UNPACKING “ENGAGEMENT” IN THE CLASSROOM and some practical suggestions for turning theory into practice ( PART 1 – Individual student engagement)

(Vivienne Liu, Cornell Engineering PhD Candidate and TA Trainer Consultant, contributed strongly to this reflection by bringing the paper to our summer development workshops and sharing her ideas for classroom application)

‘Engagement’ is a term used a lot these days in discussions about successful education experiences.  Learning occurs in a complex matrix which makes it sometimes challenging to understand the outcomes of our practice.  It doesn’t help that we toss around terms of the trade like engagement as if everyone – including ourselves as educators – understands them, particularly out of context!!

This post about individual student emotional and cognitive engagement, is the first in a series of three.  This is the logical start to unraveling some of the mechanisms influencing what happens in classrooms – virtual or face-to-face.

Stay tuned for more about how these two aspects of engagement interact with group dynamics to create the more familiar ‘behavioral engagement’ (Part 2) and, ultimately, trouble shooting some of the complexity that occurs in peer-to-peer and interactions in this complex ecosystem (Part 3).

The Glossary of Education Reform defines engagement this way:

“student engagement refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education. Generally speaking, the concept of “student engagement” is predicated on the belief that learning improves when students are inquisitive, interested, or inspired, and that learning tends to suffer when students are bored, dispassionate, disaffected, or otherwise “disengaged.””

While the term is so broad as to be considered not useful by some researchers, Ashwin and McVitty (2015) maintain that it has many ‘faces’ and is extremely valuable once we, 1) define the context in which engagement is occurring and 2) articulate the goal of creating engagement.  For our purposes, lets limit our discussion to engagement by students for the goal of improving learning outcomes in online and face to face classes.

Many who have spent years teaching in the face-to-face environment have an intuition that teaching online will not illicit the same learning outcomes that we believe occur in in-person classes. In this time of emergency remote teaching for so many, understanding something about creating engagement in general and specifically in the online learning environment is important.

Engagement is influenced by factors both within and outside of our control as learning facilitators. Knowing a little bit more about what results in variation in student engagement will, at least, help us better understand why there can be so much variability in learning outcomes and, at best, suggest some of the strongest empirical connections to learning outcomes so that we might gradually apply them (or, if they are negative, avoid them!). The summary of results from a paper shared here examines the influence of course delivery mode, and does a nice job of incorporating many of the potentially explanatory factors related to engagement.

Manwaring et al, 2017 conducted a multivariate analysis in face-to-face and hybrid model courses to try to understand the factors that influenced the two major components of engagement: cognitive and emotional.  Emotional engagement (EE), is the way a student feels about aspects of the learning process (the affect), and cognitive engagement (CE), is the amount of effort a learner expends on the task at hand.  One study does not the truth make, particularly one with such a small sample size!  But this study trades-off large sample size and examining a few controlled independent variables and indicators, for a detailed look at just about every variable but the kitchen sink!  They survey a smallish group of students (68), but ask for their responses for a large number of individual class meetings the students attended within a semester. Many of the outcomes are corroborated by other research.

Figure 1. Adapted from Manwaring et al 2017. The model the authors used to survey student engagement.

In a nutshell this figure, adapted from the study, illustrates the complexity of the learning environment and names many possible components of ‘engagement’.  Another important point is that level of student engagement is a result of factors specific to individuals (individual level), as well as those influenced by the context (class design and perceptual levels).  Appendix 1 in the publication includes the entire survey instrument, but as an illustration some of the questions on the 5-pt Likert-scale instrument include: How well were you concentrating? Did you feel good about yourself? Were you learning anything or getting better at something? Did you have some choice in picking this activity? How hard have you worked to keep up with this class? How much time have you spent on this class? What else were you doing?

The analysis for this study used Hierarchical Structural Equation Modeling (HSEM).  Here is a link to a fairly short but useful video that explains the way SEM works.

Using the outcomes of this paper, the remainder of this post will be spent creating a paired down, tangible picture of:

  • Which factors appear to create or discourage the two aspects of student engagement?
  • Which type of engagement seems more complicated to achieve?
  • Where is the overlap in factors that seem important for both types of engagement?

and suggesting practical strategies we can apply in our online, face-to-face, and hybrid model courses using this information.  Having said that, in the interest of transparency, the table below is the main outcome of the analysis in all of its detail for those who want more information and to draw their own conclusions.

Figure 2. Table 6 from Manwaring et al, 2017. Presented for full disclosure of all the interesting results including some we won’t discuss in this blog.  This is for those who love data! For the Gender variable 0 = male, 1 = female.

‘Big picture’ outcomes jump out of the complex table above in answer to our questions. Note that the statistical strength of the relationship of each individual variable for ‘cognitive engagement’ on the left and ‘emotional engagement’ on the right are represented using asterisks (*) in the columns labelled ‘B’. More asterisks = stronger relationships.  Of the 17 total factors represented in the table, asterisks appear next to 12 variables for emotional engagement, and 11 for cognitive engagement.  The larger difference comes in the strength of the relationships. Emotional engagement is highly significantly associated (***) with 9 of the listed factors, while cognitive engagement has only 4 variables that show this level of significance.  Finally, the most significant relationships with respect to emotional engagement are quite evenly distributed across individual, class design and perceptual categories, while cognitive engagement is more a function of factors that are associated with class design and student perception.  The bulk of strong influencers appear to be in the perceptual category for both emotional and cognitive engagement. With respect to the role of mode of learning (online or face-to-face), this study does suggest that cognitive engagement is enhanced in the face-to-face environment, while ‘mode’ has no effect on emotional engagement.

