Get to know and engage your students
‘I think there needs to be acknowledgement of how difficult it is if you’re a first in family or coming from a background where you didn’t necessarily expect to be at uni but here you are … I think that needs to be consciously and clearly articulated and normalised. Not just, “Oh hello. All the students here today, welcome to the university,” [and] not really engaging with the fact that they’re sitting there in that head space … You can do a three-minute presentation on imposter syndrome and just make fun of it … “If you experience this, don’t back out. This is normal. You’ll grow through it. You can adapt.” …[But] it needs to be said’.
Student quotation cited in Devlin & McKay (2017, p. 66)
Getting to know and engage your students will:
- cultivate connectedness
- help identify ‘at risk’ or vulnerable students
- enable you to provide targeted support or support referral.
Deakin Language and Learning Adviser
Be approachable and available
The most frequent teacher attributes reported as helpful by low SES students was teacher approachability and availability to guide learning and create a sense of belonging and connection (Devlin & O'Shea 2011; Devlin & McKay 2017).
How to build quality relationships with students
Body language: use positive body language.
Demeanour: be friendly, open and welcoming.
Listen: show interest in your students; 'listen' to them and acknowledge what they have to say.
Student experiences: create opportunities for students to share their own experiences and perspectives.
Personalise: tell students about your own experiences in trying to learn new skills.
Feedback: encourage, value and respond to student feedback.
Expertise: admit that you do not know everything, but that you will demonstrate strategies to find out.
Your availability: allow sufficient contact time and face-to-face opportunities (for example, Skyping with distance education students). Let students know your contact details, availability time, length of appointments, and where they can find you (if on campus) .
Timeliness: ensure timeliness of responses to student queries and let students know how soon you will respond to emails.
Safety: establish 'ground rules' for students that make clear the learning environment is a safe and non-threatening space with which to engage.
Post a welcome message: posting a video welcome message to welcome your students to your unit is both a requirement and a great way to let your students know the teaching team. Here is a Welcome Message Infographic (PDF 580KB) with tips on how to make a welcome video. This DeakinAir video shows How to post welcome message videos to Home Page. Here's a Welcome Video Winner: MMK393 Welcome Video—Winner of the Faculty of Business and Law.
How to get to know your students
Share some information about yourself with your students such as your background, likes, dislikes, or your teaching experience, and encourage your students to share some information about themselves.
Try asking questions about:
- previous educational experiences or places of study
- prior experience or knowledge related to the course content
- future goals and aspirations in terms of the course, university and beyond
- family, hobbies, sport, and pets etc.
Use fun icebreakers like the Superpower game and remember to identify your superpower to your class.
For cloud students, ask questions that they can answer in an e-portfolio or discussion thread.
Dr Mary Dracup, Faculty Arts and Education, suggests the following:
'After reading about teaching diverse cohorts, I'm going to try a few strategies to involve my students more in class-wide learning conversations, such as asking all students to fill out a survey in the first class giving me information on their background, aspirations, interests, etc. so I have more to go on as I lead the discussion and set the activities'.
Settling in: experiences of mature-age students
Getting to know your students means taking time to appreciate how they are settling into university life and what issues they may be encountering. For example, students from a mature-age background grapple with particular issues around 'fitting in' with those who are often much younger. Take a couple of minutes to listen to what mature-age students from Plymouth University have to say.
A transcript may be downloaded here: Experiences of mature students (DOCX 18KB)
Top 10 tips to engage your students
Engaged and motivated students are more likely to not only attend classes and seminars but also to enjoy the experience. Here are 10 tips for motivating your students:
- Students' names: learn students’ names if possible and address them by name. If there are names of which you are unsure how to pronounce, make sure you ask the student for the correct pronunciation or their preferred name. This shows cultural respect and awareness.
- Care and support: develop awareness of your students' strengths and weaknesses. Acknowledge and give credit to their strengths and work on improvement strategies where a need has been identified. This demonstrates you care about your students' academic progress. See Teaching diverse learners for addressing the needs of student diversity.
