Engaging Students in the Learning Process

Faculty cannot learn for students, but they can do much to motivate students to want to learn. Students often think they want to learn when what they really want is to know. Learning is, of course, the hard work that leads to the fun of knowing. Getting students to actually want to learn is a task that takes time and that often requires multiple approaches. Here is a list of some of the things that faculty can do.


“People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

Be real

Recognize that students are deeply attached to the real world they live in. Unless you make the course material relevant to that world, and unless you connect personally with students, socializing will always look more interesting than your class.

Be prepared

Know current best teaching practices and new developments in your field.

Find a classroom style that works for you

“You need to love your class and love being in your class.” If you don’t, why would the students?

Laughter is good

Use humor, but never be mean.

Have high standards

Have them for you and have them for your students.

Teach with passion; evaluate with compassion

If you can’t get excited about the field you love, why should the students? Offer grace to students, but don’t enable them. 

Be humble

Openly admit to shortcomings and actively seek improvement. Admitting what you don’t know increases your credibility when you say you do know something. In addition, admitting ignorance and seeking new knowledge models lifelong learning for students. Pretending to know everything does not.

There is a time and place for everything

Help students with time management. Offer tips for studying for exams well before the exam and not just the class before. 

Be straight with students

Always deliver on promises you have made. Be careful when you change your syllabus, especially if the change works to the disadvantage of students’ grades. The syllabus represents a two-sided contractual relationship. If you change the “rules” of your class a week or two before the final exam, students may see this as reneging on promises made, if not as a heavy-handed abuse of power. Expect equally ethical behavior from students, both in class and outside.

Do not use a red pen to correct

Colors other than red help to neutralize critical comments. [As a habitual wielder of the red pen in all my classes, I hesitate over this.  The point about negativity is appropriate, however.  If you do use a red pen, just be sure to mention strengths of the student as well as making negative comments.]

Set boundaries

When students need help with personal problems that extend beyond your own professional expertise, be sure to refer them to appropriate help. The Wellness Center has an update list of local mental health professionals. Feel free to call them for a copy.

If it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen

It is hard to hold students responsible for rules you did not put into writing.

Attend every in-service on teaching you can

Remember. Life is one big intellectual garage sale. Always be on the look-out for usable treasure and you will find it in the strangest places.

Prepare for a new year, each year

Find some way to start a class fresh each year. 

The following summary was adapted, with some personal commentary, from the December 2004 issue of The Teaching Professor.