Academic Exchange Quarterly  Fall 2012 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 16, Issue 3

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Engaging Students: Strategies for Digital Natives


Katherine J. Janzen, Mount Royal University

Beth Perry, Athabasca University

Margaret Edwards, Athabasca University


Janzen, MN, is Assistant Professor Faculty of Health and Community Studies, Perry, PhD is Professor Faculty of Health Disciplines, and Edwards, PhD, is Dean and Professor Faculty of Health Disciplines, Athabasca University.



What do millennial learners want most in their classes? Research demonstrates that engagement is a high priority for students and one of the biggest challenges for educators. Traditional instruction has been dominated by a lecture format for centuries. Engaging students requires a shift towards innovative, interactive pedagogies. Strategies utilized to promote engagement in a second year nursing theory course are described.


A vast number of post-secondary students today can be described as digital natives (Van Eck, 2006). For the digital native, technology is omnipresent and penetrates almost every facet of students’ out-of-school lives (Prensky, 2010). Faced with traditional forms of instruction, digital natives are bored and restless—resulting in high rates of absenteeism and academic incompletion (Kim & Bonk, 2006; Young, 2011; Van Eck, 2006).

What do digital natives want most? To be engaged (Soria & Stebleton, 2012; Svanum & Bigatti, 2009). Despite this plea, study after study reports that student disengagement prevails in our post-secondary educational system (Van Eck, 2006; Houston & George-Jackson, 2012; Kuh, 2007; Soria & Stebleton, 2012; Svanum & Bigatti, 2009). The solution prescribed by Van Eck (2006) may be to “find [the] synergy between pedagogy and engagement” (pp. 1-2).

The purpose of this paper is to investigate solutions to student disengagement in today’s face-to-face (F2F) classroom. To more fully understand engagement, a review of related literature explores of the interrelated concepts of ‘traditional instruction,’ ‘engagement,’ and ‘innovative pedagogy.’  Janzen’s Quantum Perspective of Learning (Janzen, Perry & Edwards, 2011a; 2012; Perry, Edwards, Janzen & Menzies, 2012) is briefly described as a theoretical framework for creating innovative pedagogical strategies for students.  Five innovative strategies that were utilized to promote engagement in a second year nursing F2F theory course are presented.

Literature Review

Traditional Instruction

The roots of traditional instruction are attributed to the ancient Greeks and recorded in history prior to the Persian Wars in 475 BC (Cubberley, 2004). Cubberley notes that first formal lessons started at age seven. Lessons were given by a pedagogue who was typically an elderly slave who instructed boys in literacy and music. This individual instruction employed receiving and reciting lessons “by a telling and learning-by-heart procedure” (p.26). Isocrates (436-338 BC) established the first known classrooms with an emphasis on organizing “instruction… into a well graded sequence of studies with definite aims and work” (p. 38). Eventually professorships evolved and universities were created (Cubberley, 2004) propagating a lecture format which has continued in institutions of greater learning for millennia (Shachar & Neumann, 2003). 

The first known use of the word ‘lecture’ comes from the Greek word legein from the works of Homer which means to “say, speak, tell or declare” (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2012, para 3). Academic lecturing conventionally encompasses teacher-speaking and student-listening/taking notes where “interaction between the professor and student [is] viewed as an essential learning element within this arrangement” (Shachar & Neumann, 2003, p. 1). “Traditional teaching methods [in the 21st century] include…. textbooks, didactic lecture with or without PowerPoint presentations, objective testing…. and student critique” (McCurry & Martins, 2010, p. 276). Limitations of lecture include minimal use of technology and lecture-based learning “involves knowing rather than doing” (p. 277).

Killian (2004) cites additional limitations of the lecture format. These include not being able to control the pace of individualized learning, restricted opportunity for creative learning, the inability to attend to individualized learning needs, the production of “passive learning behaviors,” and the presence of primarily “extrinsic rewards for student motivation” (p. 210). Further, lectures limit opportunities for students to reflect and can be “marred by power structures” where the discussion is dominated by either the teacher or specific students leaving the majority of students silent (Pederson, 2004, p. 166)

While lecture is considered to be “time honored” and “revered” in academia (Killian, 2004, p. 209), there has been a call for educators to eliminate lecture as the principal method of instruction (Lang, 2006; Lo, 2010). Lecture is felt to severely restrict deep learning and presents a “one way [passive] passage” rather than an “active passage” to learning (p. 239). Today’s learners want more from their classroom experience than lecturing, as a sole approach, can provide (Lang, 2006). What millennial learners (individuals born after 1982) are really seeking is engagement.


