An examination of student engagement in the classroom

An exploration of what student engagement means for different individuals and how to support and assess it in the classroom


16 Feb 2023
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Students responding to a question in the classroom

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

University of Colorado Boulder

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In conversations about improving student engagement in the classroom, there always comes a point when the mythic college student makes an appearance. That perfect student of the past was always on time, had always done the reading, answered every question with astounding complexity, and memorised everything the professor said. What a great time that must have been.

We might not ever have a classroom filled with the students of our dreams, but what if we could get a bit closer? What if we could encourage motivation, curiosity and enthusiasm for learning? What would happen if we understood a bit more about how engagement really works?

What is student engagement?

Student engagement has been defined by scholars of learning Elizabeth Barkley and Claire Major as “the mental state students are in while learning, representing the intersection of feeling and thinking”. Engaged students do not just absorb content, they try to make meaning of what they study. Engaged learners care about the subject, feel motivated or excited to learn, and take ownership of their learning.

We tend to think of engagement in the classroom in restrictive terms, as students asking and answering questions. Yet engagement is more complex. We can look for many signs of engagement through the interaction of three dimensions of a student’s attitude to what they are learning. These three dimensions – cognitive, affective and behavioural – work together to influence individual engagement on a given task or day (see the table below).

DimensionWhat engagement looks like
Cognitive: the extent to which students are attending to and spending mental effort on the learning tasks encounteredBeing curious, wanting to understand something
Psychological or intellectual investment in learning
Use strategies that lead to deep learning
Behavioural: the extent to which students are making active responses to the learning tasks presentedAsking or answering questions
Going to class
Paying attention
Affective: the level of students’ investment in, and their emotional reactions to, the learning tasksStudents care about their learning
Interest, enthusiasm and excitement about what they are doing
Motivated, challenged by new things
Willing to participate in the learning process

Taking these concepts further, Barkley and Major proposed that student engagement is the product of motivation (the driving forces of an individual’s behaviour) and active learning (what students do to build their skills). The mix of motivation and active learning is unique to individuals and is not stable.

Engagement can look different for different students or groups of students. If students were raised in a culture in which it is disrespectful to interrupt an elder or person in authority, they might feel uncomfortable engaging in a full class discussion. However, they might still be deeply engaged in listening and thinking about the subject matter and might enjoy a small group discussion. Students might choose not to participate if they feel that they will be ridiculed for a wrong answer, or if they feel unsafe in any way.

Creating the environment for engagement

Given what we know, can we promote student engagement in the classroom? Yes. While we cannot control every factor that influences students’ learning experiences, instructors can create learning environments in which students feel encouraged and supported to engage in active learning.

Active learning refers to a broad range of teaching strategies that engage students as active participants in their learning. It helps students to engage with the course material beyond reading, listening and note-taking, and contributes to the development of higher order thinking skills (analysis, synthesis, evaluation) as well as content knowledge. Active learning often involves interaction among students, although these activities can vary in intensity.

Some common active learning strategies

  • Interactive lecturing: break up mini-lecture sections with two- to three-minute pauses during which students discuss and rework notes in pairs
  • Think-pair-share
  • Small group work, group projects or group problem-solving
  • Short writing activities to be used by the student alone or paired with group discussion
  • Clickers, which is an interactive technology enabling instructors to pose questions to students and immediately collect and view responses of the entire class
  • Interactive games or problem-solving
  • Demonstrations, simulations or experiments
  • Music, video, images or a demonstration can create a sense of excitement, curiosity or set up a problem or puzzle to be solved.

Using active learning strategies can be daunting for instructors coming from a conventional lecture format, so start small. Think about your class; where do you see one opportunity to make a change? Make sure the new strategies align with your learning outcomes in a meaningful way. An activity might be fun, but it should help students make useful connections to the course material.

Assessing engagement

Almost everyone who has taught a class has used student participation as a primary assessment of engagement. In light of what we have learned about the complexities of motivation, engagement and learning, many professors have stopped this practice in favour of more active learning strategies and inclusive teaching practices. If we want to assess what we value, we can design reflective and thoughtful assessments of engagement.

We can create assessments that tap into the cognitive, behavioural and affective dimensions of engagement. Look for evidence that students are taking an active role in their learning; this might show in different ways for different students. For example, one student might take a leadership role in managing group projects while another student spends a lot of time supporting and mentoring other group members.

What should we look for?


  • Spending time on projects requiring integration and synthesis of ideas
  • Completing coursework requiring practical application of knowledge or skills
  • Demonstrating growth on the course learning outcomes
  • Student self-perception of learning or engagement.


  • Asking questions or contributing verbally in class
  • Paying attention and active listening
  • Taking notes in class
  • Engaging in group projects or collaborative work
  • Helping or tutoring classmates.


  • Time invested in studying
  • Effort to meet instructor’s expectations
  • Being prepared (or not) for class
  • Discussing course material outside of class
  • Student attitudes towards course material.

One way to collect information about student engagement is through self-assessment. Metacognition about one’s own learning and engagement is an important higher order skill that can help develop critical thinking. Students can be guided to reflect on their own motivations, effort and learning. Provide a rubric or other evaluative framework before an assignment or activity – this shares your expectations as well as providing a platform for self-assessment. This can work well for group activities and projects.

Course feedback methods are another way to learn about student interest and attitudes towards the course. Start the semester by giving students a notecard or preparing an online form to complete on the first day of class. Ask students to write down what works best for their learning and also something professors do that they don’t like. Mid-semester feedback can help you identify which teaching strategies have been the most effective. Anonymous responses might reveal feelings of safety or concerns about participating in class.


Improving student engagement takes effort, but it’s worth it. Some key takeaways:

  • Make your class a safe place for all students to engage. Create an environment in which students feel able to take risks and make errors
  • Engagement should not be competitive or punitive
  • Be thoughtful about how you respond to student contributions and questions. In what ways do you show students that it is OK to be wrong?
  • Allow for different forms of engagement that tap into the cognitive, affective and behavioural dimensions. In addition to verbal contributions, consider other ways that students can engage
  • Be clear about your expectations
  • Use activities that engage different parts of the brain, social and individual, and kinesthetic or sensory
  • Provide early and regular feedback to help students stay motivated
  • Conduct brief self-assessments and get class feedback to learn how students are experiencing the class and what adjustments can be made. For example, pass out notecards and ask students to write a one-minute response to the prompt, “What helped you learn today?”

This article was originally published by the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Facilitating and assessing student engagement in the classroom.

Stephanie Foster is director of assessment at Colorado State University; Kirk Ambrose is a professor of classics and founding director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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