How to Keep Students Engaged

Image of an instructor teaching to engaged students who are participating and enjoying the class discussion.
Student EngagementStudent Success
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Caleb Jud is a Business Development Specialist at Cengage who enjoys cooking, gardening, and lapidary—making rocks nice and shiny!


“Anyone….? Anyone…? Bueller…? Bueller…?”

We’ve all encountered an instructor like Ferris Bueller’s Mr. Lorensax—the kind that lectured their class from start to finish, regardless of reception. In his book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, Alan Alda calls this style of teaching “speaking into the vague mist of interpersonal nothingness.” To communicate with students effectively, you’ll have to do a bit more than lecture on the material. Here are some tips on how to keep students engaged and interested in what you’re saying, no matter the course format.


Remember what sparked your passion for the subject

Try to remember what it was like when you were first learning the subject you teach. What was it about the subject that caught your attention? What kept you going through long nights of studying and challenging exams? When you would stare off into space and ask, “Why am I doing this to myself!?!”—what made you put your head back down and keep going? Letting your students know why you enjoy the subject can help to ignite a passion in them to want to engage more.

I still remember my Statistics professor speaking passionately about when they realized just how easy it is to use bad studies and poor samples to prove nearly anything. They wanted  to make sure we gained the skills to recognize those bad stats so we could tell when someone might  be trying to bend our perception of reality to meet their agenda.


Ask questions that make students think

You’re an expert in your field, so you already know there is an exception to the rule you just told the students, or that Event A leads to Consequence B. However, you’ll engage your students more if you give them a chance to think about what they just received and get the information together in their head. I remember classes where I would take notes, but when I looked back at them, I couldn’t figure out how one line was related to the next. For other classes, I still remember what I learned because the instructor would stop and ask us “what might this lead to?” or “why might this work?” They weren’t just asking me to recite the information they  provided, they wanted me to use the knowledge they gave me to work out what might be coming.


Turn lessons into stories

Stories help us learn and understand the world around us. When teaching my son to tie his shoes, I started by giving him the steps in sequence: hold one lace in each hand, cross them over, and so on. He could do it at that moment, but later if his shoe came untied, he wouldn’t be able to recall the steps. To me, it was second nature to follow the steps, so why wasn’t it working for him?

Then I remembered, I hadn’t learned from a set of steps either. I learned that Mr. Rabbit jumped into his hole. Until the process became second nature, the story had helped see me through it. Equipped with my new outlook and short little rhyme, I worked with my son and he’s now able to tie his shoes like a pro! Of course, what you’re teaching is significantly more complicated than tying your shoes. But, if you can find a way to make it flow like a story, it will help your students pick it up that much easier.


Keep students engaged with empathy

What ties all these methods together, and one of the crucial components of effective communication, is empathy. Empathy allows us to see things from someone else’s perspective. It can inform us about the best way to approach a subject so that the message can get through and the student can retain it. Remember to give them your perspective, and to consider theirs. We all have the flame of knowledge burning inside us, and few things in the world are more satisfying than when you see that spark grow and flourish in your students.


Want more tips on how to keep students engaged? Watch recordings from our Empowered Educator webinar events and get actionable strategies from instructors just like you.