Millennial learners are much different than their predecessors. According to Statistics Canada, these Generation Y (Gen Y) learners make up 75% of all post-secondary students (Dale, 2010).  Gen Y learners have grown up in a digital world where computers and technological advances are ubiquitous. Ninety seven percent of these students own a computer (Junco & Mastrodicasa, 2007), 99.8% possess a cell phone (Ziegler, 2011), 97% utilize instant messaging (De Jonge & Kemp, 2012), and 86% are active on Facebook (Alexander, 2011). Rapid developments in technology presents educational institutions with students who have experienced “increased mobility, social networking, mass media, globalization and multiculturalism [which has] amplified [the] learner’s social connections and their exposure to diverse practices… resources and an unprecedented amount of autonomy in their own learning experiences” (O’Neill, 2010, p. 26).

Disengagement is reported to be one of the most pervasive challenges in education today (Parsons & Taylor 2011). Research estimates that between 25% (Willms, 2003) and 66% (Cothran & Ennis, 2000) of students are disengaged in classrooms making engagement a salient issue for millennial learners. While traditional pedagogy has been deemed ‘tried and true’ for centuries, Kim and Bonk (2006) note that “bored students are dropping out of… classes while pleading for richer and more engaging experiences” (p. 22). Further, students question the value attending F2F class when they can access class notes or PowerPoint presentations online (Young, 2011). Van Eck (2006) sees that one of the primary causes of this is that “digital natives [have] become disengaged with traditional instruction” (p. 1). In response to this trend, students are beginning to require and even demand alternative instructional approaches (Brown, Kirkpatrick, Mangum & Avery, 2008).

Students desire entertainment, excitement, technology, teamwork, structure, interactivity, and experiential activities (Cardenar, 2011; McCurry & Martins, 2010). As digital natives, millennial learners “require multiple streams of information, prefer inductive reasoning, want frequent and quick interactions with content, and have exceptional visual literacy skills” (Van Eck, 2006, pp. 1-2). Ultimately, students desire ‘flow’ (Van Eck, 2006; Liao, 2006). 

Flow is described as a process of  engagement in/with a mental, physical (or both) activity which necessitates a “level of immersion that causes [students] to lose track of time and the outside world, when [students] are performing at an optimal level” (Van Eck, 2006, p. 11). Van Eck describes this immersion occurring in a learning environment where cognitive disequilibrium and resolution exist in a constant and continuous cyclical manner. The dance of disequilibrium and resolution require a sense of psychological investment, challenges and obstacles, and culminate in a positive sense of accomplishment for students (AISI, 2012). While some educators are able to create this sense of flow utilizing a lecture format (Olorunnisola, Ramasubramanian, Russill & Dumas, 2003), given the high degree of student disengagement with this traditional form of instruction, there is a call for educators to renew emphasis on developing innovative and interactive pedagogy to enhance flow (Hernandez-Ramos & La Pas, 2009).

Innovative Pedagogy

Teaching practices can “have a powerful effect on [active] engagement [and] student motivation” (AISI, 2011, para 3). Pedagogies that are engaging are characterized by inspiring critical thinking, immersion in disciplinary inquiry, authenticity and relevancy, interaction, meaningful involvement, and intellectual rigour (AISI, 2011). Mandernach, Forrest, Babutzke and Manker (2009) report that the “mode of delivery, [whether it be online or F2F] is not as influential as the instructor’s level of interactivity in promoting active engagement with the course materials” (p. 49). Active engagement, coupled with an ability of the teachers to “know and connect with students” within the learning environment, creates a milieu where partnerships are formed between students and teachers (Brown et al., 2008, p. 283). Highly interactive partnerships between students and instructor, among students, and between students and course materials result (Sugar, Martindale & Crawley, 2007).

While no pedagogy is considered superior (Killian, 2004), “educators are challenged to use the best of the old and the best of the new as they reform the way they teach to enhance… education” (Brown et al., 2008, p. 285; Cardenar, 2011). The key to successful teaching lies in finding and enhancing the synergy which exists between pedagogy and engagement (Van Eck, 2006). Utilizing the most effectual teaching technologies to potentiate this synergic relationship (Steinweg, Davis & Thomson, 2005) helps reduce the divide between engagement and disengagement.

Theoretical Foundations

To further understand engagement, Janzen’s (Janzen et al., 2011a; 2012; Edwards et al., 2012) Quantum Perspective of Learning (QL) suggests that learning is multidimensional and occurs on multiple planes simultaneously. Further, the potential for learning, which is patterned after holographic/holistic realities, is infinite. Hence, learning environments become living systems that grow, adapt, and evolve. Engagement is a large part of the dynamic processes within the classroom to which learning is connected. 

