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Learning and Engagement Strategies (That Augment Lectures)

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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The following classroom strategies are designed to augment lectures by increasing student attention and assisting novice learners by emphasizing major points.


The posting below looks at some excellent classroom strategies that can augment your lectures.  It is from Chapter 4 – Capturing Attention and Emphasizing Important Points, in the book, Dynamic Lecturing – Research-Based Strategies to Enhance Lecture Effectiveness, by Christine Harrington and Todd Zakrajsek. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. Copyright © 2017 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Learning and Engagement Strategies (That Augment Lectures)


Getting and holding attention is a critical aspect of learning. The following classroom strategies are designed to augment lectures by increasing student attention and assisting novice learners by emphasizing major points. These strategies may be completed as a method to break up lectures and often take only a few minutes of class time.

Creating a Classroom Culture Focused on Learning

Our actions before the semester even begins and during the first few class periods can have a significant impact on how much students pay attention and learn in the class. Because a learning-focused atmosphere is essential, a good first step in developing this type of environment is to develop a good rapport with students. Students are more likely to engage in learning-focused behaviors when they respect their professor and believe their professor cares about their learning. Some simple actions such as sending out a welcome e-mail prior to the start of the semester can be a productive start to developing a positive relationship with your students. Legg and Wilson (2009) demonstrated this in a study in which one group of students received a welcome e-mail prior to the start of the semester and the other group did not. In this experimental study, the professor did not know who received the e-mail because the mailing was managed by the teaching assistant. Results revealed that students who received the e-mail prior to the start of class had more positive impressions of the professor and the course at the beginning of the semester. Additionally, these more positive impressions were also evident at the end of the semester. This demonstrates how brief, simple interventions can be quite powerful.

On the first day of class, it’s important to develop a learning-focused culture in the class. Classroom policies that promote learning and minimize distraction (i.e., not using cell phones or other technology for non-learning purposes) are needed and must be clearly communicated, but how we communicate these policies matter. Syllabi that focus on negative behaviors and their consequences can send the message to your students that you are expecting them to engage in inappropriate behaviors and may not help you establish a good rapport with your students. Instead consider using a positive statement about how much you value a learning-focused environment and how you take your role in creating and maintaining a distraction-limited environment very seriously. Providing students with a rationale for the policies can promote a respectful relationship while also increasing the likelihood that students will follow the guidelines of the policy.

Address Off-Task Behaviors When They Occur

Even if you establish clear behavioral guidelines and provide your rationale for policies related to off-task behaviors in class, some students may still engage in behaviors that distract others. As faculty, it is our responsibility to address these off-task behaviors so all the students in our classes can focus their attention on the lecture content. Some very powerful, non-verbal strategies to address these behaviors include walking closer to the student who is engaged in off-task behavior and making eye contact with the student. Another strategy is to use the student’s name in the context of the lecture. This is not the same as calling students out for their behavior. Instead of calling a student by name and telling him or her to stop the distracting behavior (an action that further distracts from learning), use the student’s name when giving an example. For example, if John is off task, you might say something such as, “When John shared his experience with volunteering at his local elementary school, the scenario he described was a good example of operant conditioning.” When the nonverbal and name-dropping approaches are not working, you may then need to verbally remind the student of the policy and ask him or her to stop engaging in the off-task behavior. Individual conversations with students outside the classroom may sometimes be needed, especially if a student is repeatedly engaging in disruptive classroom behaviors (Woolfolk, 2013).

Discuss the Detrimental Effects of Multitasking

Most students do not realize what a problem multitasking can be in the college classroom. Using phones, tablets, and computers for social purposes is a normal activity for most of us, and it can be challenging for students to turn off their devices when entering a classroom. Tell them about the research on how multitasking negatively affects learning and how their actions also have negative consequences for their classmates. Review with them the research on how important attention is to learning and how distractions such as cell phones and laptops can have a detrimental effect on their success and the success of their classmates (End et al., 2010; Sana et al., 2013). Engaging students in activities or discussions about studies such as these at the start of the semester can help students understand the importance of being on task and focused during a lecture. A few minutes of class time at the start of the semester can have a long-lasting, positive impact on the learning experience for all your students throughout the semester.

