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Teaching Strategies: Engaging Your Students

Five core areas for effective teaching are introduced in this section and include lectures, discussions, group-based learning, experiential learning, and writing. As mentioned previously, to be most effective professors will want to utilize a mix of strategies to maximize student involvement and learning.


The lecture is often synonymous with teaching. Despite a recognition that other teaching methods have been shown to be more effective in influencing student retention of the material, lectures are still appropriate for 1) presenting up-to-date information not currently contained in textbooks or a single source, 2) summarizing material gathered from numerous sources, and 3) adapting the material to a specific context or framework (Nilson, 2010; Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014). When using a visual aid such as PPT, it is best to mix in the use of diagrams, videos, and illustrations in lieu of (or at the very least in addition to) lengthy excerpts or copious presentation notes (Clark, 2008; Giers & Kreiner, 2009). Further, given students’ attention span has been shown to depreciate considerably after 15-minutes of lecture it would be wise to pause and engage in an alternative teaching strategy such as a discussion or student pairs to review the material at regular intervals (Nilson, 2010). 


Discussions are useful for engaging students in the material and encouraging them to think more deeply about an issue or concept (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014). It also allows the professor to assess student understanding and performance. To have a productive discussion, however, it requires that students be prepared to talk about the material. One means to ensure their preparedness is to issue a quiz at the start of the class. Others have used online discussion boards in which students were required to post a response and respond to another student’s post prior to class. Consider also setting ground rules for the discussion (e.g., order in which students will respond) and be prepared to refocus the group as needed when they deviate from the question or issue presented (Nilson, 2010).

Several approaches to starting a discussion can be utilized including the use of a common experience (e.g., from a video, excerpt in the textbook), identifying a controversy (e.g., in the news), identifying a problem, or posing a question. Questions can be factual, require application and interpretation, concern connective and causal effect, comparative, evaluative, or critical in nature (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014).

Finally, consider the benefit of student-led discussion groups in which groups of students discuss the material independent of the professor’s input. Research has shown that students are more open to engaging in discussions when they are not confronted by the presence of an expert (i.e., the professor) (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014). Such an approach can also be conducted using online discussion boards.

Group-Based Learning

While lectures and discussions are useful for introducing information, they are not the best for demonstrating “how” to actually do something. Active learning remedies this need by encouraging students to work through problems with their peers (Jones, 2006). Peer tutoring for example enhances learning by allowing the student to teach the material (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014). Another approach is the “learning cell” in which students take turns asking and answering questions (Goldschmid, 1971). An alternative approach is known as Think-Pair-Share. In this case, the professor asks the class a single question and students get into pairs to form an answer, sharing their response with the entire class.

Another strategy is known as syndicate-based peer learning in which students are broken into teams of four-to-eight individuals (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014). Each group (or syndicate) is given a separate assignment of about four questions with a list of readings. The group may determine they would like to split the workload. Their findings are then presented to the class. The “jigsaw” approach is similar in terms of groupings and assignments, but instead of presenting to the class, one member from each group forms a new group (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014). The students teach each other their respective sections of the assignment and then present a comprehensive overview to the entire class.

Such group learning approaches can be adapted for use in an online environment as well through email and discussion boards (Romiszowski & Mason, 2004). One advantage of online groups is that the discussions can occur synchronously (at the same time) or asynchronously (students can contribute at different times), allowing for greater flexibility in participation (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014). This is particularly useful for working professionals who are taking classes. Other large group-based models to consider include team-based learning and learning communities (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014). 

Experiential Learning

A common criticism of colleges and universities is that what they teach in the classroom doesn’t translate to application in the field. To remedy this dilemma a greater effort has been placed on experiential learning opportunities. Teaching options include the case method, problem-based learning, simulations, and field experiences (Nilson, 2010; Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014). Adapted from the business and legal fields, cases represent written descriptions of real-world problems. Students review the case briefs and attempt to come up with solutions, often associated with numerous potential outcomes and considerations. Problem-based learning can be considered an extension of the case method. Whereas the case method may have no discernable real-world outcome, problem-based exercises include a full account of the issue and the solution that was implemented. Typically professors provide students only with enough information to propose a solution and reserve the actual solution and outcome for later discussion.

Simulations may also be available that allow students to role-play in an interactive environment. For example, firearms training simulations place officers in difficult decision-making positions in an attempt to replicate real-world interactions with individuals. Finally, field experience is highly regarded in criminal justice and includes internships, observations, community service, and service-learning opportunities (Davis, 2015; George, Lim, Lucas, & Meadows, 2015; Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014).


Even among practitioners, effective writing has been identified as one of the most important skills that students should obtain from college (Garland & Matz, 2016). While some associate writing with 15-page class papers, there are numerous alternative methods that can be used to reduce the burden on students and professors while still developing better writing abilities. These alternatives can be divided between high-stakes and low-stakes assignments (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014).

High-stakes writing assignments contribute considerably to a student’s overall grade and may include lengthy term papers. Professors can improve student writing by requiring students to write multiple papers and multiple drafts (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014). Ideally, the assignment of multiple shorter papers or assignments offers greater opportunities for development than one large term paper. Rubrics are useful resources for providing feedback and can help focus a professor’s attention on important areas. Indeed, professors’ time for reading and reviewing papers will be limited and a strategy will be necessary to do so effectively. For some, it may be useful to separate a content review from a spelling and grammar review. 

Low-stakes writing assignments are often ungraded and may consist of “minute papers,” journals, or online discussion board contributions (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014). Such assignments help students explore the course’s content, contemplate the issues discussed in the course, and also improve the writing on higher stakes writing assignments. Finally, it’s good practice for the students and requires little follow-up or review by the professor if discussed in-class.

Recommended Readings

Clark, J. (2008). PowerPoint and pedagogy: Maintaining student interest in university lectures. College Teaching, 56(1), 39-44.

Davis, J. (2015). Engaging criminal justice students through service learning. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 26(3), 253-272.

George, M., Lim, H., Lucas, S., & Meadows, R. (2015). Learning by doing: Experiential learning in criminal justice. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 26(4), 471-492.

Giers, V., & Kreiner, D. (2009). Incorporating active learning with PowerPoint-based lectures using content-based questions. Teaching of Psychology, 36(2), 134-139.

Jones, M., & Bonner, H. S. (2016). What should criminal justice interns know? Comparing the opinions of student interns and criminal justice practitioners. Journal of Criminal Justice Education. Advance online publication. doi:10.1080/10511253.2016.1143519

Jones, P. R. (2006). Using groups in criminal justice courses: Some new twists on a traditional pedagogical tool. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 17(1), 87-102.

Odom, S., & Helfers, R. C. (2016). Improving criminal justice students’ writing outcomes through systematic writing instruction. Journal of Criminal Justice Education. Advance online publication. doi:10.1080/10511253.2016.1148749

Svinicki, M. D., & McKeachie, W. J. (2014). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (14th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.