QL is based upon the assumption that students are multidimensional beings. Learners do not simply learn in a single dimension such as social or cognitive realms. Janzen et al. (2012) propose that the quantum dimensions of cognition, corporeality, experience, behaviour, sociality, spirituality, technology, emotions, and culture become the cues and conduits of student engagement (see Figure 1). Simply put, the more quantum dimensions that an educator can reach, potentially the more engaged students will become. This engagement involves student ‘doing’ rather than merely passively ‘listening.’ Multidimensional interaction (teacher-student, student-student, student-content) is posited to promote deep learning. Creative and innovative strategies have the potential to reach multiple dimensions enhancing engagement and learning.                

Practical Application of Quantum Perspective of Learning: Strategies to Promote Engagement

The assumptions of QL are readily transferrable to the F2F classroom through the use of Artistic Pedagogical Technologies (APTs) (Perry & Edwards, 2010; Perry, Janzen & Edwards, 2012) and other creative strategies. APTs are teaching strategies founded in the arts and may include elements of music, literature, poetry, visual arts, and drama (Perry et al., 2012). These teaching technologies provide a real and authentic medium for students to engage with instructors, one another, technology, and educational content (Janzen et al., 2011a; 2011b; 2012). Further, APTs create inviting learning environments, initiate, sustain and enhance interaction between students and instructors, and help to develop community (Perry & Edwards, 2010; 2012).

Thirteen innovative teaching technologies (APTs and other creative strategies) were utilized in a second year nursing course which centered on theoretical foundations of nursing. In this particular course, concepts such as human health experience, safety, legal issues in nursing, ethics, and death and dying were covered.  Students who had taken these classes in the past had reported that the content can be boring and as a result absenteeism was high (M. Kalia & A. Kalia, personal communication, January 9, 2012). This is consistent with literature that high absenteeism rates reflect student disengagement (Kim & Bonk, 2006, Young, 2011; Van Eck, 2006). Reaching for a solution, it was posited that engaging students with the instructor, peers, and the content might begin to ameliorate disengagement and associated absenteeism. Five of the 13 teaching strategies are described that were utilized to help increase engagement in the classroom. 

Strategy One: Courtroom Scenes

Content related to legal issues in nursing necessitated a strategy other than lecture. In an effort to engage students in multiple QL dimensions (corporeality, experiential, cognitive, behavioural, and social dimensions) the “Courtroom Scenes” teaching activity was created. The class activity began with students being divided into four groups. Each group received a sealed envelope which contained adhesive name tags, an instructor-created scenario, and activity instructions. The students were aware that each of the scenarios was drawn from real-life law suits. Groups were given 20 minutes to prepare to present their courtroom scene to the class. Students chose a role for each group member consistent with roles in a real courtroom. Each role was written on each student’s name tag so it was clear to other students what role individuals were playing.  Roles included: plaintiff, defendant, prosecution, defence, jury members, and a judge.

During the courtroom case activity, plaintiffs and defendants (along with corresponding lawyers) had to create a viable courtroom case with three questions and rebuttals to examine and cross examine. Juries were to deliberate on the case itself using principles drawn from pre-reading materials about legalities in Canada. The students used laptop computers to access pre-class reading materials to substantiate their knowledge and the claims that they would make during the court case enactment. Judges awarded damages. 

While students were preparing their cases, the instructor created a physical set up of a courtroom in the classroom including places for the jury, plaintiffs, defendants, lawyers, and the judge to sit.  Each place was labelled with a small placard which designated the corresponding role of the person occupying each place. Judges utilized a gavel to promote order in the court and to aid in the pronouncement of decisions. Each group of students then dramatized their court room scene.  Commonly lawyers objected to questions and judges called for order in the court.  Each of the four courtroom scenes culminated in the instructor informing the students about the outcomes of the actual law suits. 

Strategy Two: Ethics-opoly

Post-instructional games assist students to assess and synthesize learning (Van Eck, 2006). In a class related to ethics, the game of Ethics-opoly was created by the instructor (Janzen, created/used 2012) to solidify concepts presented. The game, patterned after Monopoly, had properties to buy and sell which corresponded to terms common to ethics such as ‘Beneficence Bay’ and ‘Non-Maleficence Meadows.’ The goal of the game was to collect properties valued in ‘Ethic$ Buck$.’ The game winner accumulated the most ‘Ethic$ Buck$.’ As players landed on game squares they drew cards where were labelled either ‘Ethics Cards’ or ‘Values Cards.’ The cards provided opportunities for students to test their knowledge of ethics and created opportunities for players to discuss ethical decision making in their nursing practice. For example, an ethics card might read, “Define nonmaleficence — Advance two squares for correct answer.”  A values card might read, “Your personal values conflict with the actions of a client you are caring for. Describe the course of action you will take.  Move three squares.” Forty five minutes was allotted to each Ethics-opoly game. There were no more than 8 participants per game group. This learning strategy employed QL dimensions of sociality, cognition, and culture.

