Enhancing Engagement in the Classroom

The Importance of Day One

Below is a summary of what makes the first day of class highly important.


Four Factors that Determine 70% of Student Attitudes:

  • Instructor attitude, credentials, demeanor
  • The manner in which the instructor manages the course
  • Topic: Is/can student become inherently interested? Is it meaningful to students?
  • Physical environment in which course is housed


What Students What to Know, Believe, and Feel After Day One:

  • Know what is expected, how work will be graded, what materials are required, what the style of the course is, office hours/location
  • Believe course will benefit them and how: in life, future academics, career, etc.; that you are knowledgeable, professional, organized, credible, fair, caring (students stay because they care about a professor)
  • Feel safe (not embarrassed; you are approachable), positive toward you as a person, valued by you (not just a number), excited, interested, enthusiastic, not “alone” (meet others there)


Student Participation on Day One:

  • On Day One allow verbal participation, in small or large classes, small groups, larger groups, to introduce themselves, tell where they are from, discuss carpooling possibilities, and similar topics.


Your Goal as Instructor:

  • Be the instructor you always hoped to have when you attended a college class for the first time.


Pre-/Post-Assessment. Why?:

  • Evidence that what you are doing is working
  • High return on benefits: for yourself, your department and chair (unit effectiveness plan data), society (Tier 1 institutions are ideally excellent in their contributions to society in all ways)
  • Help in assessing goals and outcomes for students: What sorts of knowledge/comprehension/application/analysis does a successful ____________ (linguist, literary scholar, L2 methodologist, sociologist, engineer, art historian, chemist, etc.) draw upon?


Ultimate Goal of Day One:

  • Students believe this course might matter


Day One Sample Activities:

  • In a class on probability and statistics: Guess probability of students having same birthday, of coin tossed heads or tails on 101st time, of coin landing heads 100 times in a row
  • In a class on argumentation: Students begin separating themselves physically within the classroom (yes, no, maybe/undecided/no answer) regarding mundane “ice-breaker” topics, e.g. “If you have seen Avatar, go to the west side; if you haven’t go to the east.” As they become more comfortable during the next few minutes, add controversial issues, to develop an atmosphere of safety to share and explore different opinions.
  • In an astronomy course students are asked to decide which items to take if they are stranded on the moon and have to make a 200- mile trek to the mother ship. Students are then shown the ways in which they understand the physicality of the moon and ways in which they do not. (Don’t take along the matches, as there is no oxygen on the moon.)


Motivating Students

Here are 8 research-based strategies on how to successfully motivate your students:

  • Become a role model for student interest. Deliver your presentations with energy and enthusiasm. As a display of your motivation, your passion motivates your students. Make the course personal, showing why you are interested in the material.
  • Get to know your students. You will be able to better tailor your instruction to the students’ concerns and backgrounds, and your personal interest in them will inspire their personal loyalty to you. Display a strong interest in students’ learning and a faith in their abilities.
  • Use examples freely. Many students want to be shown why a concept or technique is useful before they want to study it further. Inform students about how your course prepares students for future opportunities.
  • Use a variety of student-active teaching activities. These activities directly engage students in the material and give them opportunities to achieve a level of mastery.
  • Set realistic performance goals and help students achieve them by encouraging them to set their own reasonable goals. Design assignments that are appropriately challenging in view of the experience and aptitude of the class.
  • Place appropriate emphasis on testing and grading. Tests should be a means of showing what students have mastered, not what they have not. Avoid grading on the curve and give everyone the opportunity to achieve the highest standard and grades.
  • Be free with praise and constructive in criticism. Negative comments should pertain to particular performances, not the performer. Offer nonjudgmental feedback on students’ work, stress opportunities to improve, look for ways to stimulate advancement, and avoid dividing students into sheep and goats.
  • Give students as much control over their own education as possible. Let students choose paper and project topics that interest them. Assess them in a variety of ways to give students more control over how they show their understanding to you. Give students options for how these assignments are weighted.