- Fairness: be fair and consistent in how you treat each student.
- Classroom layout: think about classroom layout to maximise student interaction. Ask students to shift into a u-shape arrangement if possible. Use grouped seating to encourage collaborative learning.
- Motion: walk around the teaching space to make closer connection with students.
- Eye contact: make eye contact and gesture toward your students to enhance interaction. Visibly show you are listening to students by nodding and affirming their contributions.
- Relevance: engage student interest in unit content by making it relevant to their experiences and the world they live in and know.
- Liveliness: convey your own excitement, passion and enjoyment in teaching and discussing unit content. Vary the way you speak. Monotone and 'dead-pan' delivery will disengage students quickly!
- Encouragement: ask students to 'have a go' and share their thoughts, perspectives and understandings even if they are unsure of being 'correct'. Make clear that you want to know what they don't understand and that 'there is no such thing as a silly question'.
- Availability: if your teaching schedule allows, be available for informal individual chats or discussion with students before or after class/seminar or during a break.
(Adapted from University of Nebraska 2017)
See also tips from Griffith Institute for Higher Education (now Griffith University Learning Futures) for engaging your students and creating a culturally inclusive classroom (PDF 52.3KB) (Barker, Fredericks & Farrelly n.d.).
Ways to engage quiet or shy students
Think about providing a way for students too shy to speak to ask or answer questions. Peer learning and group work can encourage students to become more comfortable by easing them into class discussion. Provide a simple questionnaire as an activity towards the end of teaching session. This could be undertaken in pairs to build confidence in those who are shy, and then ask each pair to report back to the class.
- What key point did you learn today?
- How has your thinking changed on this topic?
- If you had a question you hoped to ask but didn’t, please ask it now.
- What wasn’t clear, or what are you still unsure about?
- Is there anything you would you like to add to today's class/seminar discussion?
- How do you think you performed in class/seminar/online discussions this week?
- Is there a specific section of this week’s readings or content that you would like to discuss in more detail?
(Adapted from Center for Teaching Excellence 2015)
Deep listening activity
Encourage your students to participate in class discussion by practising deep listening to cultivate non-judgemental and empathic interactions. This is a valuable skill to develop when communicating with those from diverse backgrounds.
Give your students a topic statement or question to discuss.
In pairs, each student provides a verbal response to their partner.
Ask students to practise deep listening by trying to:
- focus complete attention on the speaker
- listen with a quiet and undistracted mind
- notice any non-verbal gestures or modes of communication (e.g. body language, facial expression)
- allow space for silence to give the speaker time to think
- reflect back to the speaker their attitudes, values and perspectives
- summarise the speaker's response in their own words
- avoid: interruption, judging right or wrong, correcting, solving or shifting focus away from the speaker to themselves
(Adapted from University of Virginia 2015)
Cornell University Classroom Climate
10 Ways to promote student engagement
How to motivate and engage your students
Barker, M, Fredericks, E & Farrelly, B n.d., GIHE good practice resource booklet—designing culturally inclusive learning and teaching environments—classroom strategies (PDF 52.3KB), Griffith Institute for Higher Education (now Griffith University Learning Futures) Reproduced for Deakin staff with permission by Griffith University, 26 April 2018.
Center for Teaching Excellence 2015, Take-aways, University of Virginia,
Devlin, M & McKay, J 2017, Facilitating success for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds at regional universities, Federation University, Australia.
Devlin, M & O'Shea, H 2011, Teaching students from low socioeconomic backgrounds: a brief guide for University teaching staff (PDF 125KB), Higher Education Research Group (Herg), Deakin University, Melbourne, retrieved 17 March 2016.
Experiences of mature-age students 2015, YouTube, Plymouth University, 23 February, retrieved 12 June 2017.
University of Nebraska 2017, Twenty Tips on Motivating Students, Office of Graduate Studies, retrieved 23 May 2017.
University of Virginia 2015, Levels of Listening, University of Virginia, retrieved 12 June 2017.