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This Fall, Aim for Engagement

For many instructors, reentering the classroom this fall will mean closing Zoom, dusting off our lecture notes, and finally reinhabiting the same spaces as students. But what awaits us?

By Matt Mariola and Ryan Ozar

July 22, 2021

Higher education has just endured one of the most fraught and difficult academic years in recent memory, but it seems like we’ve turned a corner. For many instructors, reentering the classroom after fifteen months of distance learning will mean closing Zoom, dusting off our lecture notes, and finally reinhabiting the same spaces as students. But what awaits us?

Before ditching laptops for lecterns, we should reflect on what was missing from screen-based learning and how we benefit from being physically present with our students. Teaching remotely can often seem like “a series of transactions: Do this, respond to that.” For many students, this dynamic leads more to exhaustion than real learning. What is the value of being physically present with our students? In the return to the classroom this fall, educators should revisit the age-old argument that student learning hinges less on content and more on engagement.

Strategies and Mindsets to Improve Student Engagement

Our role as instructors is not to foster the simple transfer of knowledge but to purposefully deploy authentic, hands-on, and participatory learning experiences. To do this, we must commit ourselves to students’ learning through what Jay Roberts calls the “the careful and purposeful orchestration of social experience.”

Contrary to popular belief, experiential learning does not require expensive lab activities, service-learning field trips, or supervised internships for every student. Experiential learning is not binary (either you’re doing it or you aren’t) but a continuum with activities that require a sliding scale of preparation and management. As a reflective exercise for faculty, we propose a set of orienting questions and evidence-based strategies to help faculty explore the processes, approaches, and mindsets that lead to greater student engagement.

In a typical class session, how often are your students . . .

If your answer is “not often,” consider these evidence-based strategies:

Collaborating with one another?

Inter-teach. Have students teach one another as an assessment and demonstration of mastery.

Speaking rather than listening?

Let them speak. Use discussion strategies that encourage participation and reduce dependence on the instructor’s voice guiding all aspects of the lesson.

Learning the content in different spaces?

Move beyond the classroom. A walk through the campus kitchen, local water treatment facility, or an adjoining neighborhood can provide powerful learning moments.

Communicating about classwork with people who are not other students?

Partner up. Share the teaching by identifying outside individuals and organizations who exemplify the authentic application of the concepts or topics that students are exploring. Embed opportunities for students to engage with these partners.

Being assessed for their creations rather than their answers?

Move higher on Bloom’s taxonomy. Rather than studying a map, students can draw a map. Rather than analyzing data, students can create a database. Rather than listening to a recorded lecture, students can make a podcast.

Using tactile materials?

Get materials. Bring objects to the classroom that have a material connection to the lesson. Better yet, have the students find and bring objects themselves.

Moving in the classroom?

Get kinetic. Incorporate physical movement into class discussions. Examples include a “voting with your feet” exercise or posing a thought experiment that students can consider on a short walk around the building.

Breathing outside air?

Take it outside. Bring the class to a green space, a patch of woods, a campus garden. Reflect on a lesson or a reading in silence.

The pandemic upended the work lives of educators and forced many changes to the way we teach. But in our hasty scramble to adapt, the pandemic also opened space for reflection. What have we learned? What will we retain? This fall, we urge instructors to focus not only on returning to normal but also on continuing to be pedagogically innovative, harnessing the social experience of higher education, and enhancing learning for all of our students.


  • Matt Mariola

    Matt Mariola is an associate professor of environmental studies at the College of Wooster.

  • Ryan Ozar

    Ryan Ozar is a visiting assistant professor of education at the College of Wooster.