Identify the Big Ideas

Prior to each lecture, identify the three most important concepts, then develop a plan to emphasize these important points. One strategy is to write the big ideas on the board or put them in a PowerPoint slide so students know to look out for these concepts during the lecture. Some faculty might worry that by identifying just a few big ideas, they may be minimizing the importance of other content. Remember, though, that when students learn the important points, it will be easier for them to take in and digest the details because an organizational structure for the material is being created. Thus, providing students with assistance in determining the most important points will lead to more, not less, learning in the long run. During the lecture, we can inform students why we are using this strategy and how knowing the big ideas will serve as an information springboard for them to take in more detailed information during the lecture and reading. In other words, we can make them understand that the big ideas are a great start to learning the course content, but they are expected to dive much deeper into the content and learn more specific information as well.

One of the simplest strategies you can use to emphasize what is important is to simply tell them if it is important. Some faculty think it is the student’s responsibility to decipher what is most important, but as discussed previously, this can be a very difficult task for novice learners. Why does it have to be a mystery? By making statements such as “This is important!” we can capture the attention of our students and help them know which topics demand more study time and energy. As students learn more about the discipline, they will be better equipped to identify the most important concepts without as much support.

Use a Hook or Attention Getter

Once you’ve identified the big ideas of your lecture, you’ll want to think about how to grab students’ attention before lecturing. As illustrated in the research study by Rosegard and Wilson (2013), using even a 90-second activity can help students refocus their attention on the lecture content. Hooks can vary based on content, or you can establish a cue that can be consistently used to emphasize the importance of a concept. Some examples of hooks could be an interesting image, question, story, or statistic communicated in a passionate way. Some examples of cues that important content is about to be discussed include straight-forward language such as, “This is important” or “This is one of the big ideas,” and making a visual gesture, using silence or a dramatic pause, or standing in a certain location in the room. In the beginning of the semester, you can explicitly describe these cues with your students, but as the semester progresses, this verbal explanation will no longer be necessary.

Be Passionate and Use Your Voice

Showing your passion about a subject matter is an excellent way to capture attention and is particularly easy if you are using a storytelling lecture or demonstration lecture. Students respond positively to professors who are excited about the course content (Patrick et al., 2010). Your enthusiasm about a topic can certainly communicate importance. Although you may naturally talk louder about content when you believe it is particularly exciting or important, consider developing a plan to use your voice to draw attention to the most important points. Change often grabs our attention, so talking more loudly or more softly will often capture the attention of your students. When a professor speaks with a monotone voice that doesn’t change, students will likely get lost and have significant difficulty determining which concepts matter the most.

Use Gestures or Symbols

Another strategy to draw attention to the major points during a lecture is to use gestures or symbols. There are a couple of different ways you can use gestures to emphasize importance. For instance, you may create a gesture such as waving your hands above your head that signifies importance. When you first use this gesture, explain to students that you will use it before presenting the big ideas. It works very much like saying “This is important” but is a nonverbal approach. You could also create gestures that directly connect to important concepts. With this approach, you would use different gestures for each big idea or important point. The use of the gesture itself signifies the content is important, and the act of using a gesture that relates to the content will assist students with remembering the important information. In essence, it serves as a retrieval cue, making it easier for students to extract information from long-term memory when it is needed. Another related strategy is the use of symbols. Similar to gestures, you could use a symbol that alerts the student that the content is important. A star next to a concept would be one example. Symbols that are consistently used for a given concept could also be used. For example, if a goal is to help students in an introductory psychology course to understand the many ways cognition applies to different theories, a ◊ symbol might be used. This symbol reminds students that it is a cognitive application of a given theory. The symbols may be simple or creative and might also be developed by students. Think about how well we know the simple icons on our smartphones. Attaching symbols or simple images to our important content will help students master the course content. Images are powerful learning tools (Mayer, 2009), and we discuss this in more depth in Chapter 5.

Build In Active-Learning Breaks

As discussed earlier, it is good pedagogical practice to break a large lecture into segments. Incorporating a brief active learning pause after each lecture segment can help students maintain attention and can increase their engagement and learning. The next chapter provides several activities you can use following lecture segments. However, it may be important to take a lecture break earlier than planned. One of the benefits of a live lecture is that you are constantly getting feedback from students. Most of this feedback will be nonverbal, yet this information can help you guide your lectures. In a study conducted by Farley and colleagues (2013), researchers found that fidgeting was connected to lower levels of attention and learning. This means that when your students are fidgeting in their seats, their attention has probably drifted. It is therefore time to take action to get their attention back on track. You can do this by using one of your established attention grabbers or by taking a break from the lecture and using a brief active learning exercise. Thus, it may be important to have a few backup activities if additional lecture breaks are required.

