Student Engagement Part 2: Ensuring deep learning

Female professor standing in front of the class, sideways, teaching, and multiple hands raised by students to ask a question

Contributed by CTL staff

(3 minute read)

In our Student Engagement Part 1 News & Announcement post, we focused on the emotional aspects of learning, and offered strategies to keep students invested and motivated in your courses. It is equally important to have techniques during class to ensure that students are engaging in learning activities that connect higher levels of engagement with higher cognitive tasks where deep learning happens. Student engagement becomes especially important towards the end of the semester, when students are thinking about final assessment tasks. 

Below are some engaging strategies that do not need much advance planning, and can be implemented in class fairly quickly:

  • Activate students’ prior knowledge. In the beginning of class, you may ask students to update a classmate on what they may have missed (e.g. Tell students: I have this fictional student, Amineh, who missed the lecture from last week. What is it that she missed and what’s important about it?) Have students write this up for one min. If you are physically in a classroom, students may do this on an index card or on the whiteboard. If you are in a virtual or hybrid classroom, students may do such an activity in the chat or on Google jamboard.
  • Build in 60-second pauses. This will allow students to process, reflect, and/or catch up on their notes.
  • ‘Punctuate’ your lectures. The technique allows for frequent pauses in between to ask students how they are doing, and whether they are actively listening. 
  • Have students translate what you have said in your mini-lecture. Stop and ask your students to write down what you said in their own words. You may ask students to share what they wrote with a classmate.
  • Create teams at the beginning of each class, and give each team member a role. For example, you may have a member who will take notes, another who will write up potential questions/problem sets, etc. Have students get into groups/break-out rooms, compare notes, and post the discussion questions or problem sets to a designated shared space for the class to complete.

The strategies offered below for engaging students with your class content will likely need some advance planning, but are manageable if you are towards the mid to end of the semester.

  • Create short lecture scavenger hunts. Come up with 2-3 questions you want students to find in each lecture segment. Students may team up after the lecture, compare notes and fill out a Google form to answer the questions. It’s always nice to have a small incentive at the end, and if you set up this activity in the beginning of the semester, you may allocate points to these scavenger hunts where students may redeem their collected points for an extension of their deadline, a second chance at a quiz, etc.
  • Break up your lectures in smaller segments. Plan on giving 10-15 min lectures, and use engaging activities in between. Studies have shown that shorter lectures help students actively listen and stay engaged. See this brief review of the literature from Duke University on student concentration during lectures.
  • Give students a guided notes/partial outlines sheet. Students would fill out the sheet during lectures. While this may not be as exciting and entertaining as a scavenger hunt, it will encourage students to actively listen. Students often appreciate these guided notes, as they can serve as their notes for studying for a quiz, exam, etc. You may choose to have students submit these outlines electronically to hold them more accountable.
  • Implement social annotation. Allow some time for students to read together and engage in social annotation. Social annotation is when a group of students read a text or watch a video and collaborate on the document or video by highlighting words, lines or video timestamps on a digital tool and engage in a synchronous or asynchronous discussion on the platform. You may read more about social annotation and some of the best practices on the University of Arizona’s Digital Learning page. Some of the more popular tools for annotation are Perusall (there is a Blackboard integration for Perusall at BU) and

Finally, regardless of the engaging activity you choose to implement, we recommend you aim to be transparent and talk to students about the purpose of the activity. Tell them what you are trying to accomplish with the activity, and review your expectations. Knowing what you are expecting from your students will allow them to better prepare for and work on tasks.