Why Engaged Learning?

A photo of a sculpture with people flying away on balloons shaped like brains.

An engaged learner brings a personal motivation for learning and interacts with the content, the instructor, and the other students in a meaningful way. Per educator and researcher, George Kuh (2008), engaged learning can encourage higher levels of student performance by:

  • requiring increased time, effort, and investment on tasks,
  • increasing student interaction with peers and faculty;
  • increasing the opportunity for diversity experiences;
  • increasing the likelihood that students will receive frequent feedback; and/or
  • offering opportunities for students to transfer their learning to other situations.

Both traditional as well as non-traditional learners need opportunities and encouragement to apply and expand their knowledge. Limiting teaching to methods such as lecture and PowerPoint alone do not engage learners. We should invest our time and energy in learning about and creating engaged learning environments to encourage these higher levels of student performance. In this article, we outline components and conditions of engaged learning to build a foundational knowledge of engaged learning for higher education teaching.

Components and Conditions for Engaged Learning

Barkley identities two central components to engaged learning: active learning and student motivation. Motivation is a factor of students’ expectations of succeeding in learning and how much the students value learning. If students have both the confidence they can succeed and place a high value on succeeding in the endeavor, motivation will be high. Students’ confidence is influenced by prior learning experiences and having control over the learning environment and experience. Barkley (2010) links engagement to motivation because motivated students are interested in seeking information and increasing their understanding.

Active learning allows students the opportunity to connect their prior learning with new learning and make new meaning for themselves. When students make their own meaning out of new learning, they are more likely to remember the knowledge and apply it to new scenarios. Per Barkley, active leaning involves making emotional connections, making sense of content, and making new meaning out of content.

A common misconception about engaged learning is that engaged students are active students: you can walk into a classroom and see activity. But, this is only part of the story:

“It is not safe to conclude that if students are talking to each other, they are learning. It is equally risky to conclude that students are learning when they are listening to other students talking. Active learning means that the mind is actively engaged. Its defining characteristics are that students are dynamic participants in their learning and that they are reflecting on and monitoring both the processes and the results of their learning.” (Barkley, 2010, p. 16-17)

To promote active learning and student motivation to create engaged learning, Barkley lists three conditions: 

  • Being part of a classroom learning community: In a classroom learning community, students feel connected to one another and the instructor. Barkley (2010) states that this type of learning environment: “fulfills the basic human need to be part of a social community and also encourages students to learn actively as they collaboratively construct, reconstruct, and build their understanding” (p. 27).
  • Working at optimum challenge: To address both motivation and active learning, we must provide optimal levels of challenge for each student. Students working at this optimal level are pushing their learning past their comfort level, but not so far that they are threatened or anxious.
  • Learning holistically: Students learn not only through logical thinking, but also through affective and psychomotor action. Thus, it is important to go beyond logical thinking and engage students’ relevant feelings and interests.

We often use lecture and slides in our teaching which often results in student passivity. They become passive receivers of knowledge rather than active participants in the construction of knowledge. There are some very simple ways to increase the engagement of learners even when lecture is the primary mode of delivering content. For example, you can ask students to turn to the student next to them and discuss the lecture material and/or respond to a question. To dive deeper into designing for engaged learning, we recommend using our guide, “Designing Learning Strategies for Engaged Learning.”


Barkley, E.F. (2010). Student engagement techniques. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons.

Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.

Kuh, G. D. (2008). Why integration and engagement are essential to effective educational practice in the twenty-first century. Peer Review, 10(4), 27-28.