In summary:

  • Both emotional and cognitive engagement are influenced by many factors – they are complex!
  • Emotional engagement may be more challenging to achieve because there are more individual factors with which it is associated.
  • Both types of engagement are most strongly affected by the aspects of student perception
  • The mode in which learning is happening (online or face-to-face) appears to be less associated with how engaged students are than some of the other variables in the study, and is only significant for cognitive engagement

It appears that getting and keeping individual college students feeling interested in a class and motivated to learn is more complex, and less under the control of the teacher, than is getting students to do the work of thinking and learning.  In this study, face-to-face learning was more cognitively engaging than online learning, however, there are many variables that we can work with to combat any loss that occurs either online or face-to-face.

Clearly these two aspects of engagement interact and there is overlap in variables that influence both forms of engagement, particularly in the area of perception (Figure 3).

Figure 3. The overlap in class design and perceptual factors that influence both emotional and cognitive engagement. Intentionally excluded are individual aspects associated with students because they are more difficult to control. Note: Class design variables are bold and perceptual factors are Italicized (this figure displays outcomes from  Table 6 from Manwaring et al (2017) as a Venn diagram to illustrate the most fruitful opportunities to apply in practice to increase ind. student engagment.

Linking research outcomes to practice: What practical strategies can we apply to increase individual student engagement in our online, and face-to-face courses.

The low hanging fruit for practical applications are those factors that exist in the overlap between cognitive and emotional engagement.  Let’s start with the one factor strongly negatively associated with both forms of engagement:


A challenge of online teaching is that it’s hard, maybe impossible, to know what students are doing on the other side of the screen.  In both environments we can apply these practices:

  • At the start of the semester and in each class share your expectation for an atmosphere of mutual respect. Initially sharing yours and asking students to share their ideas of what this means and developing a list of agreed upon behaviors can act as a verbal contract. Refer to the contract at the start of each class when you ask them to please be ‘really present’ for your time together.
  • Studies have shown that sharing research information about why you use certain teaching practices (providing an evidence-based rationale such as Manwaring et al, (2017)) will help with buy-in from students, particularly when you show that it influences their performance and ultimately their grade.
  • Requiring/encouraging/providing regular expectation that students participate in simple (polling, commenting in the chat, annotating on the shared screen) or more complex (think-pair-share , group work, worksheets associated with presented materials) active learning during class (online or face-to-face) will reduce time that students can be multitasking
Ways that one might try to encourage both emotional and cognitive engagement include activities that:

make the materials seem important, help students realize that learning is happening, are more social in nature, and seem related to their lives and situations

  • Provide real-world examples in lecture and/or in homework to show the importance of what they’ve learned and create examples students relate to.
  • Ask students to provide examples of applications for what they learned in the class.
  • Require brief ‘reflection pieces’ (written or audio recordings) either during or at the end of class or in asynchronous discussion threads. Prompts can be broad: “What was the most valuable concept or skill discussed in todays (this weeks’) class?” or specific: “What aspect of (a concept or process) did you understand the best? or where did you get confused?” These are sometimes referred to as ‘1-minute papers’. These can be done by student pairs and include brief discussions, or by individuals.
  • Provide practical examples after concept/theory learning and allow students to work with concepts/problems and demonstrate to themselves what they can do after the learning activity. Such practices can help students see what they are learning.
  • Promote interactions among students by providing chances for group discussions, team-working tasks, peer review process etc.
  • Create group learning activities (with clear roles and scaffolding) that can add a social aspect and support students who are challenged with materials.
    • Note this aspect includes group dynamics explicitly which has its own challenges but still worth it!
  • Begin a class period by asking students to recall and share knowledge gains from previous lectures. This allows students to acknowledge that they are learning (don’t choose obscure factoids but rather large focal concepts😊)
  • A recap from previous lectures related to the material you are going to teach gets students engaged right away just like the recap you might need for your favorite TV shows. Try to help students connect the material with old knowledge or daily life just as this suggestion did:-)

It is worth considering the ‘second tier’ of important factors that relate significantly to one or the other form of engagement as well.  Some of the ideas presented above already hit these topics: such as, provide active learning opportunities interspersed in your course (for more ideas see: Don’t Throw the Baby out with the Bathwater…); and, when possible, give students ‘choice’ in:

  • activity
  • form of expression,
  • rules of engagement.

While “challenge” was identified as being negatively correlated with emotional engagement, other studies have suggested that high expectations are necessary for successful learning, thus working to support challenging topics through scaffolded group work, paired activities, or individual feedback and intervention where possible are good alternatives.

Unpacking individual student engagement makes it easier for educators to understand why great pedagogical ideas don’t always work as well as we expect.  It helps us pinpoint what we can work with to get ideas across and create critical thought. We now have some understanding of why, on any given day, those implemented practices may leave us feeling satisfied, even elated, about what happened in our online or face-to-face classrooms – or alternatively frustrated and disheartened.  Optimistically, ‘mode’ of teaching (online versus face-to-face) is NOT nearly as strong a correlate with engagement as other measured variables over which we have some control. There are many ways to continue to work with our own personal strengths and challenges as we strive to improve learning outcomes. As a final note, and an enticement to look for our for the next post in this series, individual student choices, behaviors, and motivations are further complicated by the ‘dynamic’ in the class among members. This is likely particularly true when one makes good evidence-base choices at the course level to facilitate long or short-term collaborative learning experiences.  The plot thickens… But in the meantime…

Happy experimenting!

