Proactive instructors boost student engagement

To initiate conversations or wait for students to come to you?

In the physics classroom, this is a question that many inexperienced (and probably some experienced) instructors wrestle with.

In a new paper Ido Roll and myself show that the answer is that you should initiate conversations. By observing Teaching Assistants (TAs) and students in a first-year physics lab, we show that proactive TAs enhance student engagement. The money plot, given here, shows that lab sections with a higher frequency of TA-student interactions also had a higher level of student engagement. The connecting factor is that this correlation is explained entirely by TA-initiated interactions (ones which did not begin by a student getting the attention of the TA). So, being a proactive instructor can boost student engagement (and, indirectly, learning).

Sections with a higher frequency of TA-student interactions saw higher levels of student engagement.

Each point is a lab section in a large first-year physics course. Sections with a higher frequency of TA-student interactions saw higher levels of student engagement.

Proactive interactions work for both the students and the instructor. The students get a reduced barrier to instructor access, so they can get the help and support they need. The instructor gets important feedback about how the students are doing, so they can keep their finger on the pulse of the classroom.

But, perhaps the most beautiful part is that this research doesn’t prescribe the standard “tastes bad but is good for you” medicine. Students value proactive instructors. How do I know? Well, I asked the students.

At the end of my term as a TA in an interactive lecture, I asked the students for opinions on my practices. I provided two guiding questions: 1. What did Jared do well to support your learning in the lecture? 2. What else could he have done?

Being proactive and initiating conversations–something I deliberately focused on given the results of my research–was identified as useful by 30% of the students. This was the second most frequently mentioned behaviour, after the expected comment about helping with physics questions.


In addition to these positive comments, the most criticisms I got were about not reaching enough people.


So the research shows a bump in engagement with increased instructor attention and the students themselves say that proactive interactions are useful. If this all isn’t good enough, the kicker is that it’s extremely easy to get students to talk to you.

My main strategy is to open with a generic (i.e. not necessarily physics related) question, like “How’s it going?” Students can take this wherever they need. Sometimes it’s, “Yep, I think I’m getting it,” and I move on. Other times, it’s, “Actually, I’m having troubles here…” and I jump into tutoring mode. It’s much easier for a student who’s getting it and doing fine to tell you they don’t need help than it is for some students who are having troubles to seek you out when they do need help.

In summary, the answer is definitely that you should initiate conversations. Be confident in yourself, help students, boost engagement, and be proactive.



  1. […] lab and students’ engagement (full citation below). The author, Jared, also recently wrote a blog post summarizing the study. I definitely recommend checking out his post and paper, but I wanted to provide my own comments on […]

  2. Hi Jared,

    Great post, as always. I understand that increased student engagement is always a desirable outcome in the sphere of education (because it’s an indirect measure of learning). My question is if there’s a quantitative way to measure learning in these sorts of observational studies. I’m not as familiar with education research literature as you might be – are there ways engagement has previously been connected to learning?

    I guess I’m asking if the students who benefited from these increased-quantity of TA interactions actually a) did better in the class, b) demonstrated deeper understanding of concepts, c) retained these concepts in future years, or d) all of the above?

    1. Hi Chad,

      The typical way learning is measured in the studies is via a pre/post test, which is supposed to assess the desired learning outcomes of the course (or lab or project or whatever). In fact, that’s what we had in this study. Specifically, we did a pre/post test of lab skills, given to the students in the first week of class and in the last week of class. We found that, controlling for performance on the pre-test, labs which had a higher average level of engagement tended to perform better on the post-test (engagement was significantly positively correlated with post-test). So part of our results was that engagement was connected to learning in this context. (This was a part that I didn’t emphasize above.) This type of connection has also been shown in a few different places, like in lecture and in online tutoring systems (references within

      So TA-student interactions are important for engagement and engagement is important for learning.

      However, the stats aren’t robust enough to conclude that TA-student interactions are directly related to learning, in this case. This is probably because it’s kind of a second order process, mediated through learning, and also because of all the other factors that might be important for learning. In short, it’s a really messy system.

      So, to answer your questions in the final paragraph, we can’t say directly that the students who benefited from these increased quantity of TA interactions learned any more. But we can say that lab sections that had a higher overall engagement demonstrated better understanding as measured by a lab skills test. (In this study, we didn’t look at their course grades [everyone does well in this lab] and we did not do any follow-up test in future years.)

      For me, this is enough of a result to get out there and talk to students.


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