Scaffolding your way to a more engaged class

A row of students listening to a professor and taking notes

An engaging classroom is a central goal for any teacher—but a strategic approach to student engagement is often missing from discussions of teaching. When we think of student engagement, several familiar goals come to mind: we should strive for active learning, student-centered classrooms, experiential learning, the flipped classroom. If we seek examples of student engagement, we can quickly find many individual exercises that promise to entice students into engaged learning: open-ended discussion questions, group work, project-based assignments, reflective writing. But how do these techniques come together? How can we create a coherent, strategic approach to sustained student engagement out of these many goals and techniques?

I suggest that we learn from how we approach our course content and skills objectives, translating that pedagogical understanding into our thinking about student engagement. We typically think of “scaffolding” the materials and assignments in our courses, defining an end goal and working backwards to the foundation-laying first steps; we plan the specific steps a student would then take, in forward order, to achieve that end goal. We are comfortable scaffolding content. As an English professor, for example, if I have to teach a Faulkner novel, I might sequence my syllabus to feature several increasingly difficult Faulkner short stories before we get to the novel.

We are also comfortable scaffolding the skills we want students to learn. For example, in a unit teaching research skills, we might ask a student to engage in increasingly complex research tasks: first, perform keyword searches in the library catalog, then in multiple electronic databases, and then in a multi-institution catalog that requires interlibrary loan. We all understand the need to create a meaningful sequence of materials and assignments, in which students take on increasingly complex tasks that prepare them for success in a larger assignment.

We can approach the idea of student engagement in the same way, scaffolding our pedagogical methods in order to achieve active and independent learning. Pragmatically, what does this mean? I suggest that you start by imagining the activity that takes place in your classroom. Visualize the space, time, student movements, materials used, and physical structures of the classroom rather than the content being taught. What are students actually doing during class time and how are they doing it? How are students interacting with the course materials, other students, and you? After thinking through the different types of work your students do, scaffold that work. Sequence those learning activities in a meaningful way across several class meetings—order the activities with engagement in mind, training students to become progressively more engaged in their coursework. Strive for students to become increasingly interested and invested in experiential learning, collaborative learning, thinking in new ways in the real time/space of the classroom, and reflecting on and taking ownership over their learning. In addition to scaffolding the content and skills being learned, scaffold the doing of learning. Create a sequence that moves students from straightforward tasks to more complex tasks, from comfortable tasks to unexpected tasks, from guided tasks to independent tasks.

Let me offer two quick examples of sequencing classroom activities for student engagement:


Example #1: Two-day sequence of exercises emphasizing group work and group presentations:

–day one: Students are placed in small groups of four students. Each small group is given a key term to define (ex: “metaphor”). The group writes its definition on a sheet of poster paper, which the instructor collects. For homework, each student must find an example of that key term in the night’s reading.

–day two: Students share the examples they located for their key term. The group picks its top example and writes it onto the poster. Each group must then explain its poster to the class, “teaching” that term and its illustrative example to the class.

note: This simple sequence involves poster-making and presenting, and moves from collaborative group work to group decision-making to group expertise.


Example #2: Three-day sequence of exercises emphasizing collaborative thinking and writing:

day one: Students are given a Xeroxed literary passage to mark up individually in class, being told that they must practice their annotation skills. On a separate piece of paper, each student must also write an informal paragraph explaining what issue or theme her or she found to be most important in the passage. At the end of class, students are paired up and unexpectedly told that their annotation pages (and not the paragraph) are being given to their partners. Each student must take the partner’s annotations home. For homework, each student takes on the persona of the partner: he or she must write that same informal paragraph using only the annotations he or she sees on the passage.

–day two: The pair of students are re-partnered up. They compare their paragraphs. Each student must examine if/how the partner wrote a paragraph approximating his or her own. Each student analyzes that work, naming something new that he or she learned from the partner’s paragraph and emphasizing the partner’s annotation and analysis strengths (ex: “my partner’s paragraph quoted from my annotations on narrative voice, which I forgot to mention in my paragraph—and I didn’t even use any quotations”).

–day three: The class meets in a computer classroom if possible. The pairs of students are given a new passage from the day’s reading. As a pair, they annotate the passage together. They then write collaboratively on the computer, drafting a paragraph about the passage’s most important issue or theme. The students must make sure that the analysis strengths they isolated in the previous exercise are repeated here. The co-authored paragraph can then be projected and read aloud, with students explaining the forms of analysis they learned from each other.

note: This sequence involves annotation, writing, computer work, and presenting, and moves from individual writing to collaborative assessment and writing.

We can scaffold student engagement by thinking carefully about how we sequence our favorite teaching methods. We all have a “bag of tricks”—the teaching exercises that we’ve perfected over the years, that play to our teaching strengths, or that seem to almost automatically create a dynamic classroom. Rather than see these exercises as one-off exercises, sequence them to build sustained and increasing engagement. And, importantly, work to match that “engagement sequence” to your content and skills goals.


As I have worked to connect my own “best tricks” across class meetings, trying to create a developmental arc to student engagement, I have also become more comfortable:

–using “props,” asking students to write on sticky notes, poster paper, or index cards that they share

–getting students to interact physically with the classroom space, writing on the blackboard, moving desks and chairs, and standing up to present group work

–trying different sizes of small groups that, over one or two class meetings, can be combined or broken down

–having students read aloud as part of “normal” class activities, guaranteeing that everyone’s voice will be heard in the class

–building in unexpected activities or changes to activities that keep the students guessing “what’s next?”

–giving students overtly directive instructions that create clear time/space for open-ended thinking

When I performed research on student engagement, I quickly found many teaching tips that promised to entice students into more active forms of learning, but I found few discussions that offered a more comprehensive approach to student engagement. Hopefully, this blog gestures towards a flexible, but strategic approach to sustained student engagement. Enjoy trying a scaffolding approach: build student engagement across class meetings, aiming for the development of increasingly skilled and complex forms of student interaction within a dynamic classroom space.

If you would like to learn more about this approach to student engagement and see more examples of student engagement activities, see my webinar.



About the Author
Cheryl Nixon

Cheryl Nixon, Ph.D.

Cheryl Nixon is an associate professor of English and Chair of the English Department at UMass Boston. In addition to her undergraduate courses, she teaches graduate Teaching of Literature courses and works with a staff of teaching interns to design and deliver general-education literature courses. Her courses feature project-based assignments and she often uses out-of-classroom learning to spark curiosity about literature. For example, she has worked with students to create rare books exhibitions for the Boston Public Library, including “Crooks, Rogues, and Maids Less than Virtuous: Books in the Streets of 18th-Century London.” Her research focuses on literary and legal representations of the family, and her recent works include The Orphan in Eighteenth-Century Law and Literature: Estate, Blood, and Body and Novel Definitions: An Anthology of Commentary on the Novel, 1688-1815.