Thinkpiece: Increasing Student Involvement in Communication Classes: An Embodied Approach

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Increasing Student Involvement in Communication Classes: An Embodied Approach

Laura L. Groves, Ph.D.

They come; they sit; they seem to simply occupy space. Unfortunately, this is often the case in lower level communication or Gen Ed requirement classes. In classes like this, we long for the spark of engagement.

Even in some classes taken by majors and minors, students stop just short of actual involvement, robbing themselves of deeper learning and short-changing classmates who are “all in.” Professors reflect on other engaged, participatory classes where real meaning and interaction took place and ask, “How did we get there…and how can we return to that model?”

Deep Learning, Embodied Practice

Deep learning and real meaning are the fruits of embodiment; this is evident not only in our classrooms but in our faith. Those who actively live and exercise their faith embody its teachings, and those around them are enriched.

As we compel students to see the implications of their learning, we propel them toward embodied practices. When we encourage students to be faithful stewards of the abilities and experiences God has afforded them, they begin to make use of their own experiences and knowledge, increasing their understanding.

Communication study, even at its most basic level, evinces the power of language, and this embodied approach to the classroom gestures toward that power. Just as similes, metaphors, and other rhetorical strategies create comparisons with two unlike things and add a layer of understanding, a student’s comparison of seemingly unrelated text information with his or her chosen field of study will deepen understanding. Learning becomes embodied as it takes on practical meaning. Embodied, authentic, practical learning allows students to connect the classroom to the lives they will live; it allows them to unite theoretical and theological concepts with what I call “the dust of life”—the daily joys and challenges of living the Christian life in the vocations and ministries in which God has placed us.

Embodiment, Faith, and Communication Studies

An embodied approach to instruction is particularly effective in the study of communication. The power of language, central to communication study at any level and revealed through rhetorical discussion, is both concrete and abstract, serving both practical and evocative ends. The practical nature of one’s language is clearly united with its abstract aspects, as it entails “thinking through how to present emotions and arguments to a particular audience through the use of symbols.” [1] This uniting of the abstract and the concrete echoes the embodied techniques of an engaged classroom where personalization and contextualization are used to serve not only communication but faith development and educational ends.

As we invite students to personalize and contextualize course information, we are compelling them to embodied learning. Linguists and cognitive scientists have questioned our ability to know without embodiment. [2] An embodied understanding is the result of brain, body, and experience, and the student involvement advocated here calls for just such a synthesis. Just as we are called as Christians to live out our beliefs, students can be compelled to synthesize their faith and learning and experience as they live out their education.

This kind of embodied learning reinforces the cohesion between body and spirit that scripture calls us to, reminding us that God uses “the dust of this earth”—the daily, the ordinary, the mundane. This approach reiterates not only God’s power in our individual lives but His purpose in what may seem the most ordinary of circumstances.

Two Practical Strategies

A look at educational research about student learning patterns opens the door to two specific strategies that can prompt student engagement, making learning more personal, valuable, and practical. Fortunately, Coffield et al. (2004) and Vermunt and Endedijk (2011) see student learning patterns not as unchangeable human traits, but they concur with Vermunt and Donche (2017) that learning patterns are “the result of the interplay between personal and contextual influences.” [3] If we can address the interplay between these influences, we can compel a more embodied educational experience. If our desire is a meaningful classroom full of engaged students, we must examine the personal and contextual influences that our classrooms provide.

I have found that I can increase the personal and contextual influences of my instruction with two practical strategies: questioning and ranking by students and student self-analysis.

Questioning and Ranking. The questioning and ranking strategy is rooted in student annotation. This enables students to personalize and contextualize the course material; when they are prompted to produce questions and comments based upon reading, lecture, and research, they are more apt to engage. Discussion is stifled when students enter the public speaking classroom without having read the assigned chapter. To duplicate all of the contents of the chapter in class would be redundant; lecture and discussion are intended to deepen the student’s individual reading. To encourage engagement, students may be required to annotate the chapter and, once in class, to copy the text of their “best annotation,” explaining why this section was particularly meaningful or enlightening. These responses can be submitted or presented, and the discussion of several of these will likely emphasize significant concepts in the reading. This discussion provides the opportunity for real-world connection, opening the door to a discussion of work, life, and faith interaction.