Strategy Three: Photovoice

Photovoice, the teaching strategy, was pioneered by Perry and Edwards (2010) for use in the online learning environments. Photovoice involves the posting of a photographic image and a corresponding reflective question drawn from course content. Students are invited to respond to the reflective question in writing. Photovoice is not graded.  

Photovoice was undertaken during a lecture about safety and focused on cultural, social, technology, and cognitive dimensions of QL. For this activity a photographic image of a nurse in hospital taking a patient’s pulse was posted on a PowerPoint slide. The accompanying question, posted on the same slide was, “How will I develop professional relationships in clinical to keep me, my patients, and my colleagues safe?” Students took an average of 15 minutes to write personal responses and were invited to share their responses the class. This process helped promote individual and collective student-content and student-student engagement. Photovoice prompted active learning which included problem-solving, cognitive information gathering, critical thinking and self-expression (Olorunnisola et al., 2003).

Strategy Four: Narratives/Parallel Poetry

Narrative pedagogy, while not a new concept in education, serves as “an adjunct to course content [and] focuses on processes such as teaching, interpreting and analyzing concepts, ideas and situations” (Brown et al., 2008, p. 283). Narrative pedagogy assists instructors to “know and connect with students and becomes to focus of the learning environment” (p. 283).  Brown et al. cite that partnerships are formed between students and instructors in a public milieu for the purpose of sharing and interpreting experience. Narratives can complement and provide a segue for parallel poetry. Narratives as well as parallel poetry are felt to center on spiritual, cultural, experiential, and emotional quantum dimensions of QL. In parallel poetry, the instructor presents a poem (one of their own or another’s poem) and students are invited to write the last one or two stanzas of the poem.

In a lecture devoted to exploring ethics, the instructor told the story of an elderly gentleman who she had cared for as a new graduate nurse. The patient had an infected amputation of his left femur and a revision of the stump was badly needed.  Unfortunately the surgeon and the patient’s son had argued and the surgeon refused to do the surgery. A dressing change was required each day. During this procedure, the man would scream repeatedly despite Morphine being administered prior to the dressing change. Being a new graduate, the now instructor, did not know what to do ethically as she knew the man was in agony and yet having the surgery seemed impossible. 

After telling the story, the instructor presented a poem she had written based on this experience. The students were invited to write one or two stanzas to complete the instructors’ poem. The students were given 15 minutes for this activity and were subsequently invited to share their feelings about their stanzas. Learners expressed a sense of sadness resulting from the inability to change the outcome for this man. The instructor then shared the actual outcome of the situation, noting that the actions she took enabled the man to have surgery and resulted in a significant pain decrease. This activity assisted students to know that they could act as patient advocates and that even as second year students they could influence patient outcomes.

Strategy Five: Obituaries/Music

In a lecture related to death and dying, the instructor played a YouTube music video by Sarah McLaughlin entitled “I Will Remember You.” Students were asked what they would want to be remembered for and then were invited to write their own obituaries. The scenario for their obituary was that they were 92 years old and had lived a productive life. Students knew that their own obituaries were a personal activity that would not be shared with the class. Quantum dimensions that were captured in this activity included spirituality, culture, emotion, cognition, technology, and corporeality. The students took 20 minutes for this activity. Upon completion, a powerful discussion ensued that focused on what dying patients might want to be remembered for and nursing interventions to assist patients to come to terms with not only their lives, but also their deaths.


In this paper, concepts of traditional instruction, engagement and innovative pedagogy were explored using relevant literature. Janzen’s QL provided a theoretical framework. Five strategies to promote student engagement that were employed in a second year nursing theory course were described. 


The face of education is changing. Embracing this change presents opportunities for educators to develop new and innovative pedagogies that not only engage, but also facilitate interactivity between students, teachers, technology and content. This shift may assist in decreasing the epidemic of disengagement that exists in the post-secondary learning environment. The authors challenge educators to move beyond lecture as a primary form of instruction and to reach the multiple QL dimensions that have the capacity to influence, inspire, and engage millennial learners.





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