18 ways to engage the college classroom (Part I)

How do you keep a large or small class of students, with different learning styles, active and engaged?

This is the question we posed to the winners of the SAGE Teaching Innovations & Professional Development Awards, which cover the travel expenses of a group of graduate students and pre-tenure faculty going to the American Sociological Association Pre-Conference workshop on August 21st in Chicago.

Though the workshop, themed Active Learning Strategies for Classes Large and Small, is a few weeks away, our winners are already enthusiastic about sharing their experiences and insights. Eighteen winners rapidly responded to our question with real-life examples of what works in their classrooms. We’re delighted to share these answers, published here as a three-part series.

Keep reading to find out how six of these instructors grab and sustain their students’ attention.


Scott Grether

“I have them practice active learning in the classroom. By active learning, I mean that I challenge my students to actively think about course material in the classroom, engage in small group and class discussions, and have them reflect on their learning with informal and formal writing. I rely upon active learning because research and my teaching experience demonstrate that students enjoy classes better and, most importantly, learn more efficiently.”-Scott Grether, Graduate Student Instructor, North Carolina State University

“I generate high levels of classroom engagement in multiple ways. First, I write dynamic syllabi that include a variety of assessment techniques and account for different learning styles. This inclusive approach ensures that students feel comfortable in the classroom, which is, after all, a necessary condition for acquiring new information with a receptive mind.

J.L. Small Photo B

Jamie Small

“Second, I present substantive material through a social problems lens. For instance, in criminology, I ask students to ponder the following questions in small groups: Would you rather convict an innocent person of murder? Or would you rather acquit a guilty person? This hypothetical scenario is captivating, and it opens dialogue about broader criminological concepts, including the measurement of crime, the criminal justice process, and theories of punishment.

“Third, I incorporate a variety of materials into the learning process. In a unit on reproductive law, I play an audio clip of the Roe v. Wade oral argument before the Supreme Court. This is a fantastic learning tool because students are not accustomed to non-visual media clips, and the attorney, Sarah Weddington, was only 26 years old at the time of the argument – just a few years older than most of the students. Moreover, this oral argument provides students with the opportunity to complicate their understanding of a legal case that commonly elicits knee-jerk reactions. By layering the syllabus with a variety of primary and secondary sources and engaging with these materials in different modalities, I give students the opportunity to play with course concepts in challenging and unexpected ways.”- Jamie Small, Graduate Student, University of Michigan

Sage Picture

Emily Estrada

“I have found that one of the best ways to keep students active and engaged involves ‘rattling cages,’ best achieved by making the familiar strange through critical pedagogy. Students are most tuned-in when we discuss the deeply-embedded and taken-for-granted systems of inequality and power of our society. While there are certainly students resistant to this pedagogical approach, for many this avenue of sociological inquiry results in a transformative (if even uncomfortable!) learning experience that brings them to the height of engagement. And, even for students who are less apt to critically examine the world around them, my approach tends to make their blood boil which is, I would argue, a certain type of engagement in its own right.”- Emily Estrada, PhD Candidate, North Carolina State University


Annalise Loehr

“I strive to promote active and deep learning over passive “pump and dump” learning. Awe and curiosity can be contagious, so I try to share my interest in the broader issues of sociology with my students, especially in the form of probing questions/problems and controversial debates. I challenge students to rethink their assumptions, and encourage them to re-examine social issues from an unconventional perspective. My sociology classes are often about ‘making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.’ I also let my students know I care – about them and their opinions, about the quality of their work (which I grade honestly and fairly), and about the issues we discuss in class. My goal – in classes of all sizes – is to make a sustained, positive difference in students’ thoughts, feelings, and actions; this, in my opinion, is the most challenging yet rewarding duty a teacher can have!” -Annalise Loehr, Associate Instructor and Doctoral Student, Department of Sociology, Indiana University, Bloomington


Nathaniel C. Pyle

“I keep large groups of students with different learning styles active and engaged by providing a variety of assignments, ranging from written work, to exams, to group projects and field assignments.  I also conduct lectures using a mix of several delivery methods, including power point lectures, films, and guest speakers. My students have a variety of opportunities to succeed, regardless of the myriad learning styles that they bring to the classroom.” -Nathaniel C. Pyle, Ph.D., Santa Barbara City College


Ashley K. Farmer

“Keeping classes engaged means being flexible, most of all. Discussion always helps liven up a classroom, as do various group activities that involve problem solving or case studies. Students also like to see how the material can apply to their everyday real lives, and it is important to show them this to keep them engaged. Ultimately, learning is going to be different for each student, but using active learning techniques can turn the classroom into a captivating learning experience.”- Ashley K. Farmer, Doctoral Candidate, University of Delaware

Don’t forget to check back for Part II, with even more tips on engaging the college classroom.

This entry was posted in SAGE Connection, Tips for You. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply