What Does Student Engagement Mean in your Discipline?

Journal - New Directions for Teaching and Learning JournalA summer 2018 volume of New Directions for Teaching and Learning focuses on student engagement. Ten chapters worth!

One interesting chapter, Students Engaged in Learning, is worth a close read. (the link to the full article can be found at the bottom of this post). The authors, Emad Ismail and James Groccia, provide a compelling structure for the chapter.

The article is presented in this fashion—research findings related to engagement in the cognitive domain, followed by research on engagement in the psychomotor domain, and finally, of research literature pertaining to engagement in the affective domain. Several meta-analyses are cited. Rather than delve deeply into any single research article, I thought it might be more interesting to talk about the research he cites as part of each section (after all, you can read the full article yourself). The remainder of this post presents a short summary of the research he cites related to cognitive engagement:


Discipline: Biology
Title:Teaching More by Lecturing Less
Findings Snippet: “The results we present here indicate that even a moderate shift toward more interactive and cooperative learning in class can result in significantly higher student learning gains than achieved using a standard lecture format.”

Authors: Knight and Wood
Year: 2005

Discipline: Biology
Title:Cooperative and Active Learning in Undergraduate Biological Laboratories at FIU– Implications to TA Teaching and Training

Findings Snippet: Teaching assistants underwent a 2-day training workshop to implement cooperative learning and active learning techniques for Biology courses, and the results were very positive. Responses from instructors indicate “an increase in the cognitive level of the material communicated, learned, and assessed”, in addition to “an increase in their [students’] ability to devise and practice scientific experimentation.”|
Authors: Penwell, Elsawa, and Pitzer
Year: 2004

Cell FusionDiscipline: Physics
TitleInteractive-Engagement vs. Traditional Methods: A Six-Thousand-Student Survey of Mechanics Test Data for Introductory Physics Courses
Findings Snippet: “The conceptual and problem-solving test results strongly suggest that the classroom use of interactive-engagement methods can increase mechanics-course effectiveness well beyond that obtained in traditional practice.”
Authors: Hake
Year: 1992

Discipline: Physics
TitleCan Students Learn from Lecture Demonstrations?
Findings Snippet: “Students who had a chance to predict an outcome of a demonstration prior to seeing the demonstration achieved a significantly higher success rate of 25% to 35%.”
Authors: Milner-Bolton, Kotlicki, Rieger
Year: 2007

Human BrainDiscipline: Psychology
Title:Keeping it Short and Sweet: Brief, Ungraded Writing Assignments Facilitate Learning
Findings Snippet: “These results suggest that in-class writing and discussion improved performance on factual and conceptual multiple-choice exam questions, beyond any gain from time for in-class thinking and discussion.”

Authors: Drabick, Weisberg, Paul, and Bubier
Year: 2007

Physical ChemistryDiscipline: Physical Chemistry
Title:“I Believe I Will Go Out of This Class Actually Knowing Something”: Cooperative Learning Activities in Physical Chemistry
Findings Snippet: “We found that cooperative learning activities move students away from rote learning strategies and toward more meaningful strategies which allowed them to integrate concepts over the entire semester.”

Authors: Towns, Grant
Year: 1997

Two PeopleDiscipline: Human Resource Management
Title:The Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IF-AT): An Innovative Teaching Technique for Human Resource Management Students
Findings Snippet: “…through the use of Team Based Learning and the incorporation of the IF-AT students’ skills in the areas of communication, overall learning, cognitive and interpersonal skills through the use of teams or groups of students was enhanced. Authors: Blackman, Michaelsen, Knight, and Fink

Year: 2004

StatisticsDiscipline: Statistics
Title:Evaluating an Active Learning Approach to Teaching Introductory Statistics: A classroom workbook approach
Findings Snippet: “The activity based curriculum evaluated here produced significant positive changes in students’ attitudes toward statistics. Specifically, after experiencing the workbook curriculum students liked statistics more and were more confident in their ability to perform and understand statistics.”

Authors: Carlson and Winquist
Year: 2011

Robot ArmDiscipline: STEM
Title:Effects of Small-Group Learning on Undergraduates in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology: A Meta-Analysis
Findings Snippet: “The meta-analysis demonstrates that various forms of small-group learning are effective in promoting greater academic achievement, more favorable attitudes towards learning, and increased persistence….”
Authors: Springer, Stanne, and Donovan
Year: 1999

Discipline: STEM
Title:Active Learning Increases Student Performance In Science, Engineering, And Mathematics
Findings Snippet: A meta-analysis of 225 studies discovers that (on average, based on effect size) student performance on exams and concept inventories increased by .47 SDs when faculty utilized active learning strategies and methods (n=158 studies).

