Tips for helping students engage in your course by connecting with their sense of purpose and expressing gratitude
Help students appreciate positive experiences and explore links between their coursework and their sense of purpose in life. Expressing gratitude increases positive emotion and well-being (Lyubomirsky, 2007; Emmons & McCullough, 2003), which are related to better academic performance (Keyes et al., 2012). In addition, connecting course material to one’s purpose and values benefits interest, motivation, and engagement (Harackiewicz & Priniski, 2018).
To learn about strategies that WashU instructors are using to cultivate sense of purpose, check out our Faculty Spotlight. And to find out about research at WashU exploring sense of purpose during college and for further suggestions on how instructors can support this, see our Research Spotlight.
- Create authentic assessments involving complex, real-world contexts.
- Design activities that help students connect course content to current issues, events, or civic engagement. This can take many forms, such as mock debates, historical role-playing, and reflective journaling.
- Invite outside speakers who can connect learning to civic engagement.
- Work with the Gephardt Institute to incorporate community engagement into a class. There are a variety of ways that you can do this.
- Help create a sense of awe or wonder for the course material. Example: At the beginning of your syllabus, incorporate big or essential questions in your field such as “How does language affect our thinking?” “What is truth?” “In what ways is light a particle and a wave?” “Why do people make art?”
- Make connections to students’ lives, such as how taking the course prepares students for future learning and professional work or how the course prepares them to be engaged citizens of the world and of their local communities.
- Get students in the habit of savoring the positive early on. Examples:
- Ask students to write about something they are grateful for about the start of the new semester.
- Use a poll on the first day to have students share a benefit of taking the class.
- Have students set goals for what they want to accomplish in the course. Example: “What is a skill that you want to improve on this semester?”
- Ask students to reflect on their personal strengths and how they can use those in your course.
Throughout the Semester
- Have students to spend a few minutes writing about something good that happened in the past week. You can do this periodically (e.g., once a week) or at key times (e.g., the class before an exam).
- Explicitly connect content to students’ goals and values where possible and ask students to reflect on how course content relates to their goals and values (personal, academic, or professional).
- Share how course content relates to your own goals and your broader academic field.
- Express an openness to talk informally with students about their goals and life plans.
- When going over an exam or assignment, highlight what students did well before addressing their mistakes or areas for improvement.
- Take a moment to pause during the semester and help students savor a success. Examples:
- After completing a difficult project, ask students to write for a couple minutes about something they are proud of from their work on the project.
- Encourage students to share about a success with a friend or family member.
Practicing Gratitude in Teaching
Model gratitude for your students and experience the benefits yourself!
- Keep a teaching gratitude journal. Once a week, write about one or two things from your classes that you are thankful for.
- During class, thank students for a good contribution to discussion or for asking a good question.
- When handing back an assignment or after student presentations, express gratitude for the hard work that the class put into it.
- If you have students do mid-semester reflections, such as on their class participation, comment back on those to let individual students know if you are particularly grateful for something they have done.
- In office hours, after class, or an email, thank a student for something they did.
- At the end of the semester, share about how teaching this semester benefited you and what you are grateful for. Invite students to individually reflect or share out about what they are grateful for from the semester.
Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1247
Harackiewicz, J. M., & Priniski, S. J. (2018). Improving student outcomes in higher education: The science of targeted intervention. Annual Review of Psychology, 69, 409–435. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-122216-011725
Keyes, C. L. M., Eisenberg, D., Perry, G. S., Dube, S. R., Kroenke, K., & Dhingra, S. S. (2012). The relationship of level of positive mental health with current mental disorders in predicting suicidal behavior and academic impairment in college students. Journal of American College Health, 60(2), 126-133. https://doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2011.608393
Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want. New York, NY: Penguin Books.