Optimizing the classroom connection

The author offers ten teaching recommendations to engage and help maximize student performance which also includes increased knowledge retention for the students

By Jane S. Halonen, PhD

Classroom engagement has become an important characteristic of teaching success in contemporary college classrooms. Largely due to investigations by George Kuh and his associates (Kuh, 2001; Kuh, 2003, Kuh et al, 2006), the positive impact of engaging practices is evident not just in improved student performance but in enhancing student retention. Engaged students work harder in class and stay longer in school.

What follows are ten recommendations for maximizing the connection between faculty and students to build an engaging classroom climate:

  1. Harvest Data. Gather meaningful information on the first day of class that can help you with your course planning. Most students enjoy disclosing personal information. Find out why students chose your college and class, what characteristics might make them unique, or any other personal history that can make a link to course content. You can illustrate the importance of data in the professional role of the psychologist by reporting the trends you observe in their disclosures on the second day of class.

  2. Know Their Names. Although it is time-consuming, learn names as quickly as possible to signal to students that they are worthy of your attention. Construct a seating chart and drop in their pictures to facilitate successful retention.

  3. Change Your Paradigm. Critics of higher education have challenged the educational model of “the sage on the stage” for its inability to produce enduring learning. The “guide on the side” represents a variety of alternative approaches that emphasize coaching, apprenticeships, class discussion, and other more active approaches that encourage students actively to experience the ways of thinking that a discipline has to offer.

  4. Lecture Less. Many students become transcribers in lecture contexts, which promotes limited engagement with the course content. Mini-lectures set the stage for activities (e.g., demonstrations, paired sharing, jigsaw problems) that are likely to have much more enduring impact on learning.

  5. Require More Preparation. Regular, automated quizzes can promote stronger preparation. However, other strategies can also send the message that the students should study before coming to class. Class activities that depend on earning points based on prior content mastery support deeper engagement with the material. Brief homework reflections (which you can grade on “all or none” effort to expedite your work) not only motivate students to read but can provide you with some guidance about which concepts were the most challenging or controversial.

  6. Don’t Sweat Coverage. Many faculty resist incorporating active learning in the classroom because they won’t be successful in covering all the content. Content coverage is a comforting  illusion. Making certain that critical content is “covered” (i.e., briefly presented) does not ensure that meaningful learning will transpire.

  7. Be Funny. Not everyone has a natural sense of humor in the classroom but everyone can find (and test drive) cartoons or stories that touch on the content and improve attention.

  8. Hold the Bar High. Although they may grouse at the time, students will be more grateful in the long run for faculty who set and maintain high expectations for content expertise and integrity adherence. Students fare better when they are stretched to discover their capabilities rather than allowed to wallow in their comfort zones.

  9. Personalize Feedback. On projects that must be graded, consider using a rubric and sharing the rubric ahead of time with the students. If you design the rubric properly, comprehensive and helpful grading can be expressed through a series of check marks leaving you some time to make personal comments about the strengths and weaknesses of student performance. In addition, a shared rubric can facilitate self-assessment that develops students’ metacognitive capacity.

  10. Seek Course Corrections. Rather than waiting until the semester is over, ask students for what is working and what could be improved at the half-way point. Sharing the results of the mid-course correction demonstrates that you listened to their concerns and might lead to more favorable formal teaching evaluations at the end of the semester.


Kuh, G. (May-June, 2001). Assessing what really matters to student learning: Inside the National Survey of Student Engagement, Change, 33, 2-17, 66.

Kuh, G. (2003). What we’re learning about student engagement from NSSE: Benchmarks for effective educational practices. Change, 35, 24-32.

Kuh, G. D., Cruce, T. M., Shoup, R., Kinzie, J., & Gonyea, R. M. (2008). Unmasking the effects of student engagement on first-year college grades and persistence. The Journal of Higher Education, 79 (5), 540-563.