What sparks student engagement in a course? Is engagement the sole responsibility of the instructor, hinging on his or her ability to communicate with energy, enthusiasm, and authority? Are students most inspired and engaged by the mix of activities and assignments? What role does students’ ability to relate to the course content play?

In a recent survey, we asked students: “What gets you most excited about a course?” We also asked instructors to share their insights and opinions. We received responses from more than four thousand students and 750 instructors. Below, we share the results, as well as our reflections on them. 

What most engages students?


What sparks engagement in a class? Students and instructors respond

  • More than half (52%) of students ranked “relevance of the course to their goals” as the number-one factor in their engagement. Several students also wrote in that related factors, such as “interest in the subject” and “[using] the information on my job” influence their level of enthusiasm about the course. One student opined that “it should be applied daily.” This likely reflects their general motivation for attending college (or taking college courses); it also indicates a strong desire to see real-world applications and build skills and knowledge that will transfer to the workplace.
  • Instructors tended to rank “instructor’s enthusiasm” and “teaching methods” as stronger contributing factors to student engagement. These responses indicate the sense of ownership and responsibility that instructors take in engaging their students. Students do acknowledge and respect this: a good percentage of them ranked the instructor’s enthusiasm and teaching methods as the most-engaging factor in a class (17% and 11%, respectively). As one student wrote, “The instructor is a HUGE part of it; you want a professor to be someone that can keep your attention and make learning fun and/or interesting.  I think the most exciting thing about a course is learning something new.”
  • A good portion of students (8%) and instructors (10%) noted that class discussion ignites energy and enthusiasm in the course. Certainly, for both students and instructors, the opportunity to exchange ideas and insights presents a powerful learning opportunity. (Next week, we’ll cover some of the specific factors that make class discussions engaging, from both the student and instructor point of view.)
  • The remaining options—solo projects/papers, case studies, group projects, and role-play activities—garnered some votes, but significantly fewer in proportion to the top four responses. To us, this indicates that, in the perspective of both students and instructors, it’s not simply the activities, but the way that the course is taught that plays the biggest determining factor in student engagement.
  • Two percent of students and four percent of instructors responded “other.” Many students and instructors noted that a combination of some, or all, of the factors played an equal role in their course interest and engagement. In addition, some of students’ write-in answers included “challenging course material,” “learning new things,” “understanding the material,” “correlation to other courses studied,” “films on the subject,” and “books and reading.” Instructors also identified such tools and techniques as “flipping the classroom,” “examples and handouts,” and “dealing with students in all ways as real human beings.”


How can you apply these points in your classroom?

1. Whenever possible, demonstrate the relevance of course material to students’ experiences, frames of reference, and future careers. As author Joel English noted in a recent post, today’s students are largely motivated by personal relevance. If they can see “what’s in it for me,” they are more likely to stay engaged. Granted, certain subjects lend themselves more readily to a demonstration of direct relevance than do others; and, of course, this doesn’t mean you have to tag every point in your course back to a pop-culture reference. However, if you can draw a connection between your course concept and something that students are aware of, or can apply to their current or future experiences, they will be well served. If you’d like ideas, review how Beth Pandolpho relies on such resources as relevant videos and articles on current events to draw connections to her course material.

If you’re like many instructors who have already responded to our current poll, you do already strive to make your topics relevant to students. Is this important to you as you plan your course materials? Let us know your opinion:

2. Share your passion and enthusiasm. What drives your engagement around your course subject, your field of study and research, and your role as an educator? Tie that into your presentations. You can also draw from your own student experience as a means of connecting with your classes. For example, one instructor engages and connects with students by “taking them to different areas of the college and letting them know that 16 years ago, I was setting in the same seat they are now in.” You truly can be a model and inspiration to your students!

3. Tap into students’ desire to learn and succeed. Many students are motivated by their own desire to do well in their courses and glean as much as they can from you, their instructor. As one student wrote, “I strive to do the best I can do in each class. I love a class that holds my attention no matter what the course holds.” This student is not alone; as noted in an earlier blog post, 97% of our student respondents indicated that they generally find their courses interesting. Good news: they come to class with a sincere desire to learn more about your subject!

Other students respond that there’s no one method that engages them; rather, it’s your ability as an instructor to choose the teaching method that best suits the courses and concepts you’re teaching. One student stated that they prefer “any method of teaching that makes learning the particular subject most effective (one size does not fit all). I am most excited about a course when I feel like I’m actually learning something!”


What other steps do you take to spark student engagement in your course? What would you add to the above list? Share your ideas, as well as your reaction to our survey results, in the comments.