Manwaring, K. C., Larsen, R., Graham, C. R., Henrie, C. R., & Halverson, L. R. (2017). Investigating student engagement in blended learning settings using experience sampling and structural equation modeling. Internet and Higher Education, 35, 21–33. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2017.06.002


PRIMING THE CANVAS: Creating inclusive learning environments online

Be even more cognizant of diversity in your online students.

Consider all the ways in which learners can be diverse.  Diverse identities typically come to mind first. Remember also that there is a diversity of ways in which learners process incoming information and a large percent of challenges to learning for students in your classroom are ‘invisible’ (read more on invisible disabilities here).

Even for educators that are as present as it is possible to be in their online learning environments, the nature of the virtual classroom is that it is harder to ‘see’ even the diversity that would be ‘visible’ face-to-face, not to mention the invisible diversity in our students. This reason alone is all the rationale needed to argue for putting scaffolding and guidelines in place at the outset of your course meetings to ensure a welcoming and inclusive online climate.

One of many strengths of Cornell Engineering is its diversity. The College is the most culturally diverse at Cornell and is approximately 50% women at the undergraduate level.  Other important aspects of cultural diversity in the classroom, face-to-face or online, are individual identities such as sexuality, or socio-economic situation.

Each of these aspects of diversity enriches our community. Thoughtfully considering and integrating the experience of a diverse student body into your learning environment will result in the greatest gains, but is not easy. Thus, the care you take in creating a respectful, integrated socially and intellectually inclusive classroom, online or face-to-face, is the key to facilitating great learning!

Opportunities accompany online inclusion

Working online may take some of the pressure off a student whose first language is not English. The online environment can help to equalize participation and allow shy or reserved, or socially anxious students to respond in writing and through asynchronous tasks. The online environment allows expression with some autonomy. If we, especially those of us who are new to online teaching and learning, can focus on the opportunities, we will likely be more successful and convey that positivity to our students, many of whom are unwilling participants in this global experiment as well.

Recognize and avoid ‘Microaggressions’

Caution must be taken to avoid unconscious biases in our wonderfully diverse classrooms. Even subtle unconscious biases can lead to detrimental outcomes for self-confidence, learning, and motivation for those who are on the receiving end. For more reading on respecting and valuing diversity and inclusion in our community and learning environments please visit Cornell CTI – Building inclusive classrooms. Here you will find resources that include practices for inclusivity, suggestions for how to respond to an incident that includes bias or other behavior that influences the teaching environment and students in it.

Microaggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults that potentially have harmful or unpleasant psychological impact on the target person or group” Sources: Solorzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000.

To avoid microaggressions:

This link will take you to an excellent pdf about microaggressions and how to avoid them.

This link will take you to an article that has excellent advice for responding to microaggressions in the classroom.

Here are some practical reminders to help create an inclusive climate in the online learning environment:

  • Re-read carefully your written instruction and scenarios: the written medium (as in online posting) is one that is more open to interpretation than speaking to students in a face to face environment where body language and eye contact can be critical cues.
  • Know students’ names and how to pronounce them. Review your class roster. You will have more difficulty seeing your students online, and thus it will be even more valuable to review the roster with pictures of the students. Avoid slang and idiomatic expressions in written and spoken language for improved understanding.
  • Beginning of your semester, and regularly thereafter, provide opportunities for students to get to know each other online through activities that are intentionally structured for that, or through opportunities for students to work in ‘breakout rooms’ on constructing knowledge, and ask that they begin with a fun introduction of themselves.
  • Breakout rooms are inherently social. Some students with social anxiety may find them stressful.  Encourage camera use so students can see each other, but also allow cameras not to be used if it feels uncomfortable for any participant (this can apply to all synchronous zoom meetings).  Additionally, allow participants opportunities to respond in writing rather than speaking in breakouts if it will reduce anxiety.
  • Speak clearly and naturally, at moderate speed. Remember, some students are taking notes as you speak, just as they do in face-to-face class. Remember that English is not the first language of all your learners.
  • Deal with issues of disrespectful behavior (and microaggressions) in any student interactions ‘off-line’ but immediately, e.g. the instructor may choose to email a student with concerns.
  • Keep your own tone clear, concise and polite during written and oral feedback to students.
  • Provide students the opportunity to work in mixed groups (with respect to language differences) to help each other as often as possible.

Remember compassion for yourself, your students, and the whole community

No one saw this coming, and you are not expected to be an immediate expert in online teaching and learning!  Setting the stage by creating a welcoming and inclusive environment is the key to being able to try some new engaging techniques using online tools and practices.  Remember too: always keep a growth mindset for yourself as you grow your skillset, and the learners in your class. Help them keep that same mindset for their own challenges!

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water: How to use lecture effectively and make more space for active learning (face-to-face and online)

All the focus (and accumulating data) on the value of “active learning” and “student-centered” practices for retention and higher order thinking skills, could leave the majority of educators with a more traditional experience feeling frustrated and confused and at a loss about how to change things up. This frustration might be compounded by the fact that for the near future, this will, to some degree, need to happen in a new environment – online.

While times are gradually changing, lecture is still the dominant mode of information delivery in higher education.  For most faculty members, teaching assistants and peer educators, an entire educational experience has been spent sitting in lectures.  Sometimes we listened with rapt attention to an excellent lecturer, and sometimes we nodded off early in the morning or fought with our closing eyelids when we didn’t sleep enough the night before, or were listening while a not-so-excellent lecturer droned on like Charlie Brown’s teacher.

