Student engagement in the classroom can be influenced by discussion management, case content, and instructor teaching style. It is important to recognize that instructors do not need to generate high levels of energy throughout the entire class discussion to maintain engagement. Engagement can also be achieved during periods of thoughtful intensity and even silence, when moments of reflection may lead to deeper learning than that achieved in the context of heated debates.

Instructors also may heighten student engagement through the use of role plays, votes and polls, buzz groups, and class guests.

Role Plays

Role plays place students in character to approximate a first-hand experience. The instructor may decide to play one of the roles during the exchange. Role plays can be built into a teaching plan or pursued spontaneously in the class discussion. The diagram below outlines three types of role plays.

Three Stages of a Role Play

An effective role play typically requires a set-up, action, and debrief.

  • Set-up: Consider which student(s) to pick. Provide clear instructions.
  • Action: Set a time limit and stick to it. Listen for content and tone.
  • Debrief: "How realistic was the interaction?" “What was surprising?” “Why did you say/do XYZ?” “What would you have done differently?” “Why are these conversations so hard?”


In-class votes (by hand or with voting tool) and pre-class electronic surveys poll the entire section on a particular question.

Votes are typically used in conjunction with another question type, whether cold call, warm call, or volunteer.

The results of a vote – e.g. deciding to “keep or sell,” giving a company or individual a letter grade, or selecting among strategic options – can help identify the distribution of opinions within the class and determine on which students to call on.

Buzz Groups

Taking a few minutes for students to talk among themselves or practice a managerial scenario allows all students to participate and engage with class content. It can also energize and inform the next part of a discussion with specific examples or experiences.

Best Practices

  • Tell students how long they have and what will be the signal to end
  • Give students space to talk freely; don’t linger by any one group
  • Consider allowing brief "report-outs" from one or more groups afterward

Buzz groups can be particularly effective in the Executive Education classroom as participants can sometimes be reluctant to speak out in class discussions. Buzz groups enable students to engage with content and with each other to help foster relationships and energize subsequent class discussions.

Class Guests

Carefully selected, well-prepared guests provide depth and authenticity to student learning and allow students to contextualize leadership behaviors. Class guests also can benefit from insights that emerge from the class discussion.

Three ways to involve class guests:

  • Case update and guest reflections on class discussion
  • Q&A with case protagonist
  • Guest as "live case"

Preparation is Key

  1. Be clear on the pedagogical purpose of the visit – e.g., invite guests and students to wrestle with a set of questions together for shared learning
  2. Set guests' expectations of how much time they will have for their presentation and Q&A with students
  3. Coach guests on likely questions and previous relevant discussions so that their session is as valuable as possible
  4. If possible, maximize the scope of guests’ visits to campus (e.g., include lunches and student club meetings, and video record class discussions or comments for future class use)

Learning at the Extremes

Professor Frei discusses how pushing students to make decisions and defend their positions creates an engaging environment for learning.

Using a Vote to Engage the Class

Professor Garvin describes how the use of voting can help students become more engaged in the class discussion.

The Visceral Power of Role Play

Professor DeLong explains how the use of role play can create a more powerful learning experience.

Structuring Multiple-Student Role Play

Professor Garvin describes his use of role play to create natural debate.

The Quiet Moments

Ashish Nanda
Teachers may be more comfortable when the class energy is high. Professor Nanda notes, however, that good things can happen during the quiet moments.