Student Engagement and Active Learning

Encouraging student participation in the classroom is an age-old goal that all instructors strive for. Involving students—and engaging true learning—has only gotten more difficult to achieve with the shift to blended and online learning, but there are underlying principles that hold true for all types of classrooms.

Active learning—an approach to instruction where students are engaged with the course material through a variety of ways—is essential for student knowledge retention. How can you create that engagement?

Here are four tips to increase student engagement and participation and cultivate a classroom culture of active learning.

A Culture of Student Engagement


Make sure students understand what is expected of them. Ensure that your syllabus is clear on expectations and discuss in class the first day what is expected. Students cannot meet expectations that they are not given.

Students react positively to what they see as valuable for them. Instructors should make clear how participation has value, not merely in terms of grades, but in terms of student ability to learn and retain knowledge.

If participation will be graded, ensure that students know how that grading will work. Let students see their participation grade throughout the semester so that they can monitor their own participation and know whether they are meeting expectations and change their behavior if necessary.


Asking questions and starting discussions is a tried-and-true method of encouraging participation from students. However, at times these discussions—particularly at the beginning—can be riddled with long silences.

When students do not immediately answer a question, it can be instinctive for an instructor to answer their own question and move on to the next discussion point; this will teach students that if they hesitate long enough, they’ll have the answer given to them. If students remain silent, consider re-wording the question rather than attempting to answer the question yourself.

Instead of filling the silence, allow for the students to think through the question. The answers an instructor will receive will often be more thoughtful and engaging than if an answer is rushed or forced.


If an instructor wants to see engagement from their students, an instructor has to be engaged in turn. Achieving initial student participation is merely the first step in a continuous process. Once engagement has been achieved it needs to be encouraged. 

How an instructor responds to student participation will set the mark for how a student participates in the future. Student engagement is a two-way street. Instructors should vary their responses so that they are unique and relevant to the situation. This can take many forms: summarizing the response, challenging the student to reconsider, probing for further insight, praising thoughtful responses, and encouraging out-of-the box thinking.

As a word of caution, as an instructor it’s necessary for you to balance your response so that you are encouraging students and delving into the material in useful, thought-provoking ways; however, you must also ensure that the discussion does not get derailed into less useful, or unnecessary, side topics.

When an instructor engages, responds to, and validates student participation, an instructor encourages future participation.


Variety is the spice of life; it is also the spice of the classroom. Use online tools to have students engage before or after class with discussion prompts or activities. These activities—discussion and chat boards, informal written assignments, case studies, short quizzes, etc.—should address the readings or otherwise engage the student in meaningful ways. If these activities do this, then these activities will not only help students engage with the content in new and varied ways, but also help students to solidify and retain knowledge.

During class time, instructors should chunk their lecture time into small, digestible bites of information. Use this chunking system to create regular intervals for discussions, small-group work, reflection time, and think-pair-share sessions; these activities keep the students engaged and allow the knowledge to solidify before moving onto the next topic. Create situations where all students are in a position to think and engage with the material.

As the Confucian aphorism goes, “Tell me and I forget; teach me and I may remember; involve me and I learn.” For instructors who want to promote true learning, there is no substitute for student engagement and participation.


“Active Learning.” Active Learning | Center for Educational Innovation. University of Minnesota. Accessed April 14, 2022.

“Increasing Student Participation.” Center for Teaching and Learning. Washington University in St Louis, March 2, 2021.

“Increasing Student Motivation & Participation.” Center for Teaching Innovation. Cornell University. Accessed April 14, 2022.

“Teaching with Discussions.” Center for Teaching and Learning. Washington University in St Louis, March 1, 2021.

“Evidence of Active Learning’s Effectiveness.” Center for Educational Innovation. University at Buffalo, December 18, 2019.