Success in our traditional education systems has been essentially synonymous with success in the lecture environment.  Faculty and teaching assistants might reasonably ask:  If it worked for me, why change it? However, US Census Bureau numbers in 2018 state that only 13% of Americans have a degree beyond the bachelors level.  The point is that ‘we’ in higher education represent a fairly narrow slice of the population.  More and more studies show that learning is a complex psycho-social-neurological process and there are broad norms of reaction for what motivates and engages learners and what results in retention and integration of information into knowledge and skills.  Improving learning outcomes for all students takes a toolbox with a variety of tools to choose from.  Lecture is one of these tools. Universal Design for Learning (UDL https://teaching.cornell.edu/teaching-resources/designing-your-course/universal-design-learning) is the overarching directive for creating inclusive and successful learning environments. In simple terms it means considering the broad array of learners’ needs, mixing it up, and strengthening our strategies to get ALL students feeling welcome and involved. This creates equity and improves overall learning outcomes.

Rather than a focus on replacing lecture, this post will discuss situations in which lecture may be exactly right teaching tool, share some of its limitations, and suggest ways it can be introduced or followed by active learning practices that allow students to take ‘transmitted information’ (from lecture or reading or video) and interact with it and with each other.  Finally, we will provide some practitioner ideas and tools, and share some resources for making this happen in the face-to-face and online environments.

The best use of lecture

Lecture is one important option for disseminating information to large audiences, and covering the most information in the least amount of time. It does not allow processing of information for higher order thinking, nor the reflection, application, and linking of concepts. Here are some great uses for lecture:

  • Introducing new concepts for the first time.
  • Just-in-time lecture chunks can be used as an intervention to clarify complex topics or explain difficult ideas when it is clear learners are not getting the right ‘take-home’ message.
  • Summarizing a topic or showing a ‘synthesis’ of various bits of information from multiple sources.
  • Providing a rationale and/or learning objectives for the material and topics being studied, linking it to current or relatable topics of personal interest for the learner audience.
  • Helping prioritize topics or ideas in terms of importance.
  • Engaging, passionate lecture chunks can build interest. Enthusiasm goes a long way to generate interest in many learners: it is contagious.
(Some ideas adapted from https://ctl.iupui.edu/Resources/Teaching-Strategies/Tips-for-Making-Lectures-More-Active)

Why are lectures alone, not terribly effective for retention and development of higher order thinking skills?

Even teaching assistants and peer educators find the allure of sharing their knowledge as lecture irresistible. Among other reasons for this are that they 1) have been personally successful in this familiar format, and 2) that they really learn the material by explaining it to others (lecture).  The first of these rationales underscores the need for sharing peer-reviewed research outcomes with larger sample sizes and greater diversity of learners to help underscore that personal experiences, while important, are anecdotal and should not be the basis for our pedagogical choices as educators. The second is the strongest argument possible for incorporating active learning into classrooms.  Active, student-centered learning creates situations where learners explain what they know to other learners or to the professor and, in doing so, they learn better. For many learners, studies have shown that the information retained from lecture compared to interacting with course materials in other ways is significantly lower.

This quote from Schmidt et al, 2015, pg 14, is one basic explanation for why lecture may not be as effective as we would like it to be as a teaching tool:

“Implicit to conventional lecturing is the idea that information can be directly transmitted from one person to another. The other person then stores the information as communicated by the sender, and what is transmitted is remembered, provided the receiver pays attention. This is a misconception because the human mind does not work as a receiver. Students have to do something with the information to enable them to remember and use it in the future.
 They have to be able to elaborate upon the information using their prior knowledge, to rephrase the information in their own words, to discuss the information with other students or with the teacher, to explain what is learned to others, to apply the information to a problem. All these activities help students storing the information in memory for long-term use. This is because our memory is constructive.” https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hpe.2015.11.010

Lecture is a tool in the toolbox, though more and more studies show its limitations for inclusive learning.  Let’s consider how lecture can be reduced, ‘chunked’, and integrated with an array of active learning tools.

Engaging students while introducing or summarizing topics or concepts

  • Before a lecture chunk – Ask students to access their notes from last lecture and review concepts, complete a calculation if that is the nature of the material, and be prepared to share brief summaries, answers, and ideas (follow up with lecture clarifying the concepts, solving the problem, before moving on).
  • Before a lecture chunk – Create a prompt for students to discuss to generate ideas or determine their pre-existing knowledge about a new topic (follow up with asking pairs or groups to share out their ideas and then summarizing with a short lecture on the new topic)
  • Between two lecture chunks – Use an electronic or other sort of anonymous poll (low stakes) to get students thinking about a topic, or reviewing old material. These can be used at several points in a class but best not to overdo any one thing
  • After a lecture chunk or set of short lectures – Have students create mini-concept maps using topics and terms to help them articulate the connections among ideas discussed.
    • Best done with pairs or small groups (sitting next to each other, or in breakout rooms online) to share what they remember. This creates a learning opportunity.
    • Time for this will vary depending on how deeply one wants the learners to go, or how large the topic.
    • In the online environment, breakout rooms on zoom or other venues take a bit more time to get into and out of, so one must account for that. (Follow up with prepared lecture and take-home points.)

