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Lloyd Sealy Library
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
OER Open Educational Resources

Criminal Justice Academy (CJA) Instructor Toolkit: Student Engagement

Whether you’re a new faculty member or a seasoned instructor, we hope you’ll find new ideas and practical resources for teaching criminal justice courses

Student Engagement

This section focuses on student engagement and attention span and gives strategies to foster student engagement. 

Maintaining Student Attention

Picture the scene: you’re walking to the classroom while running through the main points of your lecture. You’re passionate about the topic, and your understanding is right on the cutting edge. Boy, the students are in for a treat today! You begin the lecture, and your students are furiously scribbling notes. You’re on a roll, and giving them a depth that other professors must only dream of. Thirty minutes in, when you’re just getting to the groundbreaking part, it hits you. Most of your students have stopped writing. Some are fidgeting in their chairs, others gaze into space, and a few toward the back are fiddling with their phones under the desk. Your oh-so-witty one-liner, so amusing when written at home last night, is met with indifference.

Attention Span

People have limited attention spans. Research in the 1970s and 1980s that tells us that the average human attention span is no more than 20 minutes, and that the best-recalled portion of a lecture is the first five minutes. Given that today’s generation of students are used to receiving information in easy-to-digest chunks (think of blogs and Twitter rather than lengthy books and articles), and prefer to do things themselves rather than listen to a long lecture, it seems clear that the job of maintaining student attention is even harder for the lecturer today. McKeachie’s (1986) observation that for lecturers to be effective they need to “combine the talents of scholar, writer, producer, comedian, showman, and teacher” (p. 55) rings ever truer.

Are Students Engaged?

Many lecturers talk about wanting their students to be engaged. But what do we really mean by this? Clearly, if students in your class are absent, or sleeping, or furtively texting, they probably aren’t engaged. But what of the students who are furiously scribbling notes, or seemingly hanging on your every word? Are they engaged? Professors often find that the class may seem to be paying attention, but they get little meaningful response when they ask the class questions to check their understanding. So what’s happening?

First, let’s clear up the difference between being attentive and being engaged. Being attentive is all about politely listening. It’s fairly easy to be attentive, and luckily most students are attentive most of the time. After all, appearing attentive is something we have needed to master to survive both the school system and many other social situations. Students are usually pretty good at it.

But being engaged kicks things up to another level. Being engaged means actively thinking about what has just been said, and processing ideas and constructs. Marton and Säljö (1976) talk about the difference between surface processing of information (trying to remember the words) and deep processing — seeing implications, relating it to other information in the lecture or from their own experience and reading. Engagement that involves deep processing requires the student not just to listen to your words, but to transform them into their own. Deep processing is where the real learning and understanding takes place.