6 Classroom Engagement Strategies for Impactful Teaching

Higher education plays a vital role in preparing students for a productive, successful life outside of institution walls. Engaging students remains a challenge—especially with modern concerns leftover from the overwhelm and stress students experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a survey by McGraw Hill, 35% of students reported considering dropping out due to difficulties with mental health and studying.

With thoughtful classroom engagement strategies, instructors can improve student participation and academic success.

Education tech especially is proven to be an effective way to capture student attention and foster engagement. A majority of students, faculty, and administrators (82%) believe access to technology has a large impact on student engagement, according to a 2023 Instructure report on student success and engagement in higher education.

In this guide, we share six classroom engagement strategies and tech tools you can use to create an interactive learning environment that fosters student well-being and achievement. Let’s get started.

Why is classroom engagement important?

According to the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCCSE), the more engaged your students are, “the more likely they are to persist in their college studies and to achieve at higher levels.”

Engagement is usually defined as the amount of attention, interest, curiosity, and optimism students show when participating in educational activities. Student engagement strategies focus on improving these factors but are often crafted with in-person classrooms in mind. This results in an engagement gap for online students that can negatively impact their retention and success.

In-person vs. virtual student engagement gaps

The latest CCCSE report on student engagement shows online-only students miss out on several engagement opportunities when compared to their peers who attend at least one in-person class:

  • Working with other students during class: 50% of online students and 17% of non-online-only students said they didn’t work with other students during class.
  • Interacting with instructors: 15% of online students and 9% of non-online-only students said they never interacted with instructors.
  • Taking part in applied learning experiences: 90% of online students and 77% of non-online-only students said they didn’t participate in field experiences, internships, co-op experiences, or clinical assignments.

The CCCSE report also notes that most online-only students attend class part-time while working more than 30 hours a week and caring for children. For higher education to provide equitable learning experiences, it’s critical for instructors to use virtual classroom engagement strategies to prevent online students from being left out.

Learn more: Gain a deeper understanding of your students’ engagement levels in our guide to measuring engagement in the classroom.

6 higher-ed classroom engagement strategies

1. Use technology to create connections

Educational technology like learning management systems (LMSs) or polling tools like Poll Everywhere keep communication flowing between instructors and students. Video conferencing tools, classroom management tools, and LMSs are the three most popular tech tools used to engage students, according to Instructure’s survey.

Additionally, many of these EdTech tools offer ways for online students to get involved in class discussions and activities:

  • Zoom breakout rooms are perfect for virtual group work.
  • Poll Everywhere quizzes and Q&As help monitor student comprehension.
  • Slack provides a way for students to chat asynchronously.
  • Google Slides and Dropbox allow educators to share lecture slides for future reference.
  • YouTube, TEDx, and Khan Academy encourage further learning with video tutorials.

Did you know? Poll Everywhere integrates with your LMS and presentation software so you can easily create interactive lectures and class discussions.

2. Build relationships

Creating relationships with your students can encourage them to seek you out if they need extra assistance with classwork. Additionally, strong relationships improve students’ motivation, engagement, social skills, and behavior.

Building relationships with students may feel challenging, especially if you struggle to balance friendliness with authority. It’s important to remember that your comments as an educator can make or break students’ learning experiences, but establishing respect is essential.

In an article for Western Governors University, Suzanne Capek Tingley writes that earning students’ respect requires instructors to do the following:

  • Be consistent and keep their word
  • Control their frustration and be patient
  • Learn who their students are
  • Speak in a normal tone of voice
  • Be kind

You can also foster relationships with students by making yourself available in a variety of ways. Reiterate your office hours and invite students to stop by and discuss the material with you one-on-one. Give out your email address and encourage students to ask you questions directly. A class message board or group messaging channel helps quieter students feel more comfortable participating.

3. Break the ice

Icebreakers create no-pressure opportunities for students to get comfortable speaking up in class. Additionally, answering open-ended questions—even as simple as “What’s your favorite color?”—helps learners build rapport by learning about other students’ interests.

Additionally, sharing an icebreaker question at the start of the semester allows instructors to check in on their students’ needs. Here are some questions that can help you gauge learning preferences:

  • How do you learn best?
  • What are your learning goals?
  • What do you do in your free time?
  • What else should I know about you that will help me better support your learning?

Pro tip: Set up your icebreaker in Poll Everywhere and share the results with the class using the Word Cloud feature.

4. Create active learning experiences

Long lectures don’t work with the human brain. The average amount of time adults can pay attention is 20 minutes, and daydreaming and distractions are normal. Instead of cramming course materials into a 20-minute lecture, active learning strategies can help you break class time into smaller segments that more effectively hold students’ attention.

Along with group activities, project-based learning, and interactive lessons like gallery walks or peer evaluations, adding quizzes, discussions, and Q&As helps create microlearning experiences where lectures don’t dominate the majority of class time.

Additionally, videos, student presentations, and hands-on demonstrations can bring daydreamers back to focusing on the classroom. Gamifying your classroom is another strategy for motivating students and capturing their attention, and real-time leaderboards can improve engagement and participation.

5. Give students autonomy

Invite students to take charge of their learning process by allowing them to choose the types of assignments, essay topics, and course projects they complete. Educators can also promote collaborative learning by giving students a chance to influence class guidelines for discussion and expectations.

For example, instructors can promote student choice by outlining a general learning activity, such as “create an alternative ending to the novel.” Then allow your students to take that concept and run with it.

Nina Parrish notes in an Edutopia article that “classrooms that foster motivation and increase engagement are high in structure but low in top-down control.”

This student-centered teaching practice means instructors listen to learners and try to understand their perspectives, give students the control to customize their assignments and explore personal interests, and provide frequent feedback.

6. Value student viewpoints

It’s the goal of most instructors to create an inclusive classroom where all students feel comfortable participating. But getting to this point requires you to first look at your curriculum, course materials, and class expectations:

  • Use materials that represent and are created by a diverse range of people.
  • Use universal design principles to avoid ostracizing groups of students.
  • Don’t trivialize or marginalize different perspectives or experiences.
  • Set discussion expectations and go over them with students on day one.
  • Encourage students to go beyond different opinions to analyze the complexities and backgrounds behind them.
  • Don’t oversimplify, instead encourage critical thinking when discussing sensitive topics.
  • Request student feedback and encourage honesty by allowing anonymous responses.

Engage virtual and in-person classrooms with Poll Everywhere

Don’t let any student feel left out. Each of these learning techniques works for both in-person and online classroom environments.

Poll Everywhere offers a unique solution that works with a variety of teaching strategies and classroom activities. Promote active learning with gamified quizzes, invite student questions during lectures with the Pinned Q&A, and invite honest feedback with the anonymous response feature. We’ll show you how to engage students with polls, presentations, games, and more—all from their phones.