Difficult Conversations on Controversial Topics

For many instructors, having classroom discussion on difficult topics is a enduring challenge. Conversations can quickly escalate to passionate and argumentative behavior and dialogue. Below are several tips that can assist you when having difficult conversations centered on controversial topics:

  • Think carefully about how difficult topics connect with your subject area and with your course learning goals.
    • Keep in mind that the issues you think are controversial may not be the same ones that create conflict among your students.
    • Reflect on how controversial conversations might actually contribute to, rather than detract from, your overall learning goals for the course.
  • Set the tone from the beginning.
    • Build a sense of community within your classroom by inviting students to get to know each other.
    • Have the class establish rules for class discussions.
  • Use intentional strategies to help students deal with and learn from difficult dialogues.
    • When a conflict erupts in the classroom, have everyone take a break and write out what they’re feeling or thinking about the conversation.
  • Monitor yourself.
    • Do not personalize remarks, and do not respond angrily or punitively to students whose positions you find offensive.



“Lecturing is not simply a matter of standing in front of a class and reciting what you know. The classroom lecture is a special form of communication in which voice, gesture, movement, facial expression, and eye contact can either complement or detract from the content. No matter what your topic, your delivery and manner of speaking immeasurably influence your students’ attentiveness and learning.” – Barbara Gross Davis, Tools for Teaching

Here are six elements of your classroom that you can control to make for a more effective lecture:

  1. Visual Message – The slides and other visual aids you use can either complement or confuse your verbal message, depending on how you design them. Consider how photos and other  images might function as metaphors that make your points more memorable.
  2. Physical Presence – While some instructors are naturally gifted public speakers, we can all be more aware of and leverage our physical presence to better communicate to our audiences.
  3. Verbal Message – Whether you prepare typed lecture notes or just improvise in the classroom, the words you say are an integral part of your lecture.
  4. Students’ Notes – Students can often spend more mental energy taking notes during class than thinking about your content. Consider ways you can make it easier for your students to take notes so they can focus more on engaging with your material.
  5. What Students Think – How can you help your students mentally grapple with your material during class?
  6. What Students Say & Do – Keep in mind that even in a so-called lecture class, you don’t have to lecture the whole time. Consider small-group and whole-class activities that might enhance your students learning.

Here are few activities that help keep students engaged and foster active learning:

  • Write a Question – Instead of just saying, “Are there any questions?”, ask all of your students to spend a minute or two reflecting on the lecture thus far and writing down one or two questions on paper.
  • Think-Pair-Share – After posing a sufficiently difficult question, instead of asking for volunteers to answer the question, have students think about the question silently for a minute. Then have them pair up and discuss the question with their partners. Then ask for students to share their perspectives with the whole class.
  • Finding Illustrative Quotations – Ask students to reread the text for the day to find quotations that support particular arguments. You might have all students address the same argument or different students look at different arguments.
  • Brainstorming – As a segue to a new topic, have students share any thought, idea, story, etc. that occurs to them in relation to the new topic. Record these ideas at the board without analyzing them. After the ideas have been surfaced, then move on to more critical discussion.
  • Practice Homework Problems – After lecturing on a particular type of problem, give students a problem to work at their seats that resembles the kinds of problems they’ll see on their homework. After giving students a few minutes to try to work through the problem, discuss the problem with the class


More Resources



  1. Bruff, David. (n.d.). Lecturing. Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University. Retrieved from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/lecturing/
  2. Curran, James and Rosen, Deborah. (2006). “Student Attitudes toward College Courses: An Examination of Influences and Intentions.” Journal of Marketing Education.
  3. Davis, Barbara. (1993). Tools for Teaching [PDF]. San Franciso: Jossey-Bass. Retrieved from https://www.elon.edu/docs/e-web/academics/teaching/Tools%20For%20Teaching.pdf
  4. Difficult Dialogues. (n.d.). Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University. Retrieved from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/difficult-dialogues/
  5. Motivating Students. (n.d.). Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University. Retrieved from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/motivating-students/