7 Tips for Improving Student Engagement

A few simple techniques can help you connect with your students.

October 11, 2016

Students learn best when they are engaged with the class material. But, for various reasons, students sometimes aren’t that involved in a class. They may not find the material relevant to them, be distracted by electronic devices, be tired or hungry, or simply not connect well with a certain professor. Or a class might not be conducive to their style of learning. Some students learn best by seeing, some learn best by hearing, and some learn best by doing.

Here are some techniques I use to engage students in my classes, no matter what their learning style. I’ve had great success with them in my over 25 years of teaching accounting. (For context: I teach the first two Principles of Accounting classes and two different senior-level auditing classes, and the size of my classes varies between 15 and 40 students.)

Arrive at class about 10 minutes early, and engage several students in casual conversation. This helps you get to know your students and shows them you’re interested in them as people. Topics I have discussed include homework assignments, national and international current events, politics, weekend activities (past and future), where students are from, why they chose my college, where they traveled over the weekend or break or summer, and the like.

Have a policy of no cellphone usage (with one exception). I include this policy in my syllabus and explain the consequences of not adhering to it (such as losing points on assignments or being asked to leave class). In fact, I tell students they must turn off their phones and put them in a pocket, purse, or backpack so they are not visible. The majority of students are able to honor this request. As a reward, I have even stopped after about 30 minutes of class and given them one minute to check their messages. They loved it!

Get to know the first name of each student during the first seven or eight class days. To help me do this I normally call on every student every day, especially during those first days of class. I may simply ask a student to read a problem or a definition or give the solution to a problem. Or I will ask a student to solve a calculation (I require students to bring calculators so they’re prepared to do so). Sometimes I call on students randomly; other times, as we read a problem, I assign each student a part of the problem and then ask him or her for the answer later on as we work through it.

Another tactic I use to learn students’ names is a seating chart. I’m careful to explain the purpose of the chart to students on the first day of each class, letting them know that no one sees the chart except me. I do not use class time to call each student’s name, but I do use the chart to mark those students who were absent at the end of class.

Let students have some time in class to work out problems on their own at their own speed. I give my students individual problem-solving time but let them know that they can raise their hands or work with a neighbor if they need help. I find that many times a “quicker” student will help a “slower” student—meaning that both of them are engaged and can benefit.

Let students know that we are all learners and we all make mistakes. I explain that in my class it is OK to give a wrong answer to a question, to pass the question to a person next to them, or to say, “I do not know.” I emphasize this early and often. I also explain that I am not trying to embarrass anybody.

To enhance students’ ability to think critically through problems, I’ll ask them to verify other students’ calculations or solutions. That way, even if students miss the answer the first time, they learn the thought process needed to come up with the correct answer. Sometimes we make a game of it and see how many different solutions we can get before finding the correct one. 

Most importantly, let students know that you will make some mistakes. Some days it is difficult to talk and write on the board or use the computer at the same time. I tell students that if I make three mistakes in one class, then I am having a bad day and we may need to quit. I let them help me keep track of my errors (I keep a tally on the board) and encourage them to find my mistakes. They love it when I make a mistake and own up to it. They really perk up when I make the second mistake—especially if it is early in the class period and they think they might get out early. (However, so far, only one time have I made three mistakes and that was with only 10 minutes remaining in class!)

Gary Ross, CPA, is an assistant professor of accounting at Harding University. To comment on this article, email lead editor Courtney Vien at academicnews@aicpa.org.

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