How to Motivate and Engage the Whole Class

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When you reflect on any class you’ve instructed, does this roster resonate? Each factor plays a role in shaping various academic achievements:

  • Prior knowledge of the subject matter  
  • Motivation and engagement 
  • Learning goals 
  • Learning strategies 
  • Prioritization of the course 
  • Outside responsibilities

College students take a course for various reasons, for example, to meet a major or minor requirement or for personal interest. Some students prioritize their academic work and decide how much effort to put into a certain course, thus the same student’s motivation in different subjects may range from less motivated to highly motivated.  

As instructors, we want to motivate and engage the whole class and bring everyone to mastery of the course. How can we do that? The answer is: through course planning and by adopting teaching approaches and assessments conducive to student motivation and engagement. This article will focus on the latter and highlight some field-tested approaches and assessments for maximizing instructional effectiveness to improve student achievement.  

Part 1: Pedagogical approaches 

Backward design 

Set the course goals and lesson objectives, then plan activities, assignments, and evaluations/assessments that align with the goals and objectives.  

In lecture-based classes, combine lecturing with interactive activities such as Q&A sessions, pair/group work (two to four students) to go over muddy questions, summarize key points, or draw an infographic to demonstrate understanding of what was just covered in smaller segments throughout the class. For example, pause for one or two of the above activities after lecturing for eight to 10 minutes. Depending on students’ interest in the subject, it is best not go longer than 10 minutes due to attention span limitation.

Provide variety in assignments. Below are some examples:  

  • Assign a pre-lesson digital reading discussion on a reading text, in which students write comments and ask thoughtful questions.
  • Assign a pre-lesson oral or written summary of a reading text or video clip.
  • Use apps such as Padlet, Flip, or course management systems like Canvas for students to post short videos, audio, or text. Allow them access to their peers’ work as well as to provide constructive feedback.
  • Assign a group project that follows the project-based learning design principles. A team project (two to four people) usually consists of different stages: choosing an essential question related to the topic(s) of the course; conducting research and finding information on the question; periodic mini reports on new knowledge the group has learned and their overall progress; meeting(s) with the instructor to clear up any confusion and get timely feedback on progress; and finally, presentation of the final project.  

The benefits of a group project include community building where students feel connected with one another as they collaborate to finish a project and apply how what they learned led to deeper understanding. Additionally, they will utilize engagement skills in solving an authentic and meaningful problem to create a final product.  

Regardless of the type of assignment, assignments should be designed with clear objectives: What do we want the students to achieve in relation to the lesson or course goal? For example, does a pre-class digital reading discussion help the students prepare for in-class discussion? Does a two- to three-minute student-made video require them to demonstrate understanding of a new key concept? By setting an objective for an assignment, students understand that their work ties into the lesson and helps them master the content. They will less likely deem the assignments as meaningless “busy work.” 

Part 2: Assessments that provide constructive feedback while helping students take responsibility of their own learning 

Formative and summative assessment

Assessments used in the classroom usually consist of two types: formative assessment and summative assessment. The latter is usually a high-stake assessment, such as a test, exam, oral presentation, or written report, that is graded and carries weight in the final course grade. Just like what was previously discussed about assignment design, the same is true of giving summative assessments: assess what is important, meaningful, and useful to a unit, a lesson, and a course. 

Formative assessment, on the other hand, is low stakes. Its goal is to provide checkpoints for understanding throughout a lesson. The assessments are usually not graded, but if needed, completion points can be awarded. For example, students get a 10/10 for answering pre-reading questions regardless of if they are correct. Formative assessments should be used regularly in the classroom and more than one tool should be used. In addition, formative assessments are not only used to check student understanding throughout the instruction process, but also can be used to inform an instructor about any adjustments needed in their own instruction. Formative assessments offer prompt feedback to enhance student learning, engagement, and instructional effectiveness for students and instructors.

Commonly used formative assessments: 

In the last couple minutes of class, students write about what they have learned in the class period and questions they still have. Students can also be asked to answer a few key questions. This can be done digitally or on paper.  

Exit checks benefit both the students and the instructor. The tickets prompt students to check for understanding, apply the new ideas they have just learned, and inform their instructor of any muddy points they may still have. For the instructor, students’ responses cue them about the lesson delivery, such as pace, focus, and clarity. Instructors can choose to reteach concepts to address any confusion. Exit checks aim to enhance both instruction and student engagement.

Our students grew up with iPads, computers, smart phones, tablets, and video games. Straight traditional lecturing for the entire class period can be a challenge for them. To prevent tuning out, instructors may use apps like Kahoot, Zoom, and Poll Everywhere to check for pre-lesson preparation, background knowledge, and comprehension of new material. It could also be used as an interactive group activity. To make it low stakes, tell students that the game scores will not be recorded as a grade and that they may use appropriate nicknames.  

There is one key step: Let students see the visual results of their responses and the correct answers. This instant feedback lets each student know how they are performing without any embarrassment, even if they score low (make sure actual student names are not shown).  

Students care about their grades and many of them want to know how they are doing as they progress through a term. Timely grade reporting by the instructor benefits students who aim to enhance their grades with extra effort.

Fostering a welcoming and stimulating class atmosphere encourages active student involvement. Initially reserved students tend to open up after a few weeks, and those less engaged become more willing to participate, while dedicated learners find themselves appropriately challenged. By the course’s conclusion, everyone makes academic strides.


Hong Jiang is a professor of instruction at Northwestern University, where she teaches Mandarin Chinese. 

References: 

Buck Institute for Education. https://www.pblworks.org/what-is-pbl/gold-standard-project-design

Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/

McTighe, J. (2021, January 28). 8 Quick Checks for Understanding. https://www.edutopia.org/article/8-quick-checks-understanding/ 


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