Student Engagement Techniques

Student engagement doesn’t just happen; you have to make it happen.  Here are some student engagement techniques (SET’s) that you may want to try.

Engagement Techniques – A Handbook for College Faculty

I have borrowed a few ideas from Engagement Techniques – A Handbook for College Faculty by Elizabeth F. Barkley.  Barkley has provided many excellent student engagement strategies.  There are 50 in all to go along with 50 “Tips and Strategies.”  The book lists for $40, but I have seen new editions online for less than $32 and used for under $20.  It is definitely a good value even at the full list price!  Check it out on the right.

Here are five SET’s from Barkley’s book.  Of course, I have edited and simplified these quite a bit.  While very detailed thorough, her explanations are far too long for this article.  And besides, I don’t want to be sued for plagiarism.   So, refer to the her book if you need more help.

1.  Background Knowledge Probe

Before beginning a new topic, consider what students may or should already know.  Then prepare open-ended or short answer questions.  In this way, the instructor can help students recall what they learned previously.

Ask your class questions, the answers to which will help them learn new material.  In an automotive technology course the instructor might ask, “What do you know about grounding that might help you trouble shoot this problem?”  In a chemistry course, the instructor might ask, “What safety precautions should we take when running this experiment?”

2.  Focused Reading Notes

Give students a focused reading strategy by identifying information to look for.  Rather than simple facts, identify themes or concepts.  Give these to your students as headings that you list on a worksheet, or have students create their own worksheets.  As they read, students look for information that relates to the headings and summarize it by writing down notes.  Some instructors make this a graded homework assignment, but that is not necessary.  Students will benefit from adding to or correcting their notes when you cover these topics in the next class.

By aligning the headings with learning objectives, your students will focus on what they need to learn.  These notes become study guides.  They help students prepare to participate in class discussions and for tests.

Your headings can be as stated as short, simple phrases.  For a nutrition course, benefits of fiber could be a heading, though that borders on simple facts.  The wise instructor will help students achieve higher level learning.  In a literature course, for example, values of the heroin or use of metaphors might be headings.


Write out quotations from the assigned reading.  Divide students into groups, and have each group draw a slip of paper with one of the quotes.  Then have students respond to their quotes.  Leave the assignment open ended in the sense that you encourage students to say whatever they are motivated to say.

Student responses provide you with formative assessment of what they know.  They might respond with a summarization.  They could provide justification or voice disagreement.  You might want to prompt students to ask themselves the 5 W’s and an H questions – who, what, why, when, where and how?

4.  Team Jeopardy

This is activity focuses on what students remember and understand.  PowerPoint slides can be used to create the “game board.”  Help is available on the Internet.  For example, Super Teaching Tools provides a free Internet based Jeopardy game, and the Jeopardy Labs site allows you to create your own online Jeopardy game.

Select the answers that relate to information you want your students to learn.  Use this technique to engage your students and help them prepare for exams.  Divide the class into teams.  Assign a team captain who will be the one to signal, possibly by a whistle or horn.  Then let the game begin.  Add a little more fun and give inexpensive prizes to the winning team.

5.  Split-Room Debate

Many courses present controversial topics.  Use a team-based debate to help students explore these issues.  Before beginning the debate spend sufficient time on the topic to discuss opposing points of view.  Then divide your class in two.  Ask those who support one point of view to move to one side of the classroom.  Have those in opposition to the other side.

It is important to establish ground rules.  Give each side time to prepare their arguments and select and initial speaker.  Start with the pro side.  When the speaker has completed his/her argument have him/her select a student from the opposing side to speak.  When there are no new arguments, the debate is over.  Debrief the class.  Find out if anyone changed their point of view.  Inevitably students will gain a deeper understanding of the issues regardless their points of view.

What makes for a good debate topic?  You decide.  The topics need not be as controversial as abortion, but you will need to enforce strict protocols lest emotional arguments break out.  The existence of global warming, the benefits of nuclear power, and even the importance art in society are examples of other classroom debate topics.

Student Engagement Techniques and You


The number of creative engagement techniques is seemingly endless.  I have used the Team Jeopardy technique.  Several years ago, I found a free Who Wants to be a Millionaire PowerPoint and used that in a team format.    I also found a Concentration game online line and used that too.  Furthermore, I would use a crossword puzzle maker to create team competitions.  Each student got a copy of the puzzle, but they worked in groups of 3 or 4.  As was normally my style, the first team to complete their puzzle won “fabulous prizes.”

Think about what you are trying to accomplish in class. Think about what your want your students to learn. Experiment.  Try different techniques.  Invent your own.  Buy Elizabeth Barkley’s book.  Use what works best for you, the course you are teaching, and most importantly, your students.

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

March 27, 2011



About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC). My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students. After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.