How Professors Can Improve the Engagement of Students in the Classroom

J. Mark McFadden offers advice on how you can change the temperature in your classroom without touching the thermostat.

Without question, a major classroom challenge facing today’s educators is getting their students to put down their phones and pick up their level of engagement. While a generation ago educators might find their students getting sidetracked by an attractive classmate, an enchanting daydream or passing notes about an upcoming tailgate party, today’s smartphones present educators with a whole new array of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

According to the 2011 article “The Use and Abuse of Cell Phones and Text Messaging in the Classroom: A Survey of College Students,” published in College Teaching, after surveying “269 college students from 21 academic majors at a small Northeastern university,” authors Deborah R. Tindall and Robert W. Bohlander found that “95 percent of students bring their phones to class every day, 92 percent use their phones to text message during class time and 10 percent admit they have texted during an exam on at least one occasion.”

After much trial and error, I have come to the conclusion that engaging my students is best accomplished by making them feel a bit anxious while keeping them in relatively close proximity to their comfort zone. I’ve had a great deal of success simply by rearranging the chairs in my classroom, making my students give pop oral reports on the previous night’s reading assignment and, when assigning collaborative writing assignments, pairing up two students who are exceedingly different from each other. Although these three pedagogical methods are far from foolproof, they have generally proven effective.