Giving a boost to student engagement

(this article originally appeared on

This is the first in a series of pieces to explore the intersection between education and technology. We invite readers to engage in an open and honest discussion about the impacts (both positive and negative) of technology on education in and beyond the 21st century classroom. I will be sharing my own thoughts and experiences as I embark on teaching a Coursera course — located at the heart of this nexus — focusing on scaling operations.

As an operations professor for the past nine years, I’ve taught students from a variety of backgrounds with vastly different styles of learning. There are the students who diligently complete all of the required reading and assignments before class, and arrive fully prepared and eager to participate in the discussion. Others take a cursory glance at an assignment or two — if that — and come to class ready for a nap rather, positioning themselves where they hope to be “out of sight and out of mind”. And then there are the majority of students who fall somewhere between the two endpoints on this spectrum.

Each of these students poses the same challenge to me: ensuring he or she is ready to engage in the discussion and feels accountable for his or her work, both in and out of the classroom. There are many variables in this learning-teaching equation, of which I as the teacher only control a selection. I select which materials to assign to the students, the order in which to assign them, and which questions to ask; I structure the lectures and discussion to flow in accordance with the learning goals of the course; and I choose on which students to call during the discussion to guide it according to my plan.

The major unknown variable in this equation is just what do my students know. Who has done the reading — and absorbed it — before class? What is the breakdown of responses for a particular question I assigned? On which students should I call to most efficiently move the class discussion forward? Perhaps one or more students provided what I like to call “good wrong answer” (an answer that is nearly correct but misses one or more nuances). In many cases, these “good wrong answers” can be quite meaningful for the learning process, and identifying the students who provided them is crucial in engaging the entire class an highlighting salient issues. My impression from speaking with students is that they often feel they themselves are adequately prepared for class, whereas when asked about the level of preparations of their peers, they respond that it is lacking

The key, in my opinion, to solving this equation lies in ascertaining more insight into what my students know before they come to class. A better understanding of student preparation (down to the individual question and student level), combined with the fact that students know that I know what they know drives engagement and accountability, which yields more fruitful class discussions and better learning outcomes. One solution involves quizzing the class at the start of each session — a classic example of summative assessment. While this approach provides me with some of this information, I prefer not to consume valuable lecture time with something (like a quiz) that will ultimately yield a low return in terms of the benefit to the entire class. Rather, I favor an approach that is more formative and holistic in nature; one that allows me to monitor student progress throughout the course, rather than at isolated points, and evolves along with the students progress, and allows me tailor my lectures and class discussions accordingly.

I invite you, both professors and students, to share the challenges you face regarding in the classroom, in an effort to find the solutions that suit all types of teachers and learners.

About the author:

Gad Allon is Professor of Managerial Economics & Decision Sciences at Kellogg, and a Co-Founder at ForClass.