Creating buy-in from students and incorporate their interest and feedback into the learning environment

  • Before starting a class – Invite students to share their interest or lack of it in the topics you will cover. Challenge them to share their reasoning. Be sure they differentiate between things they enjoy, and things they believe will have value to them.
  • Before you begin a course or the set of topics –  Share the course learning objectives explicitly with learners and have them read, discuss and share their own additional goals that might be ones you could also facilitate (this can be done online between synchronous classes early in the semester or on an objective by objective basis .

Getting students working with each other and the content, on the content

  • After a lecture ‘chunk’ – Have Students Apply or Restate Content (can be done individually, and are very strong in small groups or pairs)
    • Ask students to write down at least one possible, real-world application for what they have just learned.
    • Ask students to create an explanation of a concept in their own words
    • One Sentence Summaries. At the end of the discussion/lecture chunk, have students summarize the overall concepts in a one-sentence format: Who did what to/for whom, when, where, how, and why?
  • Before or after lecture chunks –  there are so many ways to do this, with and without providing prompts or materials.  There is overlap here with the first part of this blog section ‘engaging students while introducing or summarizing…’.

For more specific suggestions, access this great link with some additional, detailed tools for getting student working together in various ways. No sense reinventing the whole wheel here. https://ctl.iupui.edu/Resources/Teaching-Strategies/Tips-for-Making-Lectures-More-Active)

Collecting feedback from your learners

All the following are versions of the ‘minute paper’ that asks students to reflect and share what they learned, what they did not quite learn, and how they felt about what they learned. At the close of the class time, ask students to share (either on paper, or on a discussion board of the LMS or other communication media) before they leave the class:

  • Something they learned
  • Something they need clarification on
  • What was most interesting for them and why
  • What is a question you have about the material
  • How well did we meet the stated learning objectives for this class? (Likert-scale with required rationale)

(Some ideas adapted from https://ctl.iupui.edu/Resources/Teaching-Strategies/Tips-for-Making-Lectures-More-Active)

Transferring these practices to online 

The COVID epidemic and new education models (both online and hybrid courses) make it imperative that we also discuss these course design planning opportunities for online teaching and learning. Remembering this emergency situation means faculty are working to adapt the materials in place for face-to-face courses so that they can be delivered remotely and in some cases in a hybrid version of the same. This is not the same as taking months to fully develop all the structure that supports an online course.

The best things about face-to-face learning are what make the best remote teaching and are even more critical in the online environment.  More than face-to-face teaching, facilitators should prioritize:

Clearly stated and consistent expectations

    • What do you expect of students with respect to showing up, engaging in discussion boards, working in groups or participating in online chats, breakouts, polls or other tools. (the caveat here is that for those still working from family homes or other living spaces, flexibility and compassion are paramount – this is not an easy balance, but really matters).
    • What are the learning objectives for the semester, and for each topic or class meeting
      • Studies have shown that sharing learning objectives with students help them know where they are expected to go, and what they are expected to learn.
    • What can be expected of you as the learning facilitator
      • When will synchronous lectures or discussions be held.
      • What options are there for make-up times.
      • What are the options for learners in different time zones.
      • When will assignments will be posted and due.
      • How different activities and participation will be incorporated into the grade.

Varied options to communicate, listen and reach out – the human component is harder to get across in online learning and is what students who choose face-to-face learning miss the most!

    • Let student know when you will be available
      • Be sure students know when and how they can reach teaching staff and be sure that teaching staff adhere to being there.
      • Have both synchronous and asynchronous options regularly for learners to check in, and for you to reach out and ask how it is going
      • Prioritize this more than you might do in a face-to-face scenario, when students can stop after class, come early or find you more easily to ask questions.

Opportunities online for providing feedback, challenges, and ideas

  • Feedback can be about
    • Content – how well learners are understanding different topics
    • How they are doing with the online environment.
    • What learners are having trouble with and what might help them (accessible google docs work well for this, as long as they are monitored weekly)

A variety of ways to be active and engaged during synchronous zoom or other real-time teaching platform

  • Here is where we circle back to the middle of this post “Planning for active learning in your course” and put them to work as you chunk up the lecture portion and add these options in using zoom tools (chat, breakouts, annotating, white boards) or other add-ons like poll everywhere (easy download and links to power point).

This blog (link below) has excellent and practical tips and elements for structure of your online learning environment. https://er.educause.edu/blogs/2020/4/student-centered-remote-teaching-lessons-learned-from-online-education

If active learning is new to you, remember, there are many ways to include simple practices.  Start slow, try one, see how it goes.  Once you find out what works for you, add another.  Don’t give up.  Study after study has shown the value of including opportunities for engaging students through active learning. This engagement is even more critical for online learning. Be warned that quite a bit of research has shown some students are resistant to it, while at the same time showing that it promotes higher scores and deeper learning!  The change to active learning is as challenging for students at first as it is for facilitators. Ultimately, we know that lecture is tried and true and has value.  Adding in these other pieces will improve student learning and can happen gradually.  So, take baby steps and there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater!

The College of Engineering at Cornell has webinars and helpful tools as well (https://www.engineering.cornell.edu/MTEI/information-teaching-remotely) as does the Center for Teaching Innovation ( https://teaching.cornell.edu/teaching-resources/engaging-students). Don’t forget the Zoom website as well.