Authors: Freeman et al.

Human PhysiologyDiscipline: Human Physiology
Title: The Effect of Active Learning on Student Characteristics in a Human Physiology Course for Nonmajors

Findings Snippet: “Students in a treatment group [taught using a continuum-based, actdive-learning model] acquired significantly more content knowledge and were significantly more efficacious than students in the control groups [taught using traditional didactic lecture methods].”
Author: Wilke
Year: 2003

William Buskist, a co-editor in this volume, presents in a most familiar way the issue of student engagement that many of us are struggling with:

Are there universal principles of instilling student engagement that apply across students, disciplines, and institutional settings, and if so, what are they? Do these principles similarly or differentially affect the domains of doing, feeling, and thinking? Once students become engaged, what are the most effective methods of keeping them engaged throughout the remainder of their college careers in terms of doing, feeling, and thinking?

Thankfully, the research provided in this chapter illustrates that yes, universal principles do exist.

The full article is available here.

Icons courtesy of icons8.

Secret Reading Weapon: Your Textbook’s TOC

The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain, Available from Stylus Publishers

The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain, Available from Stylus Publishers

Terry Doyle, author of The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain, encourages teachers to think about the conversations we have with students related to student reading.

For example, when asking students to read for homework, do we ask them to simply “read the chapter”? Or do we discuss reading strategies that can help make reading a more active process?

Mr. Doyle emphasizes practices such as questioning and annotation. Questioning involves students writing questions about the headlines they see in the passage, before they read the passage.

One way to facilitate this kind of active reading is for us to consider our textbook’s Table of Contents, assuming we rely on our text for a substantial portion of our teaching.



Here are some steps the CFC identified to help create a formative assignment related to reading and comprehension:

  1. Search Google for your textbook’s table of contents.
  2. If you are able to find them on the web, copy and paste them into a Word document.
  3. Create smaller Word documents from the large document, such as a separate document for each chapter you’ll ask them to read.
  4. Post the documents to your course in the LMS:

a) as a discussion board prompt. Ask them to discuss the topics you post. What do they know about the topic, if anything? Where/how did they learn it? (Then assign the reading).

b) as an online assignment. If you want the reading to count for a more significant portion of their grade, a more substantial activity/assignment could be developed.

You might have seen this kind of practice in a textbook you use or have used before. Have you ever seen a short set of discussion questions in the opening pages of a chapter? They might have been written as reflective questions or questions intended to stimulate prior knowledge.

Creating minor, formative assignments centered around reading supports several principles for improving student learning, namely activating prior knowledge, and an opportunity to clarify prior misconceptions that students hold, which can be a barrier to them applying what they’ve learned in later stages of the course.  

The stepsheet Encourage Active Reading can walk you through the process for a course you teach.

Your Brain on Writing

What happens in the brain when we write?

A recent New York Times article profiled the work of Martin Lotze, a researcher at the University of Griefswald in Germany. He discovered through a functional magnetic resonance imaging study (fMRI) that different regions of the brain may become active for novice writers and expert writers when faced with the same task. The study may be of interest for us and our students.


Using Open-Note Quizzes to Facilitate Listening, Encoding and Retrieval

Open-note quizzes may seem like a practice too juvenile for university students, but consider how the open-note quiz facilitates student learning practices that faculty are fond of:


  • stronger listening skills
  • student elaboration when writing/encoding—which can facilitate future retrieval
  • student retrieval of a memory that involves multiple “paved roads” through the brain (the “paved road” of hand to paper, of visual-perception processes, of letter and symbol formation and arrangement on the page)
  • stronger note-taking (without good notes, the student doesn’t do well on the open-notes quiz)

Example of Open-Notes Quizzes Syllabus Statement (feel free to copy or modify): 


Why We Will Have Open Notes Quizzes:

I want to know that you’re learning what we go over in class, and one of the best ones to encourage this is for me to use open notes quizzes. This does a number of things. It helps you become a stronger listener, because the quality of your notes determines how well you will do later on the quizzes or tests. It also encourages you to learn the material better when you first hear it, because you usually write in your own words what you are hearing.