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Purpose and Types of Engagement

The Purpose of Engagement

Categories of Engagement

Instructional Ideologies and Engagement

Types of Student Interactions

5 Activities to Engage Students Quickly

The Purpose of Engagement

Engagement is the necessary first step for learning (Cavanagh, 2019).

Students are unique and require various techniques to get them engaged in class. This requires intention and planning.

Make the purpose of engagement a means to:

  • monitor student understanding
  • uncover commons misunderstandings or misconceptions
  • facilitate deeper processing of the content

General Strategies

  1. Make the material relatable and personal 
  2. Provide real-world examples and have students solve current issues related to the material
  3. Create clear outcomes and get students excited about what they will achieve by the end of the class
  4. Be yourself! Humanize your course. Students will respond to you and your personality. 
  5. Make yourself available.
  6. Validate cultural backgrounds and differences. 
  7. Foster peer learning. 



  1. Cavanagh, S.R. (2019). How to make your teaching more engaging: Advice guide. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved on Aug 10, 2020, at

  2. DiPetro, M. (2021).  How learning works: The Seven Learning Principles.  Retrieved on July 16, 2021, at


Categories of Engagement

Trowler (2020) defines student engagement as the investment of time, effort, and other relevant resources by both students and their institutions intended to optimize the student experience and enhance the learning outcomes and development of students and the performance, and reputation of the institution (p. 6).

The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) describes engagement as a multi-dimensional construct influenced by both individual and institutional characteristics (Kuh, 2009). In other words, engagement is a function of both a student's intrinsic desire and the extrinsic opportunities provided by the institution to engage with the course content (Axelson & Flick, 20011; Harper & Quaye, 2009; Trowler, 2010).


Engagement in the classroom falls within three categories: behavioral, cognitive, and affective (Fredericks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004). These three types are distinct yet interrelated.

  • Behavioral engagement conveys the presence of general "on-task behavior." This entails effort and persistence along with paying attention, asking questions, seeking help that enables one to accomplish the task at hand, and not disrupting instruction. It is the observable act of students being involved in learning.

  • Cognitive engagement connotes investment aimed at comprehending complex concepts and issues and acquiring difficult skills. It conveys deep (rather than surface-level) processing of information whereby students gain a critical or higher-order understanding of the subject matter and solve challenging problems. Cognitively engaged students often go beyond the requirements because they enjoy being challenged.

  • Affective/Emotional engagement connotes emotional reactions linked to task investment. The greater the student's interest level, enjoyment, positive attitude, the positive value held, curiosity, and a sense of belonging (and the less the anxiety, sadness, stress, and boredom), the greater the affective engagement. Based on current research and understanding, we don't know how the three types of engagement interact, and we are not certain which antecedents are linked to which types" (Ladd & Dinella, 2009).

    • *** We also know that our affective/emotional state can impact levels of engagement. Trauma affects students’ executive functioning and self-regulation skills. That means they will have a harder time planning, remembering, and focusing on what they need to learn (Imad, 2020).



  1. Axelson, R.D. & Flick, A. (2010) Defining Student Engagement, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 43:1, 38-43, DOI: 10.1080/00091383.2011.533096

  2. Fredricks, J.A., Blumenfeld, P.C. & Paris, A.H. 2004, "School Engagement: Potential of the Concept, State of the Evidence", Review of Educational Research, vol. 74, no. 1, pp. 59-109.

  3. Harper, S.R. & Quaye, S.J. (Eds) (2009). Student Engagement in Higher Education, Routledge, New York & Oxon.

  4. Imad, M. (2020). Leveraging the neuroscience of now. Inside Higher Education, June 3, 2020

  5. Ladd, G.W. & Dinella, L.M. (2009). Continuity and change in early school engagement: predictive of children's achievement trajectories from first to either grade?  Journal of Educational Psychology, 101 (1), 190-206. DOI: 10.1037/a0013153

  6. Trowler, V. (2010). Student engagement literature review.  The Higher Education Academy, July 2010. Retrieved on August 10, 2020, at


Instructional Ideologies and Engagement

An instructor's ideological perspective on teaching has implications for the way in which student engagement is understood and implemented, as well as its significance and purpose (see Table 1 in Trowler, 2010 and adapted from Trowler & Wareham, 2008, 36).

Ideological Perspective

Educational Ideology in Relation to Teaching

Role of Students

Implications for Engagement


Teaching is about transmitting information, induction into the discipline.

Information transfer/teacher-focused approach.

Learning through absorbing information provided to them.

Students need to be interested in the content. Students participate by attending lectures and complying with behavioral norms.


Teaching is about developing students‟ minds so they can better appreciate the world, about making them autonomous.

Conceptual change/student- focused approach.

Learning through co-construction of knowledge.

Students need to be engaged in, and with, learning – both in and out of the classroom.

Social Reconstructionism

Teaching is about empowering students to see the inequities and structured nature of advantages and disadvantages in the world and to change it.

Students need to be engaged in, and with, learning – both in and out of the classroom.