Four Undergraduate Researchers Share their Work and Illustrate the Indisputable Value of the Experience

 “My research experience taught me how to organize and complete my own experiment. I was able to follow my curiosity and learn all aspects of experimental design.”  – Daniel Pyrek, Environmental Engineering
“The research experience with a great mentor, … was one of the most valuable learning opportunities at Cornell.”- Hyoann Choi, Biological Engineering


For undergraduates, doing research with the guidance and support of a qualified mentor is one of the most engaging and impactful learning opportunities available. Participating in well-mentored authentic research, exposes students to all levels of cognitive difficulty: remembering facts, explaining concepts and theories, linking them together and, ultimately, applying those more complicated constructs to a novel problem. In some cases, this results in the creation of new conceptions and products. Very often, it results in the development of practical skills, and new research questions and /or hypotheses – all excellent outcomes for both mentor and student!

Reading the literature, proposal writing, presenting one’s own idea development to a supportive research team, preparing iterative written drafts of papers and posters, are aspects of the research process that integrate evidence-based education practice: reflection, metacognition, and feedback. Ultimately these clarify thought processes and improve communication skills.

Jaqueline Wong does UG research“In addition to learning about environmental chemistry, computational toxicology and laboratory skills, I found myself becoming a much better written and oral communicator.” – Jacqueline Wong, Environmental Engineering 
“I have grown in my ability to gather information, develop experiments, and analyze and convey my results concisely.” – Rebecca Green, Materials Science and Engineering

Mentored undergraduate research is a powerful coalescence of practices, the gains from which create critical thinkers and life-long learners and can jump start motivation and spur college students into their specific career directions.

“I learned “to learn”. Every learning requires patience and consistency. I believe that the learning ability as well as the knowledge and technical skills I developed through the experience will be a firm foundation for my subsequent career path to graduate school.”Hyoann Cho
“Undergraduate research has strengthened my belief that affordable access to safe drinking water is a fundamental right, and has furthered my interest in pursuing a career in environmental engineering” – Jacqueline Wong

Through our Undergraduate Research Grants program, Engineering Learning Initiatives is committed to facilitating the tremendous learning opportunities of an undergraduate research experience for as many Cornell engineering students as possible. Each semester and summer, engineering undergraduates and their mentors submit joint proposals that are reviewed by an academic committee. The College supports as many projects as possible through a variety of funding sources, including gifts from college alumni and from corporate partners. This year the program supported 98 undergraduates, from across all engineering majors, in faculty-mentored research.

Typically the students have a chance to share their research with the college community at a spring poster session in Duffield Hall. Due to the covid-19 pandemic, we were unable to hold the poster session this past spring. Thus, students missed this valuable opportunity to celebrate the outcomes of their research effort and dedication and showcase their projects.

Here we highlight four spring 2020 graduates who opted to share their research outcomes and  experiences for this post. These undergraduates, working to clean up the environment at home and abroad while studying materials science and environmental engineering, and to advance medical research through biological engineering, are some of the great examples of young innovators heading into the world and workforce from Cornell Engineering. They have tested the waters of research and discovery, and persisted through challenges and setbacks, with the guidance and support of their mentors. They are ultimately prepared to continue on from their time here at Cornell, to bring their convictions and skills to bear on the vexing problems of our society and our world.

What follows is an introduction to each researcher, a brief reflection of the research experience, and a link to follow to the abstract and additional research material. We invite you to follow the provided link to read and leave comments for these newly-graduated Cornell Engineers and their mentors on each page!!


Jacqueline Wong, Environmental Engineering

Jaqueline Wong does UG research


Title: Exploring the use of biochar to remove target pesticides from drinking water in Honduras

Mentor: Professor Damian E. Helbling, Civil and Environmental Engineering

“Through the ELI program, I investigated how biochar can be used as a low-cost adsorbent for pesticide removal in drinking water treatment plants in Honduras… It has been an absolute pleasure conducting research through the ELI program, learning from role models in the research group, and becoming a mentor to future undergraduate researchers.”

See Jacqueline’s abstract and more about her research by clicking here


Rebecca Green,  Materials Science and Engineering

Title: Synthesis of Monodisperse Spinel Oxide Core-Shell Nanoparticles

Mentor: Professor Richard D. Robinson, Materials Science and Engineering

Funding from corporate partner, Phillips 66.

“This project was an excellent introduction to laboratory work, especially colloidal nanoparticle synthesis, and data analysis. I have grown in my ability to gather information, develop experiments, and analyze and convey my results concisely.”

See Rebecca’s abstract and more about her research by clicking here


Hyoann Choi. Biological Engineering

Title: Optimization of small-intestine-on-chip

Mentor: Professor Esak Lee, Biomedical Engineering

“Especially, biological research needs tremendous patience and consistency in the face of multiple failures and ambiguity.  Although this may sound exhausting, the process is actually very fun and satisfying once you have a supportive mentor and colleagues. That was my case. I am pretty excited for it!”

See Hyoann’s abstract and more about her research by clicking here


Daniel Pyrek. Environmental Engineering

Title: Cayuga Lakes Harmful Algal Bloom problem: Rapid field monitoring toolkit

Mentor: Professor Ruth Richardson, Civil and Environmental Engineering

“This project will have significant implications on how communities test lake water for the harmful Microcystis cyanobacteria. This experience was incredibly rewarding. I will never look at lake water the same way!”



