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Promoting Student Engagement

The Breakdown

As a general concept, student engagement is easy to understand. It refers to the extent to which students are actively and attentively participating in all aspects of a course. Attendance, assignment completion, class participation, use of office hours or other communication with faculty, can all be indicators of student engagement. Students who are academically engaged tend to have better academic outcomes than those who are not (Fredricks, et al., 2004; Nguyen et al., 2016). From an equity perspective, boosting student engagement may also provide outsize benefits to historically under-served populations of students given histories of disengagement driven by structural inequities in higher education (Boutakidis & Rodriguez, 2014). For a deeper dive into the multi-faceted nature of academic engagement, check out the table below.

Types of Student Engagement

Type Description Tends to Predict
Behavioral Engagement Extent to which students are reporting physical presence at the school, such as attendance, truancy, and adherence to rules Retention rates
Cognitive Engagement Extent to which students are attending do and expending mental effort toward the learning tasks, and regard school activities as important and useful. Includes strategies toward meeting learning objectives Academic achievement, such as grades.
Emotional Engagement Investment in and affective/emotional reaction tolearning tasks, school environment, and schoolpersonnel Least studied, but may be a key when examining historically under-served populations


  1. Take attendance

The first—and perhaps most obvious—point is that taking attendance tends to boost attendance, and better attendance has been associated with better academic outcomes (Crede’ et al. 2010; Dobkin et al., 2009).  And given that studies indicate that historically under-represented/ under-served populations are more likely to be absent (Gee, 2018), boosting attendance in these groups may also help to close course-level equity gaps.

Other benefits of taking attendance include… 

  • Signaling to students that you, as the instructor, care about their attendance.  Historically, university instructors have often bit a bit laisse-faire about attendance.  The argument often heard is that college students are adults and it is up to them whether or not they attend class.  While the sentiment has some truth, it can also create the impression that faculty do not care whether or not their students are in attendance.  It is hard to imagine that such an impression does anyone any good. 
  • Helping you identify those students who are chronically absent and do something about it---even if that “something” is simply sending an email inquiring about their absence and asking if they could use any assistance. 
  1. Ask for student input and make use of that input

Asking students for their opinions regarding course goals, assessments, assignments, and general policies increases their engagement as it provides another opportunity for meaningful involvement and collaboration. It also signals to students that their thoughts are valued.  Of course, faculty can be strategic in how they present these opportunities.  For example, you may typically have a course policy that allows for students to drop their lowest quiz score.  However, another option would be to allow for students to retake one quiz of their choice.  If either option serves a valid pedagogical purpose, allowing for students to choose one option over another---either by class vote or individually, provides for a very tangible experience of meaningful student input.  This flexibility can also extend to assignment choice.  Research indicates that when students are given some choice as to the type or format an assignment can be submitted as, they are more likely to be engaged in that process, which in turn improves the quality of their work (Hanewicz et al., 2017; Arendt, 2016) . 

  1. Clearly explain the relevance of assignments and how they fit into the course learning goals

 A core principle of good course design is to make it clear to students how every element fits into a process that furthers the learning goals.  And it goes without saying, that a course should have learning goals clearly articulated in the syllabus (at the very least).  It is understandable that assignments that appear adrift of the course learning goals, or that do not seem connected to course content, are less likely to inspire student engagement. Instructors also cannot assume that students will “connect-the-dots” between assignments and learning goals, even if it seems “obvious”. Therefore, explicitly addressing those connections is important (Head & McKay, 2015). 

Supporting Literature

Arendt, A., Trego, A. and Allred, J. (2016).  Students reach beyond expectations with cafeteria style grading. Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education, 8 (1), 2-17.

Crede’, M., Roch, S. G., & Kieszczynka, U. M. (2010). Class attendance in college: A meta-analytic review of the relationship of class attendance with grades and student characteristics. Review of Educational Research, 80,  272-295. doi: 10.3102/0034654310362998. 

Dobkin, C., Gil, R., & Marion, J. (2009). Skipping class in college and exam performance: Evidence from a regression discontinuity classroom experiment. Economics of Education Review, 29, 566-575.  

Fredricks, J. A., Blumenfeld, P. C., & Paris, A. H. (2004). School engagement: Potential of the concept, state of the evidence. Review of Educational Research, 74, 54–109. doi:10.3102/00346543074001059 

Gee, K. A. (2018).  Minding the gaps in absenteeism: Disparities in absenteeism by race/ethnicity, poverty and disability. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk. 23(1- 2): 204-208. 

Hanewicz, C., Platt, A., & Arendt, A. (2017).  Creating a learner-centered teaching environment using student choice in assignments. Distance Education, 38(3), 273–287. 

Head, S., & McKay, S. (2015). Motivation matters: How new research can help teachers boost student engagement. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1–48 

Nguyen, D. T., Cannata, M., & Miller, J. (2016). Understanding student behavioral engagement: Importance of student interaction with peers and teachers. Journal of Educational Research, 111(2), 163–174. doi:10.1080/00220671.2016.1220359 

Rodriguez, J. L., & Boutakidis, I. (2014). The association between school engagement and achievement across three generations of Mexican American adolescents. Association of Mexican American Educators Journal, 7(1), 5–16.