need to have something to say. Finally, you are also setting expectations for learning, you come into my class this is what will happen, you will find they will have more fun, they will engage with each other, and this will lead to further opportunities for learning.

So, what happens when a student says “I don’t know” to one of your questions? You have a few options, you could just move on and give them an ‘out’, I don’t like that. I will stick with the student until they have given me something. I may rephrase the question, break it down a little and guide them to an answer. However, they may just not have any idea, so I tell them, “That’s ok, you have a think about it and I will be back to ask you again in a second”, pre-loading the question means they know you will come back and they better have something to say, move on to another student for now while they think, it can be the same or a different question, depends on what you are asking . After the student you moved onto has finished come back to the one who did not answer, they will have something for you, and don’t forget to thank them, give them that positive reinforcement, they will more than likely repeat the good behaviour from there on. This also works in lecture theatres, there is a little more pressure on the student, but it will work, and I always like to start at the back rows of the lecture theatres, let them know they cannot escape your questioning!

I have gone on for a while here, but the key message is to let the students do the work and let them be engaged. Clear planning and creation of resources may take some time, but it means you have to do less in the classroom, and you have these resources forever. Planning to test clear objectives gives you and the students a clear plan of what will be taught, therefore increasing engagement. Resources need to be fun but also challenging, this will keep them busy and engaged. If you think someone is showing low level disruption move close to them and thank them for stopping the behaviour. Finally, ensuring all student know they could be asked upon to do something at any time will help to increase engagement and decrease low level disruptive behaviour.

Rory Parkinson UCLan Staff Profile

Image by johnhain from Pixabay


1 Comment

Kelly Stewart · June 14, 2023 at 4:40 pm

Everyone involved in Teaching & Learning needs to read this blog! Rory you are amazing 🙂

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