See Daniel’s abstract and more about his research by clicking here

A Peer Educator Reflects on Personal Decisions, Challenges and the Importance of Inclusivity in the Transition to Online Learning when COVID 19 Changed our Worlds

Graduating Engineering senior, Camelia Wu, considered her options when it was time to decide where to live after the Cornell Campus was closed due to COVID 19.  She chose to return home to New Jersey.  Though she lived off campus, and could decide to stay in Ithaca, she was without a vehicle, friends were all in isolation, and so she decided that the best option was working on her final college disciplinary work and on facilitating AEW workshops from her parents’ home. As we all did, college students had a lot to process very quickly.  When Camelia was asked via discussion thread to create an analogy about what it felt like, as an AEW Facilitator, to transition your workshop sessions to an online mode.  Here is what she wrote:

“(it was like)…when I first moved to the United States. After moving, I needed to get used to a new lifestyle with a different language, food selection, friend group with different backgrounds, and so on. I had to find a new flow in my social and general everyday life. It was kind of like how I used to have a good flow for how to conduct the AEW sessions in person, but had to find new online teaching tools to achieve a new flow in the virtual AEW sessions. Both involved a lot of flexibility, empathy for others, and curiosity to explore new things.”

Living at home, reconsidering everyone’s roles, thinking about internships that are likely to be substantially reduced or altered, if not completely cancelled, and considering job options as a graduating senior are a few other personal/professional concerns. These say nothing about the lost social aspects of college and being a senior: the celebrations, the kudos, the final presentations and the all-important ‘goodbyes’. Camelia shared some of her own sadness and how she attempted to cope with the abrupt nature of the transition:

“This fast transition made it kind of sad for me because I am a graduating senior, so it was disappointing to leave campus without being able to do everything that I had planned. I had been pushing off a lot of things, but I now regret that decision. It also cut short my time with my friends, some of whom I was not able to meet before leaving. Before I left, I decided to at least write a message, make a card, or leave something for my closest friends at Cornell to show them my appreciation and hopefully reminisce on some of the good memories…”

AEW facilitators have a rare opportunity to share thoughts about this emergency online transition to teaching and learning.  Facilitators are undergraduate students and experiencing their own course transitions, in addition they are peer educators struggling to stay positive, flexible and apply best practices for online learning in their AEW sessions. Camelia appreciated that students and instructors were respectful and used icebreakers that allowed students to share fun facts about themselves and their backgrounds. The game encouraged students to also be inclusive and find common ground.

As a student: she expressed thanks for her professors who were role models for the transition to online teaching practices.

“… It gave me a lot more respect for the professors who were trying to deal with this transition. In fact, some of my amazing professors were an example to me when I had to provide this transition for the AEWs…”
“ I felt that some of the professors were even sadder than we were for the missed class time and senior celebrations… they had to suddenly readjust the course to completely virtual classes. Overall, I appreciated their genuine effort and still learned a lot.”

As an AEW Facilitator: Learning the names of people in her AEW workshops, (and pronouncing them correctly) was a practice she used in her own peer education to make all feel included regardless of their different backgrounds. Camelia also shared other practices she and her co-facilitator, Matt Ziron, used to address engagement and create inclusivity in the new teaching venue:

“Being respectful and flexible to students who are under different time zones. For example, this may include using different contact methods, recording course material, or posting material in multiple places to make sure everyone has access.
“We sent out a few surveys and polls to find out best times, how to share the course material, deliver the lecture portion, and use Slack. The responses gave us a lot of direction for what to do.”
“… There was overall a very open and accepting environment and going online did not change that. One specific situation that Matt and I had to deal with was one overseas student with limited access and a different time zone. We tried to be flexible and discussed with her alternative ways to participate, recorded the lecture portions, and posted the AEW material in multiple places to make sure that she had the proper access. As a result, based on what she said in the email communication, she was able to stay updated”.

Finally, Camelia considered the occasional poor practices she experienced and why these actions make students feel uncomfortable and promote exclusion rather than inclusion. For instance, when students or the TAs are more familiar with one another and start going about some everyday conversation.

“inside jokes or personal conversations … may make other students feel left out or unhappy that it seems off topic. They are still important to address to build relationships with the students and help them on a more personal level, but it should not take class time from everyone else or suggest favoritism.”

As if there wasn’t enough work to do, Camelia and her peers on the eboard for a student organization called the Language Expansion Program decided to keep meeting to maintain that community for students who wanted to continue to share language learning.

“… I found these conversation hours very relaxing and enjoyed sharing jokes in different languages and fun facts about those languages. I think my zoom training as an AEW facilitator helped me learn how to better organize and set up these language meetings.”

Finishing her reflection on a happy note, this extra commitment turned out to be one of those personal social activities, albeit remote, that provided Camelia with some of what was lost when the physical community was no longer available on campus and she chose to head home to New Jersey. It eased the stress and feeling of disconnect from her home at Cornell.  This was, and is, a challenging time, and also one of immense growth, especially for graduating seniors who are both students and peer educators.  This resilient young professional learned how to negotiate new circumstances, to experience and facilitate inclusive learning in a new environment, and very successfully complete her college career. Congratulations Camelia, and thank you for your insights!



Putting the ‘Jigsaw’ Online: AEW facilitators implement the jigsaw on Zoom, create collaboration, and share ideas for adaptations

Practitioners of student-centered learning will be familiar with the ‘jigsaw’. Jigsaws combine powerful collaborative strategies to increase retention and encourage construction of processes and concepts through critical thinking: 1) focused group discussion, and 2) teaching others. In the face-to-face environment, groups of 3 to 5 work together to solve a problem, explain a concept, or explore some idea or theory – together.

After the group (Expert group) has come to conclusions regarding the problem at hand, the groups are re-organized into mixed groups (Sharing group) – one member of each of the original groups, now work together.  These new mixed groups are tasked with explaining their definition or solution to the rest of the group – effectively teaching the members of the mixed group. The jigsaw works well with groups between 9 and 25 but can be adapted in many ways to accommodate larger classes.

