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Sparking Engagement

Sparking Engagement

Numerous studies have documented the importance and benefits of classroom engagement. Fostering broad-based participation through methods that you might not have considered is a worthy goal, particularly in large lecture courses that don’t at first seem amenable to the use of traditional engagement tools.

Our objectives in producing this page are for you to be able to:

  • Critique the standard approach to class participation;
  • Describe the advantages of a broader, more flexible model;
  • Implement some techniques inspired by the model; and
  • Create new techniques that ignite student engagement.

First, what does class participation look like? All too often, we expect that it looks like speaking and speaking alone. In this model, students answer questions posed by instructors in volleys back and forth between the two sides of the classroom podium. Little dialogue takes place between and among students, while shy and ESL students are often excluded, almost systematically, from any conversation that ensues. Worst of all, participation is sometimes foregone altogether in non-seminar courses where it doesn’t, at first, seem to be feasible.

In reality, though, participation has more dimensions than just speaking. Participation at its best includes writing, reading, and thinking as well. Better still, when these processes are implemented as part of a continuing, iterative cycle, learning becomes more enjoyable while teaching becomes more effective.

Sparking Engagement concepts - Reading, Writing, Speaking and Thinking with corresponding icons.

Let’s look at each of these elements or dimensions of engagement.

Reading can be either aloud or silent. It can cover traditional texts or other kinds of artifacts like films, images, music, material objects, or problems. Those materials can be sourced by the instructor or brought into class by students themselves.

Writing can be graded or ungraded and, if graded, can be evaluated on a medium- or low-stakes rather than a high-stakes basis. It can be formal or informal, shared or private.

Speaking can be structured or spontaneous, and it can take place in pairs, triplets, or other small groups and not just in solo performances in front of an entire classroom. Speech can be framed as assertions or as questions or as requests—for productive pauses, for examples of principles from lecture content, or for paraphrases. It can cover facts or opinions, original insights or summaries of prior points; it can occur among students or between students and the instructor, and it can be formal or informal.

Thinking can take place before or after the tasks of reading, writing, or speaking, and it can happen before, during, or after class. It can be geared toward generating new ideas or toward helping students develop a metacognitive awareness of their own learning processes.

Using these four interconnected methods to spark engagement creates entirely new possibilities for class participations across disciplines, classroom sizes, and class types.

Sparking Engagement - Full engagement concept linking all areas being discussed via icons - Reading, Writing, Speaking and Thinking.

Consider as one example the approach of using a “focus passage”: a short text, a problem, an image, or another kind of stimulus for students to react to. After students read (or otherwise interpret) the stimulus, they write informally in response to it before they have the chance to speak with each other in groups or with the class as a whole, thus making sure that everyone has something to say before the discussion starts; you can also use the fact that students have had time to think about the passage to do “warm calling” (as opposed to “cold calling”) with more passive students to invite them into the conversation. After an opportunity to speak, allow students some time to think metacognitively about their contributions and those of other students, perhaps letting students exchange papers and comment informally and supportively on each other’s ideas, or perhaps using those thoughts as a new stimulus that can start the cycle over again.

Another example is a variant on the perennial favorite activity, “think, pair, share.” Begin by posing a provocative, open-ended question or a novel problem to your students without any expectation that they will immediately chime in with responses. Instead, give them some quiet time to think through the stimulus while you wait patiently for them to write some rough ideas on papers that can be graded for very low stakes or on simple completion, if they are collected at all. Students then exchange papers with partners and read the ideas that their peers have produced, perhaps even spending some time jotting down responses before the pairs or other small groups speak to each other about their ideas. After groups conclude, volunteers might be more ready to contribute, even in large lecture courses; alternatively, “warm-calling” more hesitant students can begin to get them involved in the conversation.

In these approaches to engagement, students’ brains get more complete workouts, and students can speak to each other with minimal instructor intrusion. Suddenly, discussions become feasible even in large lecture halls, and shy or ESL students are welcomed into the realm of full participation. Used at the start of a semester, the methods set up an immediate expectation that engagement and participation are the norm in your class, an expectation that will become self-fulfilling with consistent application of these principles.

This collection of interactive learning methods (PDF – 280KB) features many techniques that incorporate all four forms of participation, thinking, reading, writing, and speaking, and after browsing them you’ll be able to generate approaches that fit your own discipline and teaching context to a tee.

For a consultation on sparking engagement or other teaching topics, please contact us at

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