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Active Learning is out: Engagement is in!

Instructors can activate student learning through tapping into emotions. Express English 412 summarizes four principles for engaging students that utilize active learning techniques in new and exciting ways.




Principle 1: Because of limited cognitive resources (working memory, attention, etc.), tap into emotions.


Use emotions as a way to grab your students' attention and help them remember course content. This can be achieved through connecting course content to students’ emotions. Techniques for doing this include:

  • Breaking up class time into smaller chunks of time: each time period can start with an “emotional hook” – a story, song, video, leading questions, etc. related to the course material – that will attract attention and, ideally, get students emotionally involved in class content.

  • Assign activities relevant to students’ lives. If you are in a lab working with drinking water, have students bring samples from home to test.

  • Shake up routines.  If you notice that you are doing the same sequence every lesson, try out something new. Otherwise, the “emotional hooks” will soon catch nothing.

Principle 2: Whether you like it or not, your class puts you front and center.


To your students, you are your subject matter. It is the role of the instructor to get students emotionally invested in the material through their performance in the classroom. This is not to say that instruction should be a performance act, rather the way material is presented can greatly affect whether students become engaged with that material. Simply by using “immediacy cues” such as “eye contact, gestures, varied vocal tone, and movement” show that you are enthusiastic about the material and will help students become so, too. A simple, albeit cringe-worthy, way to see if you are using immediacy cues are to record yourself teaching or lecturing and watch the video with the sound off to view what your nonverbal communication looks like. 


Principle 3: We are intensely social creatures.


As humans, we crave to belong to a community. It is important to make sure your students feel equally welcomed and valued inside the classroom. However, fostering an inclusive learning


environment may seem challenging with students with varying identities and backgrounds.


Use the following techniques to help establish a sense of community in the classroom.

  • Learn students’ names. You’ve probably heard this a million times, but it is a very powerful tool. By doing this, you are already beginning to establish a warm social climate on the first day of class.

  • Make sure everyone gets the chance to contribute. Avoid calling on someone too quickly after you’ve asked a question. Waiting a bit allows other students to gather their thoughts (and courage) to participate.

  • Diversify your curriculum and teaching strategies. Varying your class design will give students with different strengths the opportunity to shine. Try using a universal design. Rather than offering separate policies for students who need learning accommodations, allow all of your students to have access to policies that benefit students with disabilities. This can help build community as well!

Principle 4: Stories link bits of information into a meaningful whole.


Whatever their type or shape, tell stories! Storytelling is our most natural form of thought as it chunks information in the working memory to be encoded into long-term memory. This is why narrative structures allows for greater understanding and remembering. Your stories can be about your own experiences or historic discoveries in your field. In addition, using anecdotes from your own personal history can signal to your students that you trust them and see them as worthy confidantes.


Read more about the four principles of engagement in Sara Rose Cavanaugh’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.


by: Kimberly Rehak for Express English 412

#engagement #activelearning #inclusivity #studentcenteredteaching

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