As Cornell University transitioned to emergency remote teaching, AEW facilitators immediately began training to continue supporting engineering student-learning in weekly student-centered online sessions. Emily Care and Juan Berrio, a pair of co-facilitators for CS 1112, decided they wanted to attempt this valuable teaching strategy to create engagement in their synchronous Zoom session. Here’s how they did it.

Creating a Jigsaw in Breakout Rooms:

This scenario was developed for 2 weekly synchronous zoom meetings, rather than one, in order to accommodate different schedules of students now working online.

  1. We briefly explained that students in the synchronous zoom would be placed in breakout room groups to create a solution and then split up into new groups to explain their solution.
  2. We then randomized the breakout rooms into groups of 2-3 students and told each group their assigned question.
  3. We gave them 30 minutes to prepare their solution, check it with us, and work on other questions.
  4. After the 30 minutes, we reshuffled the breakout rooms and let the students present to each other.

***The facilitators were clear to note that leaders must be very active in visiting the breakout rooms on zoom while groups are working to be sure they are on the right track, without giving answers away.

               “The online jigsaw seemed to work well! All the students were able to have the solutions presented to them from different perspectives, to hear different voices, and to work with around 3 more students than they typically would have the opportunity to. They were also more thorough with the solutions they came up with since they knew they were responsible for the learning of their peers”.  Emily Care, AEW Facilitator

Jigsaw Adaptations: The following recommendations come from an asynchronous discussion thread among AEW Facilitators in which they discussed different adaptations to improve jigsaw success for other course materials, other course online structure, and different numbers of students in class:

  • Within each group, we would randomly assign a conversation leader to share a white board screen to encourage all to participate. While checking over the solutions of each group we would also ask some students to explain their reasoning to ensure all members understand the material.
  • … But we would probably have to send the questions out during one of the Slack sessions before the zoom so that the students have a chance to work on them a little beforehand, since our zoom sessions are only one hour a week.
  • …After the jigsaw groups had been redistributed, we could ask the members of each group leading questions concerning the concepts involved in the problem, to ensure every person in each group gets the information to solve future questions.
  • … A good way to use jigsaw would be to use it for conceptual problems and not calculation-heavy ones, since students generally struggle more with concept application and not flushed-out calculations in our class.
  • … Only having one zoom meeting per week, we would have to make sure that the problem was both in-depth enough to have students increase their understanding, but also short enough to be able to do in a manner where students feel confident in their own abilities to present the material.
  • Encourage the students to use canvas examples or the textbook to help them solve the questions. Then check in with each group, shuffle the groups, and have the students teach others about their solution.

Taking the next step: Following the synchronous Jigsaw with a concept map or an asynchronous discussion thread.

  • Jigsaws can be followed by ‘concept mapping’ activities to bring all the different concepts and ideas back together into a framework, or if the work is problem-solving, then concept maps can bring problems and related series together.

  • They can also be used to develop a challenge activity or problem that can be posted on an asynchronous discussion thread. This would allow students to continue to engage while they’re not online together, and to answer each other’s questions.
  • In discussion threads it is critical that the facilitator is present, ‘listening’, and providing feedback and encouragement (not answers or solutions). After the discussion has run its course, clarifying the answer, approach and structure is important so that everybody knows they’re on the right track.
The ELI Edublog is brought to you by Engineering Learning Initiatives (ELI). Please contact us with any questions about our Blog or education articles or methodologies (cae223@cornell.edu)


Learning isn’t as simple as being ‘provided’ information and then immediately understanding it in all its depth and complexity, at least not for most people. There are tools and practices that can be used to facilitate various levels of understanding.  Using these tools effectively requires an awareness that learning most often occurs in a social context.  In the College of Engineering, the Engineering Learning Initiatives (ELI) team works with several groups of graduate and undergraduate students who are striving to improve learning experiences in many courses each semester.

Academic Excellence Workshop (AEW) facilitators are one such group.  AEW facilitators receive training and work in teams of two to run weekly sessions for their undergraduate peers.  Students enrolled in participating undergraduate courses have the option to enroll in one of the related AEW workshop sections. Facilitators use student-centered teaching and learning strategies to help students engage with course materials and their classmates in a variety of interactive ways to solidify and deepen their understanding.

About halfway through the first AEW training of the spring semester, pairs of undergraduate workshop facilitators are seated next to their new co-facilitators. Before they run their first session they need to learn something about the way in which each of them communicates, and figure out how to negotiate their collaboration. They need to start to develop the social context in which their work together and their work with enrolled students will happen.

After having done a group ‘ice breaker’ and having been introduced to the goals and objectives of the workshop, the teams sit side-by-side with four pieces of yarn attached to a marker and try to cooperatively write the letters ‘A’ ‘E’ and ‘W’ without actually touching the marker. In order to do this, they have to work in concert. They must verbally and non-verbally communicate to create the forces on the markers via the 4 pieces of yarn; thus learning a little bit about how they might work together. Following this good-natured competition over which team could produce the most legible letters, one of the experienced AEW facilitators debriefs the activity with leading questions about what each of the groups did to successfully complete the task. They also discuss how they would apply this to their future teamwork.

Good workshop facilitation means adding social skills to disciplinary expertise.  Moving forward into the semester, these dedicated students will continue to train and hone their skills of communication and group facilitation.

This Edu-blog is brought to you by the ELI TEAM in Rhodes Hall. If you are interested in working with us contact eng-learning@cornell.edu