Encouraging student involvement: An approach to teaching communication

Hunt, Stephen K

Research demonstrates that students approach learning using the following strategies: (a) surface strategies (meeting requirements at a minimal level, usually through rote learning), (b) achieving strategies (striving to receive high grades, even if the subject is not of interest, by performing the activities typical of good students), or (c) deep strategies (working to develop competence and interest in the subject, such as trying to relate new knowledge to previous knowledge) (King, 1996). Most teachers would agree that the facilitation of meaningful, deep learning is the goal of instruction. How do we encourage our students to utilize deep learning strategies in the communication classroom? Deep learning is more likely in situations where students are highly involved and engaged in the learning process (Kember & Gow, 1994). In this article, I review Astin’s theory of involvement and discuss the ways I use this theory to generate pedagogical practices designed to promote deep learning.


Astin’s (1984) theory of involvement posits that students learn more the more they are involved in both the academic and social aspects of the collegiate experience. Students who are involved devote significant energy to academics, spend time on campus, participate actively in student organizations and activities, and interact often with faculty. On the other hand, uninvolved students neglect their studies, spend little time on campus, abstain from extracurricular activities, and rarely initiate contact with faculty or other students (Astin, 1984). Importantly, the most persuasive types of involvement are “academic involvement, involvement with faculty, and involvement with student peer groups” (Astin, 1996, p. 126). This theory is consistent with student-centered teaching approaches in that the student plays an integral role in determining her or his own degree of involvement in various educational activities.

According to Astin (1984), the quality and quantity of the student’s involvement influences several educational outcomes including cognitive learning, satisfaction with the entire college experience, and increased rates of student retention (Astin, 1984, 1999). For a student to be deeply involved in the learning process, she or he must invest energy in academic relationships and activities. The amount of energy a student invests in these types of activities will vary based upon the student’s interest, goals, and other commitments. Astin (1984) argues that instructors should use involvement theory to maximize student learning. To accomplish that goal, instructors must be aware of how motivated students are and how much time and energy they are devoting to the learning process. In the next section of this article, I explain the ways in which I use involvement theory to guide the pedagogical practices I employ in the classroom.

Practical implications. There are several practical implications of Astin’s theory of involvement. Chickering and Gamson (1987, 1991) offer the following pedagogical practices for facilitating student involvement and engagement: student-faculty contact, cooperation among students, active learning, prompt feedback, time on task, high instructor expectations for students, and respect for diverse talents and learning styles. Although I must admit that I have yet to master these practices, I use them as guiding principles in my teaching.

In terms of student-faculty contact, communication educators have long known that this is a critical variable in the educational fortune of students. I attempt to foster that contact both within and outside of the classroom. I believe it is important that teachers do all they can to facilitate a supportive learning environment where the students feel comfortable to contribute to on-going discussions, debate competing points of view, and ask questions. Therefore, I get to know each of my students as individuals; I refer to them by their first names; I refrain from using intimidation, belittlement, or other anti-social behavior alteration techniques; I demonstrate my passion for the subject matter and teaching; and I challenge my students while offering the kind of support I think they need to be successful. Similarly, I extend my contact with students beyond the classroom through office hours. I also use technology to communicate with students and to facilitate student-to-student communication (e.g., email, course web sites, listserves, etc.).

Communication educators also have a rich history of advocating cooperation among students. Although I encourage such cooperation in all of my classes, this is a particularly salient issue in the basic communication course where peers are encouraged to provide support and feedback on student speeches (this type of supportive communication is critical given that many students suffer from communication apprehension). Beyond feedback, I also encourage this type of cooperation by using formal and informal group work, helping students form study groups, and in requiring groups to teach their peers course material (this ranges from chapters that I assign to small groups to the presentation of outside readings).

Active learning strategies constitute a key component of my approach to the classroom. I truly believe that students learn best when they are actively involved in the learning process. In other words, I do not view students merely as empty vessels to be filled with wisdom. Some of the active learning strategies I employ in the classroom include structured debates, games, and simulations. As a part of this approach to classroom pedagogy, I do everything I can to make the course content and assignments relevant to students’ lives. For example, I attempt to relate class work to college life as well as students’ future goals and careers. In addition, many of the games and simulations I employ deal with topics of interest to the students.

A central tenant of my active learning strategy involves prompting students to ask questions. Students are motivated to learn and more involved in the learning process when they ask themselves questions (Greene, 2001). The ability to ask the right questions is also an essential skill for lifelong learning. Indeed, one of my most important tasks as the teacher is to facilitate classroom situations that allow for the asking of questions. As a result, I design learning environments that give the students the opportunity to express their voice (e.g., instructional discussions, experiential learning opportunities, small group assignments, etc.). I’ve found that when students are provided with these types of opportunities to connect the content of the course with their lived experiences, all sorts of questions arise.

Students desire prompt feedback from their instructors. In addition, they expect the feedback they receive on assignments to be meaningful. In other words, students want to know not only what they did to earn a particular grade, but what they can do to improve the next time they are assessed. Beyond the promptness of my feedback, I make every attempt to avoid competitive grading and to use several diverse forms of grading activities. I recognize that not all students perform equally well on oral assignments, essay exams, “objective” exams, and the like. As a result, I incorporate an optimal mix of assessment strategies. Also, I attempt to make my expectations clear to students in terms of the level of performance I expect on assignments. Working with the students, I establish criteria by which their performance will be judged and clearly define what constitutes “A,” “B,” “C,” “D,” and “F” work. The establishment of clear criteria and the clear communication of my expectations for the students also contribute to students spending time on important educational tasks.

