A Review of Barkley’s “Student Engagement Techiques”

Before deciding to purchase this book, I saw that my college library had a copy. Thinking I could take a “test drive,” I stopped by to pick it up. Despite looking on every applicable shelf and researching their checkout database, the library staff never found the book. So, I had no choice but to buy a copy. After reading it, I’ve concluded that someone must have taken the book because I believe every faculty member should have one. It’s well organized, starting with a strong theoretical foundation, moving to desirable teacher practices, and then to a large collection of in-class exercises.

The theoretical framework argues student engagement is a synergistic relationship between motivation and active learning. The book describes relevant theories on each of these but goes farther by suggesting that the two factors should be viewed as a double helix which creates increasingly powerful levels of engagement when three integrative conditions are present in the classroom: students feel they are part of a community of learners, students are working at their optimal level of challenge, and the teacher promotes holistic learning in the cognitive, affective, and psychomotor domains. The section concludes with a discussion of other engagement considerations with a special focus on engagement as defined by the NSSE. I have only one criticism of the book. It’s in this section, and it’s admittedly nit-picking. I did not feel that the discussion on the neurological processes in the brain were necessary. The theoretical arguments were convincing enough. With the foundation, firmly in place, Barkley moves to the second section of the book on teacher practices.

Adhering to the framework, she organized these “tips and strategies” by the five main features of the engagement theory: motivation, active learning, creating community, optimally challenging, and holistic learning. In all she has fifty tips and strategies, which she codes T/S 1 through T/S 50. I doubt the author, who discussed the fact that the average human can remember only five to nine items at one time, believes that any faculty member would be able to remember all fifty. Rather, I think she divided the tips and strategies into the five categories so they could help faculty members on an as-needed basis. Having trouble motivating your students for an 8AM course which is not only required but one that students don’t think they need? Simply look for the relevant tips and strategies. With the theoretical foundation and support beams of tips and practices in place, she built the final and most useful section, a collection of in-class instructional techniques.

These student engagement techniques (SETS) are organized into two general categories. The first category, course-related knowledge and skills, provides techniques designed to improve engagement on cognitive tasks such as problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity. The second category, attitudes, values and self-awareness, provides techniques designed to improve affective and study skills. Barkley presents fifty SETS in cookbook fashion so that a faculty member interested in promoting student recall and understanding can review seven SETS related to that particular cognitive skill. The SETS include a description, detailed procedures, examples, online considerations, possible variations, and observations/advice on any pitfalls or caveats. I was particularly happy with the use of examples. As a context learner, the descriptions and procedures, although useful, would not be enough for me. I enjoyed reading actual examples of how faculty members used each SET in classrooms. I was also pleased to see advice on using these techniques in an on-line environment, an increasingly important avenue for delivering higher education. Finally, Barkley made the wise decision to include some warnings and caveats about these techniques.

Barkley’s book is useful, easy to read, and well-organized. I’m glad it’s on my shelf. I’m looking forward to using it when I teach as an adjunct. For those currently teaching, I hope it’s not only on the shelf, but is sometimes on the desk and well-worn from constant use.


4 thoughts on “A Review of Barkley’s “Student Engagement Techiques”

  1. Mike,
    I like how refer to the 8am class. When I first started at Alabama, I remember thinking how lucky students here were that they would never have to take a 7:30am class. At my undergrad institution, the earliest classes were at 7:30am, and you were practically guaranteed to have at least one (I don’t know anyone who didn’t have at least one during their degree program). Mind was an advanced stats course on regression, and the professor often forgot something every morning we had class (a writing utensil, a calculator, etc.). I used to joke with my friends that the class was even too early for him, though I did really enjoy that class and the professor. It’s just rough talking statistics at 7:30 am, particularly in the winter before we spring ahead again.

    But I agree with you, that the tips may be especially helpful for those classes that are early morning, late night, or right around meals. (I TA’d a class last semester that was at 5pm and it was rough because that’s right about dinnertime for a lot of people. People don’t focus well when they start getting hungry.)


  2. Mike – I had to laugh at your story, and really enjoyed you sharing it with all of us!

    I agree that “someone must have taken the book because I believe every faculty member should have one.” Hopefully, the book’s new owner is putting it to good use, right??

    I also found it well organized and loved the 50 recommendations, chunked into five sections.

    To Teagen’s point, time of day can be tough … I can’t learn or focus if I am hungry or sleepy! Laura


  3. Mike, I agree that Barkley’s text is a useful reference for any teacher’s teaching library. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been planning a class and wished I had a list of helpful motivation techniques. It’s a shame you weren’t able to find a copy at the library, but hopefully, you’ll be able to put your brand new copy to good use. 🙂


  4. What a great way to start a review. And I can tell you that Elizabeth loved it! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on what worked, and what did not, in the book. Your comments have been noted 🙂


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