A similar activity that springs from annotation is to ask students to note several questions the text prompts for them. These can be emailed ahead of time or raised in class; such questions usually prompt discussion that highlights important concepts in the reading. This strategy gives students the opportunity to set aside pride or pretention and actually own any misunderstanding they may have; this often invites a sympathetic response in the classroom (“I was confused by that, too”), fostering a sense of community.

I find that students also like to play the critic, and student annotations can prepare them to assign rankings to the reading. When students are required to “rank” the reading sections prior to class, creating a “Top 10” with the most significant section as #1 and the least as #10, the resulting analysis and processing is much deeper than a cursory read would produce. In class, students can exercise their own communication skills by defending their choice of first or last or even team up with others in such a defense.

In my classroom, I often reveal my own ranking, placing it alongside the ranking of students. It is interesting to see which students realize before discussion the significance of important sections and which do not; my task is clarified as I note important sections that students have deemed least significant. These tasks not only personally involve the students but they help students contextualize the information. Students make choices concerning the importance of information for various reasons: their major, their interests, their experience. The very process of defending their choices helps them contextualize the textbook information.

Just as the questioning strategy allows for student transparency, I find that student rankings of material unmask elements of both the reading and of my students; this enables me to learn from my students, to see the reading through their eyes. The effect of their own studies, experience, and interests results in ranking choices I might not have otherwise considered, making me more aware of the mindset of various types of students; as a professor, I am reminded that each one is “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

Student Self-Analysis. The second strategy that helps my students interact with class material personally and contextually is student self-analysis. Whether students are producing an essay response or an outline, I require them to self-analyze before they receive any feedback from me. When I construct the self-analysis in a very directed and specific fashion, students are guided to analyze in a practical manner and they quickly see their own successes and shortcomings. These self-discoveries often speak volumes. When a professor points out a student’s error, the student often passively waits for an explanation of what he or she should have done. When a student notices his own error, his mind likely goes to what could have been done to avoid it; analysis is given meaning when students move from error to correction on their own.

This is embodied learning at work. If speeches are on video, students can self-analyze before receiving teacher feedback. If speeches are only live, even a quick “how do I feel about this presentation” written response can often prompt the student toward a deeper level of involvement. Reflection is a productive experience that can be humbling; giving students time to reflect underscores the importance of their individual response to the class and to their own work. As I accord time and importance to the activity of reflection, I show the value of each individual student and his or her responses.

Gestures toward God’s Power and Purpose

Increasing the interplay between personal and contextual influences in our classroom can only result in more personal, grounded learning; learning takes on an embodied nature that connects it to the individual student and his or her life and future. As students connect the classroom to their present and future, they acknowledge God’s plan and purpose. As students share more of their own lives and aspirations, community is built in the classroom and faithful engagement ensues. Surrounded by more students who are “all in,” engaged, participatory classes where real meaning and interaction take place become possible, and all are enriched by an embodied approach that gestures toward God’s power and purpose.


[1] Tim Muelhoff and Richard Langer, Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World (Downers Groves, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011) 25.

[2] George Lakhoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999); Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rorsch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991).

[3] Frank Coffield et al., Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post-16 Learning: A Systematic and Critical Review (London: Learning and Skills Research Center, 2004); Jan D. Vermunt and M.D. Endedijk, “Patterns in Teacher Learning in Different Phases of the Professional Career,” Learning and Individual Differences 21, no. 3 (2011):294-302; Jan D. Vermunt and Vincent Donche, “A Learning Patterns Perspective on Student Learning in Higher Education: State of the Art and Moving Forward,” Educational Psychology Review 29, no. 2 (2017): 269.

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