Engaging Students in the Diverse Classroom

August 22, 2017

By Sonia Zamanou-Erickson (Applied Communication Studies)

Student engagement is an important contributor to motivation and learning in the classroom. Students who are engaged are more curious, attentive, interested, and passionate about what they are learning and they ultimately perform better.  Even though some students are consistently engaged and thrive in the college environment, not all students share that experience. How to increase engagement of all students in a diverse classroom remains a challenge for many professors. Two ideas that may contribute to improving engagement for all students are classroom connectedness and confirmation behaviors (LaBelle and Johnson, 2017).

Classroom connectedness

            Since our classrooms are becoming increasingly more diverse, we need to create a sense of belonging and community for all of our students. Less sense of belonging makes students feel less likely to stay in the classroom and work hard to succeed. Many studies (Tinto, 1998; Frost, 1999) have shown that a sense of belonging increases student academic success. Therefore, it is imperative that we create a classroom community that is inclusive of everyone. Below are some strategies on how to achieve it:

  • Develop interpersonal relationships with students.

This task becomes more challenging as the size of the classroom increases. However, professors need to make every effort possible to learn student names and something about each student. In my classes, we sit in a circle whenever possible, which creates equality among us and promotes sharing. Not only I learn everyone's first names, but I ask that students learn each others’ names as well. I also ask everyone to share something about themselves on the first day so that we become more familiar with each other as unique individuals. Remembering this information is very important, so making short notes, while students introduce themselves, may be helpful.

  • Create a shared identity in the classroom (LaBelle and Johnson, 2017).

We are all individuals and have lives away from school and work. However, when we are in class we need to develop a group identity that gives students a sense of belonging to this particular class as well as purpose. Creating a new community based on our similarities, while still retaining all the other identities we have in our lives, gives us a unique identity. My students often refer to their class identity many semesters after they have completed the class. Additionally, we sometimes take a picture together, which solidifies this group identity.

  • Show students how much we care about them (LaBelle and Johnson, 2017).

Connecting with students as unique individuals is probably more important than impressing them with our knowledge. Understanding them, caring about them and making their success a priority are essential qualities of a good teacher.  It is important that we allow our students to know us as well. I always talk about my life experiences, biases, successes, mistakes, etc. They need to know we are human as well so they empathize and connect with us better. I also ask them questions about their lives, struggles and successes.

  • Model the behaviors that we want students to emulate.

If we are asking our students to be respectful of differing opinions and diverse points of view, we also need to demonstrate respect. Therefore, not criticizing the experiences of others and not being disrespectful to them seems important. We need to model the community we try to create in the classroom and if we do not demonstrate tolerance and acceptance, neither will our students.



            Creating confirming experiences for everyone in the classroom is essential in order for the students to feel more engaged. Confirming responses from the instructor make students feel significant, validated and recognized as unique individuals. Teacher confirmation is positively related to learning motivation and participation. Additionally, even more important than the connection to the teacher is the connection with peers. As the instructor in the class, one should:

  • Always use immediacy behaviors in the classroom (LeFebvre & Allen, 2014).

Teacher immediacy is demonstrated by a set of verbal and nonverbal behaviors, which lead to perceptions of psychological closeness with students. These behaviors include: frequent eye contact, movement around the classroom and appropriate gestures, smiling, vocal variety, examples and humor during class instead of reading a power point or using monotone delivery, etc. I do not allow my students to use their cell phones in the classroom (except in personal emergencies), which allows them to be more involved in the discussions. The perception of immediacy generates more respect or liking for the teacher (Richmond et al., 2003).

  • Create a buddy system, (LaBelle and Johnson, 2017).  

Connection to peers is very important and that becomes more of a challenge if the classroom is diverse. Dedicating time to dyadic work, during which students explore their experiences or ask each other questions on the material discussed, is essential. Pairing the very good students with those who are struggling will make this activity more effective as the better students will be able to understand the material better by explaining it and the ones struggling will also understand it better.

When diverse students are paired up and are given the opportunity and the tools to get to know each other, they start feeling comfortable in each other's presence. This pairing allows everyone to get notes they missed, ask questions, and get to work productively and successfully with someone that is different than themselves.

  • Provide ways for diverse students to work together

Students should have opportunities to collaborate on a project or study for exams. Allowing students to choose their own groups will almost always guarantee very homogeneous groups, which are likely to be less creative and innovative. I usually assign the groups and ensure that they are as diverse as possible. Teaching students the communication skills that would allow them to be more successful in their interactions with diverse others is essential. Active listening, conflict resolution skills and raising difficult issues need to be emphasized and collaborative problem solving demonstrated. Students should also create ground rules (i.e., appropriate length of time before responding to a group chat, etc.) for working with each other effectively.

  • Acknowledge their strengths often and openly (LaBelle and Johnson, 2017). 

Students enjoy hearing where they excel. They like to hear specific and targeted feedback about their strengths. For example, I often tell my students how helpful it is for class understanding when they synthesize the information and apply it to their lives. When students get the answer wrong, it is important that we do not criticize them but instead show them how to do it right.

  • Respond to questions thoughtfully and avoid disconfirming behaviors (LaBelle and Johnson, 2017). 

These behaviors include looking away from the student asking the question or turning the opposite direction as well as shutting down the idea without explanation. Students feel more engaged when others, and especially their teachers, believe that their questions and comments have merit. I often invite students to come to my office after class or during office hours or even meet at a coffee shop to continue a conversation or just chat.

  • Seek to dialogue with students before and after class about their lives in college and beyond.

Remembering details from the students’ lives and asking the students about them creates the ultimate confirmation.

Utilizing connectedness and confirmation can greatly improve engagement for all students in the diverse classroom.


  • Frost, W.L. (1999). It takes a community to retain a student: The Trinity Law School model. Journal of College and Student Retention: Research, Theory, and Practice, 1(3), 203-224.
  • LaBelle, S. and Johnson, Z. (2017). Engaging students in the diverse classroom through confirmation and connectedness, Presentation at the 2017 Teaching Professor Conference.
  • LeFebvre, L. and Allen, M. (2014). Teacher immediacy and student learning: An examination of lecture/laboratory and self-contained course sections. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 29 - 45.
  • McGlynn, A. P. (2016). Creating an Inclusive and Respectful Classroom Environment in Diversity and Inclusion in the College Classroom • www.FacultyFocus.com
  • Richmond, V. P., McCroskey, J. C., & Johnson, A. E. (2003). Development of the Nonverbal Immediacy Scale (NIS): Measures of Self- and Other-perceived Nonverbal Immediacy. Communication Quarterly, 51, 502-515.
  • Tinto, V. (1998). Colleges as communities: Taking research on student persistence seriously. The Review of Higher Education, 21(2), 167-177.

Categories: All Categories, Students, Classroom