University of Toronto psychology professor Steve Joordens has devoted much of his career to the issue of student distraction and its ephemeral counterpart, student engagement. And if he’s learned one thing about engagement, it’s that there’s more than one way to foster it. So he set about trying to name the different techniques.

“The question on my mind was: are there different approaches to engaging students in the classroom, and can they be classified?” Joordens explains. His reflections led him to develop a taxonomy of student engagement, complete with its own handy label: RIFS, an acronym for “Relevant, Interesting, Fun, Social.” Joordens presented the RIFS taxonomy at a panel discussion entitled “What Does Engagement Really Mean?” at the Engage 2018 conference hosted by Top Hat in Chicago on October 26-27. The panel’s message to faculty: there are many kinds of engagement, and even more ways to foster it.

An engaged classroom is an elusive pursuit: it’s about influencing students’ states of mind, and each instructor has their own sense of what that looks like. “To me, engagement means that information is not going into a student’s eyes and passing through their fingers into their notes and then disappearing from the universe as we know it,” says Wright State biology instructor Joshua Stomel, “but that it’s bouncing around inside their head and making new connections, so that it sticks in there.”

Stomel’s description echoed those of many other professors at the conference. But how can faculty tell if those new connections are happening? José Vazquez, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois who presented alongside Joordens, says he uses a simple litmus test: “You know your students are engaged when, if you cancel class, they get upset.”

By contrast, when it comes to combating a lack of engagement from their students, faculty often feel as though their options are limited. “You can’t force anyone to be engaged,” says Rutgers statistics and mathematics lecturer David Weiss. “So the question is: do they want to be engaged? If they do I can help them. But if they don’t, well, I can’t take time away from those who do.”

Bob Seitz, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, agrees. “I’ve had conversations with students where I say to them, ‘there are steps you must matriculate through to get to where you want to be, and as an educator I can help you.’ But sometimes the conversation goes the other way, and I’ll say, ‘are you sure this is the program for you? Is this the path you want to take in your education?’”

“I’m the only professor who ever answered their e-mail”

Panelist Stanley Stepanic, an associate professor of Slavic folklore and languages at the University of Virginia (UVA), encouraged faculty to be alive to any moment when students reach out to them. “I’ve had students tell me I’m the only professor who ever answered their e-mail,” he told the gathering of several hundred faculty members from across North America. “When I heard that I asked all my students if they’ve ever had professors not answer their e-mails. Every one of them said yes.” A lack of faculty engagement, then, appears to be a universal part of the student experience in higher ed.

But the broader message from the panel was to focus on the classroom as well as individuals. As Joordens put it: “The level of engagement in your students and your classrooms is not fixed. Yes, students will arrive in your classroom with varying levels of curiosity, but there are things you as an instructor can do to make your class better.”

That, he says, is the point of his RIFS taxonomy: to help instructors craft the learning experience. The taxonomy breaks down like so:

  • Relevant is about answering the well-worn student grouse, “Why are we learning this?” Classroom activities such as problem-based or work-integrated learning can enhance any course material’s relevance.
  • Interesting speaks to students’ intrinsic motivations: if they’re not learning something to accomplish a goal or use it in their daily life, they’re learning it because they’re interested. Personalized learning strategies in the classroom encourage students to take greater ownership over their own education, which develops a stronger sense of intrinsic motivation: it reinforces the fact that they’re not learning something because someone says they have to, but because they chose to.
  • Fun is about making the classroom experience enjoyable, and Joordens turns to physiology to underline its importance. “When people feel anxious or stressed or under pressure, blood leaves the frontal lobe and people go into fight-or-flight mode,” he explains. “The reciprocal of that is to do things that make people feel comfortable and feel good about the class” to keep their minds relaxed and open.
  • Social is about encouraging students to interact and learn from each other as well as from their instructors or their readings. Studies have shown that learning is most effective when the sense of community in a classroom is high. Tactics such as response systems and peer assessments foster more social interaction in learning.

Most engagement tactics and active learning strategies fall into one of these four categories. “I like to ask my students lots of questions about the material early in the semester,” says Demian Hommel, a geography instructor at Oregon State University and a panelist alongside Joordens. Asking students questions to which they don’t yet know the answers makes the task akin to solving a riddle—a tactic that can help spark interest. “It sounds counter-intuitive, but the idea is to prime them to understand what they don’t know.”

Basil Naah, a chemistry instructor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, has put lots of effort into making his material relevant to students. “I’m teaching them things that, at a molecular level, they can’t really see. They need something concrete to help them visualize what I am trying to teach. So I keep them busy with hands-on activities.”

“I am a scientist, but I view teaching as a performance art. I am perfectly happy to be up there acting out molecules and picking up props.”

Joshua Stomel, Professor of Biology, Wright State University

For instance, Naah teaches the concept of molecular density by having students pour two half-full glasses of water, then add regular cola into one and diet cola into the other: one cola will float while the other will sink. (He would not say which was which; you’ll have to try it yourself.) “They also weigh both glasses and discover that one is lighter than the other. That way they can really see density: same volume, different mass.” Naah has developed dozens of similar activities, he says.

Biology professor Joshua Stomel, a colleague of Naah’s at Wright State, prefers to stoke social interaction. “The most effective strategy I’ve found is to have students do think-pair share exercises. Then they can’t shut themselves off from everyone else.” Even better, Stomel says, is the think-pair-swap-share in which students switch partners halfway through, merging not just individual ideas but group conversations. And if he ever senses that he’s losing the room, Stomel just acts up. “I am a scientist, but I view teaching as a performance art. I am perfectly happy to be up there acting out molecules and picking up props.”

It’s a strategy the panel roundly endorses. “You have to think of yourself basically as an entertainer,” says Stepanic, whose Dracula course is one of UVA’s most popular (annual enrollment 600; waitlist 1,600). “They learn more when they are entertained. And if things don’t go well, don’t take yourself too seriously. Be willing to make fun of yourself.” Joordens concurs: “Instructors should encourage laughter. When you hear laughing in the classroom, it’s actually a sign that students’ frontal lobes are recharging.”

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