How to help students engage in active learning?

by Stephanie Chasteen on May 27, 2016

So, about 4 years ago now, Andrew Boudreaux asked me a simple question:  “Hey, wouldn’t it be neat to gather materials to help instructors avoid student pushback to active learning strategies?”   What I thought would be a fun little one month project to archive some strategies has turned into a detailed research project.  Thanks Andrew!  🙂

I’m not writing now to share what I’ve learned, yet, but I’m close!  I aim to publish a detailed series of articles on PhysPort by the end of the summer with detailed guidance for various issues with student engagement, including specific examples of how these strategies can play out in the classroom.  I’ve got survey results, a literature review, and examples from instructors all over the country.  It’s great.  If you want to know a little about what I’ve found, click here, but that material is quite old.

What I would love is some feedback on the overall organization of the information that I’m putting together.  I’m finding it difficult to give one entry point to the strategies, because different people will come in with different types of needs.  One might just be looking for ideas for how to grade in a way that keeps students engaged.  Another might know that they have an issue with a classroom structure that isn’t very supportive of active learning.  Another might be struggling to get students to work productively in groups.  One might have low student evaluations.

Below is the organization of the materials that I’m thinking of right now.  Does this seem “navigable” at this point, do you see yourself clicking on some of these?  The actual content would be repeated across several categories (this is unavoidable with this organization) — for example, “reveal personal information” is relevant for creating a positive classroom atmosphere, but it’s also a strategy that falls in the category of “what can I say and do?” and lastly, it might be relevant for getting better student evaluations.  This makes things complex, so I was trying to not have so many entry points.

So, imagine you click on a link that says  “How can I help students engage in active learning?” and you find this series of articles that you can click around in:


How can I help students engage in active learning?

1. What general factors and strategies are important in student engagement?

Specific articles:

a. Introductory overview
b. – Create respectful, positive class atmosphere
c. – Create appropriate expectations
d. – Support student identity and belonging
e. – Create incentives and accountability for participation
f. – Help students reflect on their own learning
g. – Give students a sense of ownership and control
h. – Give students a sense of competence and confidence
i. – Convey that learning is a process and failure is normal
j. – Be consistent

2. What can I do on the first day to support student engagement?
3. What can I say and do in the class to support student engagement?
4. What classroom policies and norms best support student engagement?
5. How can I use feedback and grades to support student engagement?
6. How can I design tasks that support student engagement?
7. How can I support positive group dynamics?
8. How do I respond to specific student complaints or problems?

Sub articles:

a. – A few vocal students disrupt the class
b. – I get low student evaluations
c. – Students complain that I treat them like children
d. – Students complain that the activities aren’t helpful
e. – Students don’t put in effort or are off-task
f. – Students are discouraged by the active learning
g. – Students complain that I’m not telling htem the answer
h. – Students don’t feel safe to share their ideas with their peers
i. – Students want me to lecture more
– I don’t know what my students think or why they’re unhappy


NOTE THAT THE SPECIFIC *STRATEGIES* ARE REPEATED ACROSS THREE PLACES:  They’re in #1, #8, and then appropriately in #2-7 (which are mostly exclusive of one another) but it’s not always the same list…

Below are examples of what might be in these articles.

Article in #1b:  (general factors) Create respectful classroom atmosphere

Detailed introductory blurb with links to relevant research.

  • Then….
To do Example Type of strategy
Reveal personal information Talk about yourself the first day Teacher talk
Start with group activities on the first day Game of Science and other authentic activities First day activity
Facilitate discussion positively Careful with corrections, used words such as… Teacher talk, classroom norms


Article in #2:  What can I say and do in the class to support student engagement?

Short intro blurb.


To do Example Why is this important?
Reveal personal information Talk about yourself the first day Creates a respectful classroom atmosphere (links to article about this)
Put yourself alongside students Kneel down next to student desks Creates a respectful classroom atmosphere
Show caring Use words such as…. Supports students psychological needs, identity and belonging


Article in #8:  (Student complaints) I get low student evaluations

General discussion of literature on student evaluations, some tips, such as “it takes time,” “make sure you’re not doing too much,” “help students see the benefit of the techniques” with links to articles under general strategies (such as creating respectful classroom atmosphere, help students reflect on their learning).

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