Five Tips on Retaining Student Engagement


Summer is just around the corner and our minds are beginning to wander. It can be tempting to daydream, especially after the past four frosty months, but we need to stay focused. Now is the time to reinforce the lessons taught throughout the term and confirm that your students are capable of applying them. We’ve spoken with some instructors at Macomb Community College and they have provided a few tips on how they manage to keep engagement and retention high through the end of the semester.

1) Make it Practical

It should come as no surprise to you that your students lead busy lives. A recent study compiled by the American Associate of Community Colleges showed that over half of our student population is employed either part or full-time. For some students, academics will take a backseat to their jobs. However, explaining how they can incorporate their schoolwork into job applications and interviews can make an important difference in their priorities.

 Case in Point – Kathy Vojnovski / BCOM-2050 (Business Communications) and BCOM-2080 (Communications for Public Service) / Employment Portfolio

Professor Vojnovski ensures that all her students complete class prepared to apply and interview for the job they want. The final assignment she gives in both of her business communication courses is an employment portfolio, which includes a resume, cover letter, thank you letter, and references. The majority of the semester is spent learning how to format business letters and compose appropriate e-mails, leading up to this project, which Professor Vojnovski describes as “a culmination of the semester and what [the students] have learned.”

It’s obvious to students how the Employment Portfolio can be used to apply for jobs, but there are many more school projects that can be used for job applications as well. Explain to your students how the assignments you distribute can be mentioned in resumes and interviews, or attached to job applications as part of a portfolio.

2) Make it Hands-On

It’s difficult to fully grasp a concept solely through auditory and visual models. A Purdue University study found that students who completed a hands-on project developed a deeper understanding of the subject than those who were only engaged through lectures and tests. Making your lessons into concrete simulations will help students understand the content and its applicability to their careers.

Case in Point – Keith Nabozny / ITIA-1300 (Information Security Safeguards) / Capture the Flag

By Week 16, Professor Nabozny’s students are well-versed in navigating through network security technologies. To put their knowledge to the test, he created a “Capture the Flag” in-class activity for students to complete in small groups. The only way they can advance in this assignment is by utilizing tools commonly used by professional network security specialists and applying the skills they learned in class. Professor Nabozny describes this exercise as “a great way for students to relate their security experience from class to a prospective employer.”

Not only do the students need to exercise the hard skills they’ve learned throughout the course in order to complete the assignment, but they also engage in important soft skills that all employers seek in job candidates. For example, Professor Nabozny’s students are required to work together in small groups order to capture their flag. With only three hours to complete an extensive search, the students have to communicate well, manage their time effectively, problem-solve, and work together as a team. Even if your students don’t plan to use certain industry-specific skills you teach in class, they can all benefit from experiences that build interpersonal skills.

3) Make it Competitive

Opponents often inspire one another to achieve greatness. Centuries ago, Renaissance artists faced “paragone” in which their works were compared side-by-side in order to determine whose was superior, thus encouraging them to push themselves to surpass their creative limits. By incorporating a healthy competitive spirit in your final project, your students could reach those same heights.

Case in Point – Monique Doll and Joe Rice / MKTG-1010 (Principles of Marketing) / Practice Marketing Simulation

After twelve weeks of completing marketing-based activities, all MKTG-1010 students are put into small groups and placed into a simulation. They have to use the skills and information they learned in class to market and sell a product, and do so better than their competition. Their final grades in this project are actually based on how well they do against the other teams. “They are competing against their classmates, so the students have that drive to win,” explains Professor Rice, “and they really want to win, so that engages them more!”

Competition is not the only important component; according to Professors Doll and Rice, students genuinely enjoy the gaming aspect as well. The 2014 NMC Horizon Report lists “Games and Gamification” as one of the top six important developments in education technology. One program at Kaplan University tested a gamified course and its results were positive. Students’ grades were shown to improve by 9%, and the number of students who failed decreased by 16%. When effectively executed and developed, the gaming environment challenges learners in new ways and uses more realistic scenarios.

4) Make it Creative

When a student is asked to explain a concept, he or she will understand it better than if asked to regurgitate it on a test. Giving explanations also helps students transfer the knowledge they’d gained and relate it to different scenarios. As faculty members, you all know there is a plethora of methods that can be used for instruction and explanation. However, one way to inspire active participation and student interest is to give them creative freedom.

Case in Point – Jennifer Gornicki / BLAW-1080 (Business Law 1) / Video Project

When Professor Jennifer Gornicki’s students complete Business Law 1, they have learned about court structure, torts, crimes, contracts, and sales of goods. Armed with this knowledge, they form small groups to create a short video about a topic they learned in class. The videos can range anywhere from realistic to completely outlandish. “It’s fun, because you get to see students come out of their shell, and they all look forward to seeing what their classmates have put together,” says Professor Gornicki.

 When given free reign with a creative medium, students can create lasting memories, both individually and collectively. They may not remember the court procedure for a petty theft, but maybe they’ll remember the video in which a student stole a purse from his classmate and how he was prosecuted.

5) Make it Rewarding

College graduates are increasingly more likely to work a part-time job that is unrelated to their degree. This trend is leading some students to lose interest or faith in higher education – and who can blame them? The massive sums of time, money, and effort they dedicate to earning a degree can feel like a waste if the skills they’ve honed aren’t put to use. Perhaps the greatest motivation for a college student is the prospect of a career upon graduation.

Case in Point – Brian Sauriol / All MACA courses / All Projects

Professor Brian Sauriol has a mutually beneficial relationship to multiple companies in fields related to the Media and Communication Arts program; they contact him when they are looking for job candidates with specific skill sets, and he recommends a couple of his highly qualified students. Throughout the semester, students complete different projects that teach important industry skills, which are then incorporated into their portfolios, all the while hearing about the various job offers Professor Sauriol receives for his students.They can even potentially earn a job opportunity themselves once their portfolios are completed. He believes, “When a program has such a great connection to industry and students can actually see job potential, there is never a lack of motivation.”

Job connections don’t necessarily have to stem from personal sources; our Career Services department offers an expansive employment database and maintains a relationship with companies looking to hire our students. We also have a large base of students who plan to continue their education at four-year institutions and may not be immediately looking for a career. What’s most important is demonstrating an active interest in your students’ futures. Higher education is meant to offer adults the knowledge and experience necessary to enter the professional world. Show your students that, if they put in the effort during class, more job opportunities are available to them.

Which of these tips do you utilize? What did we miss? Leave a comment below.


One response to “Five Tips on Retaining Student Engagement

  1. Pingback: How to Connect with the Modern Learner | Center for Teaching and Learning

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