Using Teaching Techniques to Engage Students

In this section, Dr. Brittany Charlton shares teaching techniques she uses to engage students during class sessions.

I draw on various teaching techniques to engage students. For example, I use the seminal work of David Kolb (1974) to ensure students work through the entire “cycle of learning.” This starts with “concrete experiences,” which provide a basis for “reflective observations.” These observations and reflections are assimilated and distilled into “abstract concepts” that can be “actively tested.” I also use techniques outlined by Jo Handelsman et al. (2006) in Scientific Teaching

As an example of some of these techniques, I begin each session by arranging the classroom in a large semi-circle to encourage discussion and easier movement into smaller groups, as needed. When students arrive, they come to the front of the room to pick up their pre-printed nametag and any in-class materials that we’ll use that day. The nametags encourage students to use each other’s names throughout the session and this brief interaction with me over picking up materials at the front of the room allows us to connect with one another individually.

Discussion leaders not only have the opportunity to engage with the materials more deeply than usual but also to practice their own teaching and leadership skills.

— Brittany Charlton

Next, I open the session by briefly mentioning what we covered in the previous session and how our new session will build on that material. Students complete a non-graded “mini quiz” based on that previous material. For this “mini quiz,” I read six statements aloud and ask students to write down whether (and why) each statement is true or false. The statements are also projected on a slide overhead so that students can re-read each statement. We then go over each one of these statements and I have students raise their hands to indicate if they thought the statement was true or false. From those raised hands, I call on a few students to outline their thinking process. Whenever there is a lot of disagreement, students are asked to turn to a neighboring classmate to discuss the issue before we return to a larger group discussion.

Each session varies in how we cover that day’s content, particularly since each day has both a different substantive topic area (e.g., mental health, abortion) as well as a new methodological topic (e.g., study designs, bias). Didactic lectures are limited and instead we draw on other activities such as short videos and in-class exercises (done individually and in small groups).

One student is assigned to give a brief summary of any reading assignments and three other students are charged with leading the rest of the discussion. These discussion leaders not only have the opportunity to engage with the materials more deeply than usual but also to practice their own teaching and leadership skills. Every other student has prepared a one-page reading reflection, which helps sustain the discussion momentum.

Finally, I end each session by having students anonymously write any final thoughts on an index card that they turn into me. This gives students an outlet to evaluate any aspects of the course that are, or are not, working well in addition any substantive comments/questions.


Handlesman, Jo., Sarah Miller, and Christine Pfund. Scientific Teaching. W. H. Freeman, 2006. ISBN: 978-1429201889

Kolb, David A. and Ronald E. Fry. Toward an Applied Theory of Experiential Learning. MIT Alfred P. Sloan School of Management, 1974.