I make no apologies about the fact that I set high expectations for my students. However, I communicate my expectations to the students and involve them in classroom decision making processes. I have found that the failure to clearly explain my expectations to students can be a major factor in decreasing their motivation to achieve. Students seem much more responsive when they have a clear understanding of exactly what it will take to earn a particular grade before they are evaluated (that is one reason that I rely so heavily on criterion-based grading). In addition, I attempt to involve students in the course by giving them options and choices in planning the course, in assignments, and in ways to demonstrate their learning. I also allow the students to pursue their own questions and interests whenever possible. I use several classroom assessment techniques (e.g., one-minute paper, see Angelo & Cross, 1993 for a full review of classroom assessment techniques) and communicate with students about what is going well in the class and areas for improvement.

In a similar vein, I expect my students to think about the course content outside of the context of the classroom. I assign short papers that require the students to analyze communication phenomena they experience in their everyday lives using course concepts. I also incorporate out-of-class involvement as a component of their participation grade. For example, in the basic communication course I teach, I have students complete a participation log that documents their in-class contributions as well as any time they spend out-of-class pondering the course material (e.g., discussing course concepts with peers, attending out-of-class presentations, participating in communication-relevant campus activities, etc.).

Educators must adapt their pedagogical strategies to students’ learning preferences in order to foster an equitable learning environment. Decades of research vividly demonstrate that students learn in a number of different ways. For example, research suggests that some students find learning easier if they have a visual representation or can touch and manipulate objects; others like to be given information verbally (Riding & Read, 1996). While some students focus on details, others devote more attention to more global characteristics (Nance & Foeman, 1993). How individuals perceive, organize, and remember such information is a function of their learning style.

In my own teaching, I provide students with a variety of balanced instructional strategies that sometimes match learner preferences and sometimes create a sensitive mismatch. Although we might rightly assume that instruction should always match students’ learning styles, attempting to avoid every mismatch could deny some students the opportunity to learn those intellectual and communicative skills that they would have the least opportunity of coming to know on their own. The matching approach also risks maximizing differences among students and limits them to stereotyped views of what they can accomplish (Brasch, 1994). Saracho and Spodek (1981) suggest that beginning instruction should match the students’ learning style and instruction should eventually be provided to modify the students’ learning style toward achieving cognitive flexibility. In short, I seek to promote cognitive flexibility by encouraging students to stretch their natural style preferences.

Communication is obviously central to all of the pedagogical practices described in this essay. Indeed, the degree to which we are successful in the classroom is largely dependent upon our communication skills. Research by instructional communication scholars indicates that communication behaviors such as smiling, referring to the students by their name, appropriate eye contact, vocal variety, and the use of humor are critical to effective teaching (for a more complete review of this literature, see Chesebro & McCroskey, 1998). As a result, I incorporate what I have learned about communication and instruction into all of the strategies I employ in the classroom.


Theories such as Astin’s theory of involvement give educators a framework to understand how to motivate students to embrace deep learning. It is my hope that by encouraging student-teacher contact, cooperation among students, active learning, prompt feedback, time on task, high expectations for students, and by demonstrating respect for the diverse talents and learning styles of my students, I contribute to their deep learning. Ultimately, I want students to develop a keen appreciation for the discipline of communication and all that it has to offer and to transfer the skills and knowledge they have gained to the many contexts in which they communicate on a daily basis.


Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Astin, A. W. (1984). Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Personnel, 25, 297-808.

Astin, A. W. (1996). Involvement in learning revisited: Lessons we have learned. Journal of College Student Development, 37, 123-134.

Astin, A. W. (1999). Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Development, 40, 518-529.

Brasch, R. A. (1994). Training teachers to be style sensitive. The School Administrator, 51(1), 24-25.

Chesebro,J. L., & McCroskey, J. C. (1998). The relationship between teacher clarity and immediacy and students’ experiences of state receiver apprehension when listening to teachers. Communication Quarterly, 46, 446-455.

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 39(7), 3-7.

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1991). Applying seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Greene, M. (2001). Reflections on teaching. In Richardson, V. (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (4th ed., pp. 82-89). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Kember, D., & Gow, L. (1994). Orientations to teaching and their effect on the quality of student learning. Journal of Higher Education, 65, 58-74.

King, P. M. (1996). Student cognition and learning. In Komives, S. R., Woodard, D. B., Jr., & Associates (Eds.), Student services: A handbook for the profession (3rd ed., pp. 218-243). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Nance, T., & Foeman, A. K. (1993). Rethinking the basic public speaking course for African American students and other students of color. Journal of Negro Education, 62, 448-458.

Riding, R. J., & Read, G. (1996). Cognitive style and pupil learning preferences. Educational Psychology, 16, 81-106.

Saracho, O. N., & Spodek, B. (1981). The teachers’ cognitive styles and their educational implications. Educational Forum, 45, 153-159.

Stephen K. Hunt, Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, Illinois State University, Normal, IL 61790-4480. skhunt2@ilstu.edu

Copyright Central States Speech Association Summer 2003

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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