Students need to be engaged with the world beyond the classroom, challenging and changing structural inequity.


Teaching is about giving students the skills to thrive in their careers and to contribute to the economy.


Learning through the application of knowledge across disciplinary boundaries to real-life practical problems.

Students need to be engaged in work-based / vocational learning Students need to be engaged in work-based / vocational learning.



  1. Trowler, V. (2010). Student engagement literature review.  The Higher Education Academy, July 2010. Retrieved on August 10, 2020, at


Types of Student Interactions

Moore (1989) points out that

"many of our greatest problems of communicating about concepts, and therefore [educational] practice ... arise from our use of crude hypothetical constructs - terms like... interaction... [because] the same terms are commonly used at both generic and more specific levels" (p. 1). Interaction is one of those terms that need definition. When we think of student engagement, Moore's (1989) distinct types of interaction are very useful: learner-content, learner-learner, and learner-instructor interaction.


  • Central to learning is student engagement and/or interaction with the content or topic of study.  It is this very type of interaction that results in conceptual change - changes in the learner's knowledge, understanding, perspectives, and cognitive structures (i.e., neural networks). To obtain high levels of learner-content interaction, academic tasks must be meaningful and valuable for learners.

  • Authentic and Meaningful Tasks: real-world, challenging applications/tasks in the discipline.  Some examples include case studies, lab experiments, simulations, conducting research, jigsaw activities, presentations/ performances, etc.

  • Valuable Work: important work that facilitates deep and lasting learning (i.e., processing - encoding - retrieval; reflection and elaboration). Some examples include minute papers, clicker questions/polling or low-stakes quizzes, responding to generative questions or problem-sets true to the discipline, etc.


  • This second form of interaction, between and among learners, is often a valuable resource for clarifying understandings, correcting misconceptions, and extending learning.  Group work also provides an opportunity for students to learn the skills of communication, collaboration, negotiation, and decision- making which are vital to a high-functioning workforce.

  • Groups: provide clear prompts or tasks and assign roles.  Offer opportunities for "think-pair-share and other group activities, assignments, and projects.

  • Discussion Boards: provide opportunities for community learning and support.


  • The third type of interaction is that between the learners and the content expert (i.e., the instructor). Moore (1089) notes that "the frequency and intensity of the teacher's influence on learners when there is learner-teacher interaction is much greater than when there is only learner -content interaction" (p. 2).

  • Live interaction: In-person class discussions and office hours; online chats and zoom breakout rooms are effective if teaching online.

  • Motivate Deeper Thinking: ask specific questions that facilitate processing, elaboration, and application, as these activities extend learning. This dialogue between the instructor and a learner is especially important when responding to a learner's application of new knowledge (i.e., feedback).



  1. Moore, M. G. (1989). Editorial: Three types of interaction.  American Journal of Distance Education, 3 (2): 1-7.


5 Activities to Engage Students Quickly

  1. Burning Questions: Students submit 1–3 questions (depending on class size) they have about the course. This helps the instructor reveal any anxieties or misconceptions students may have about them or the course. Tools needed: Zoom chat

  2. Preferences Poll: Ask students about their preferences on a variety of topics. This takes a bit of preparation but requires students to use a device such as a mobile or computer. Input 4-6 questions into Zoom PollorClickersand gather responses. Tools needed: Pre-made poll using your preferred tool, timer set to 30 seconds per question. Sample questions:
    • Saturday or Sunday?
    • What’s your #lifehack of the week?
    • What’s the strangest word you know?
    • In a word, what is your new year’s resolution?
    • Rank these pizza toppings from best to worst: cheese, meat lovers, veggie, pepperoniWhat is the best/worst present you ever received?
    • Coffee or tea?
  3. Three Words: Encourages adaption and thinking on your feet. Tools needed: Zoom whiteboard or chat, timer set to 5 seconds per student•Ask participants to agree on a random topic.
    • Explain that each person should contribute to the story with three words (and three words only at a time) and they will take turns to contribute.
    • Encourage the participants to type the first three words that come to mind. It does not matter if they make sense or not.
    • The instructor calls out names and tries to move quickly. Give each student about5seconds from the time you call their name.
    • When done, the instructor reads the story aloud.
  4. Common Ground (great for small groups): In small groups of 4–6, give students 5 minutes to identify 10 things they have in common. Students learn they have more in common than anticipated. In Zoom breakout rooms, try these tips:
    • Once in a small group, the team assigns a reporter to type in chat or speak up during group discussions
    • The instructor should visit each group
    • Remind students when there are 1–2 minutes left
  5. Favorite Color: In groups of 4–6, students describe their favorite color in 3 words. This describes how students see themselves, their personalities, and what they value. In Zoom breakout rooms, try these tips:
    • The instructor gives students 1minute to think of 3 words that describe their favorite color
    • Once in a small group, one student says or types 3 words
    • Other students guess the color by typing or talking
    • One student reveals color and picks a person to go next
    • The instructor should visit groups during the activity