Teach Students How to Read and Highlight Effectively

When students read the textbook prior to class, they can be better positioned to differentiate between the important and less important content in a lecture. However, this is only the case if the students understand what they read in the textbook. Unfortunately, students often fail to report a high level of understanding after reading a textbook chapter. One of students’ most widely used strategies while reading is highlighting parts of the text, but most students are not effectively using this strategy. By teaching students a few basic tips on how to read and highlight more effectively, we can assist students with extracting key points from the text and lecture. As discussed in the previous chapter, teaching students to use textbook features such as the table of contents and chapter summaries can increase how much students learn from reading.

Encouraging students to use the 3R (read-recite-review; McDaniel, Howard, & Einstein, 2009) or SQ3R (Survey! Question! Read! Recite! Review!) reading methods is advisable because they are supported by research (Artis, 2008; Carlson, 2011). When using the 3R method, students should first identify a manageable section of the chapter to read. Second, after reading it, they should close the book and make notes on that section (Harrington, 2016). It is critical for the book to be closed during the review stage because it forces students to actively engage with the content and use their own words to summarize what was learned rather than simply copying text from the book. Third, students reread the section and fill in their notes with any missing content. During this third step students can use their highlighters because they now possess some knowledge on the content and will be better able to identify the most important points. The SQ3R approach is the same as the 3R except for two additional steps: survey and question. Before reading, students are encouraged to preview the chapter so they have a sense of the type of content they will be learning. Next, students form questions about the chapter based on the preview and prior to reading the chapter. Some books have questions posed in the beginning of the chapter. In these cases students may think about these questions prior to reading. As students begin the reading process, they will be searching for answers to these questions. We can also provide questions about the readings to help students focus on the most important parts of the chapters. Encouraging students to only highlight one or two sentences from each paragraph or section also forces them to actively think about the content, determining what is most important. Teaching students some of these very simple, yet powerful reading strategies can help them learn course content.


Students often report that lectures are boring and that it is difficult to learn from lectures. This often happens because an expert is attempting to inform novices, and at times novices do not understand the major point of the lecture and miss key information along the way. Learners in such situations have a difficult time determining what they should attend to at any given time and as a result get frustrated and lose interest. Helping learners to better process the information through effective reading to understand the big picture and the important components greatly assists the learning process. In addition, well-placed engagement activities at the appropriate places in the lecture based on the learning level of the students provide natural breaks and help them to maintain focus.


Artis, A.B. (2008). Improving marketing students’ reading comprehension with the SQ3R method. Journal of Marketing Education, 30, 130-137.

Carlston, D. L. (2011). Benefits of student-generated note packets: A preliminary investigation of SQ3R implementation. Teaching of Psychology, I38, 142-146.

End, C. M., Worthman, S., Mathews, M. B., & Wetterau, K. (2010). Costly cell phones: The impact of cell phone rings on academic performance. Teaching of Psychology, 37, 55-57, doi:10.1080/00986280903425912

Farley, J., Risko, E. F., & Kinstone, A. (2013). Everyday attention and lecture retention: The effects of time, fidgeting, and mind wandering. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 1-9.

Harrington, C. (2016). Student success in college: Doing what works! (2nd ed.). Boston: MA: Cengage Learning.

Legg, A.M., Wilson, J.H. (2009). E-mail from professor enhances student motivation and attitudes. Teaching of Psychology, 3, 205-211. doi:10.1080/00986280902960034

Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multimedia learning (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

McDaniel, M., Howard, D., & Einstein, G. (2009). The read-recite-review study strategy: Effective and portable. Psychological Science, 20, 516-522. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02325.x

Patrick, B.C., Hisley, J., & Kempler, T. (2000). “What’s everybody so excited about?”:  The effects of teacher enthusiasm on student intrinsic motivation and vitality. Journal of Experimental Education, 68, 217-236. doi:10.1080/00220970009600093

Rosegard, E., & Wilson, J. (2013). Capturing students’ attention: An empirical study. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 13(5), 1-20.

Sana, F., Weston, T., & Cepeda, N.J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers and Education, 62, 24-31.

Woolfolk, A. (2013). Educational psychology (12th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.