Engaged Classrooms for the 21st Century

classroom from hell

Silent, distracted, and sleeping students in the back row, a teacher in conversation with only one student in the front, seating that discourages lateral interactions, and a dark and uninviting environment:  these are the features SMU faculty identified as they created this composite “Classroom from Hell” during a pedagogy workshop at SMU in 2017.  In contrast, when asked to remember effective or highly functional classrooms, faculty often talk about a culture of curiosity, multilateral interactions between students, students and faculty, and students and materials, opportunities for play and connection, and a sense of trust in the room.  All of these positive features can be described as “engagement,” points of interaction in a class that invite interest, motivation, learning, and growth. 

In his 2018 work that compiles scholarship on teaching and learning, education specialist Joshua Eyler identifies curiosity, sociality, emotion, authenticity, and opportunities for productive failure as key aspects of engagement that lead to genuine learning.  Classrooms that provide space for these are more likely to engage students in ways that they find useful, motivating, and transformative.  Disengaged classrooms, such as the one conjured by faculty in the picture above, are more likely to lead to frustration, boredom, shallow learning done only to pass a minimum requirement, and a sense of wasted time on the part of students and their instructors.

Before 2020, we had experience in overcoming physical obstacles such as poorly arranged furniture in a room.  As the Pandemic starts to wind down, Flex and Remote formats have only added to our repertoire of skills.  What follows are suggestions for creating spaces where students are more likely to connect with each other, with professors, and with course content; where they are more likely to undertake what Ken Bain dubbed “deep learning:” the intrinsically motivated approach to new knowledge that will stick with them, and that they will be able to use, for years to come.

Entering new spaces produces anxiety in most people.  David Rock, an Australian neuroscientist, posits that when people come into new social spaces they are concerned about status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.  Translated to higher education, our students come to our classrooms sizing up social positioning, what they may know about the subject matter, if it’s a required class or an elective, who they might know, and if they will be treated fairly.  If Rock is right, they won’t be able to learn anything new until those basic questions are answered in the back of their minds. 

This is one reason many of us intuitively use ice breakers at the beginning of the semester, or take time to introduce ourselves and our syllabus.  Flipgrid, a free program that allows students to record short videos that can be reviewed and then collated by an instructor, offers an opportunity for students to get acquainted before the first day of class, making connection, and learning, easier from day one. 


This exercise asks students to imagine the conditions under which they are more likely to be able to engage in classroom participation.  After students have thought about agreements, intentions, and conditions, the instructor helps prepare agreements that the class will use throughout the semester.


As the physical nature of the traditional classroom evolves, so does the way in which student interact with each other and with instructors.  As we integrate more collaborative activities and rely on further technology to deliver information and encourage student interactions, how can we help them engage in this process and take more responsibility for their learning? 

In fall 2020 I taught hybrid courses; I expected a portion of the students to be in the physical classroom and the others to join remotely. How would I assess participation when most students would not be present, and many students who joined remotely would not or could not use their cameras?  My solution: not to give a participation grade in any of the courses I taught.  By mid-semester, roughly 90% of my students remained on-line and I often interacted with a screen filled with names floating in small black boxes.  Some students did remain engaged while others disconnected.

Based on this experience, I resolved to include graded participation in my spring 2021 hybrid courses. The challenge was to design an assessment method that was equitable for both remote and face to face students, and would motivate these two groups to engage in the course equally.


This exercise invites students to creatively engage with course materials not by answering questions, but by asking them.  This enlarges possibilities for engagement as students are asked to consider not only core content, but ways in which that content may be accessed, linked to broader issues, and evaluated.


The Experience of Class Presentations in an Economics Class:  Students in large (40+) lecture classes in economics tend to be silent onlookers into the process of learning the material.  Some class time is obviously devoted to lectures on theory and methods.  In bringing the theoretical into the concrete, it has proven useful for students to be the presenters of the applications of those theoretical ideas.  To have the student do a deeper dive in to the topic and learn for themselves is the ultimate goal of these student presentations.


What I Get/What I Don’t: A running discussion board to encourage student engagement and student-teacher communication while also providing an opportunity for reinforcement of learning. This minimal intervention is easy to set up and maintain, and can be used for both remote and face-to-face teaching.  It builds on the “one-minute quiz” exercises recommended in some contemporary pedagogy books and how-to sites. It is a form of no-stakes formative assessment, to use the current terminology.