Connection, Communication, and Impact for Reengaging Students

By:  Mary Douglass Smith, PharmD, Kathryn J. Smith PharmD, BCACP, Ashley Benedict, PharmD Candidate

So much has been said about the decline of student engagement across the educational domain, and pharmacy education is no different.1 No teacher likes to show up to an empty classroom or, worse, a room full of distracted students. While concerns about student engagement aren’t likely to be solved by a sole faculty member, there are steps individual faculty can take to increase the likelihood that students are ready to learn and discuss content in your course. Our goal here is to discuss three practical strategies with low prep work/cost and simple implementation which can impact engagement in your classroom.2 

Strategy #1: Connect with students, human to human. Just as faculty members have busy lives outside the classroom, so do our students. Sharing these human experiences can build connections between you and your students in authentic ways.3 Take time on the first day of class to share about who you are, where you went to school, where you practice pharmacy, even hobbies you have outside of work. You can share your professional biography, and ask students to create something similar about themselves. This could be written, video, or another format – anything to open the door to conversation and connection. Capitalizing on moments to humanize each other builds on this momentum as faculty members recognize and admit all the obligations on each and the opportunity to give each other grace and generosity. 

Strategy #2: Tell them and tell them again. The syllabus and learning management system (LMS) provide structure and information for the planned layout of the course. But with heavy course loads, work schedules, and family scheduling, students can benefit from reminders to keep them plugged in. A simple weekly email or video sharing the plan for the week (content, activities, due dates) shows courtesy to the students and establishes clear communication and expectations. While you may think the course is straightforward and assume students should be able to keep track of themselves, consider the last time you served on a committee. You were likely grateful for the reminder from the committee chair about what was discussed at the last meeting and what was on the agenda for the next meeting. Do you spend time at the beginning of the week reviewing your calendar and noting what you need to do to be prepared for each upcoming day? If so, consider taking five extra minutes to send an email to the students in your classes informing them what they can expect in class that week and reminding them about any upcoming due dates. Getting everyone on the same page before class means you walk into the classroom and get to work together.

Strategy #3: Make the classroom a destination. A droning professor reading slides at the front of the classroom is more tolerable watching as a recording at 1.5x speed. Students are eager for an engaging class, but this does not mean the professor should prepare a stand-up routine.4 Sharing relevant stories from pharmacy practice, working through cases in small groups, and manipulating delivery devices are easy tactics that do not have the same impact for students not in attendance. Using back-channel communication (high-tech like Padlet and Google Docs or low-tech like slips of paper) allows students to anonymously ask questions or share personal examples without the fear of speaking in front of the class. Breaks to stretch and move can also interrupt long periods of sitting that may induce distraction.5 Another way to draw students to the classroom is to introduce content-based games, such as a Kahoot! or even Jeopardy – this plays on the inherent competitiveness of students. It’s even more encouraging when awards are given to the top 3 competitors. One more tip to make the class the destination of choice – bring snacks!

We acknowledge these solutions are not going to solve the systemic causes of disengagement (COVID, increased work demands, decreased attention span, etc). We encourage approaching the problem with curiosity instead of blaming the students. “Teachers can increase student engagement by increasing the value of the learning to students.”4

What strategies have worked for you to engage pharmacy students in learning? What tactics increase the value of learning to your students?


  1. Jauregui, J, Schrepel, C, McClintock, A. When I say … engagement. Med Educ. 2023; 57( 3): 219- 220. doi:10.1111/medu.15015
  2. Lang J. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; 2016.
  3. Molloy E, Bearman M. Embracing the tension between vulnerability and credibility: ‘intellectual candour’ in health professions education. Med Educ. 2019;53(1):32-41. doi:10.1111/medu.13649
  4. Neuhaus, J. Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press; 2019. 
  5. Cain J. Counteracting the sedentary aspects of academia by incorporating physical activity into the educational process. Curr Pharm Teach Learn. 2022;14(10):1269-1273. doi:10.1016/j.cptl.2022.09.004

Author Bios:  

Mary Douglass Smith is the Director of Experiential Education and Associate Professor at Presbyterian College School of Pharmacy. Educational scholarship interests include personality assessments, professional identity formation, and preceptor development. Mary Douglass enjoys time at the lake and beach with a good book and her family.

Kathryn J. Smith is an Assistant Professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Pharmacy. Educational scholarship interests include problem-solving, leadership development and professional development. In her free time, Kate enjoys listening to podcasts and watching Bluey with her husband and three daughters.

Ashley Benedict is a fourth year pharmacy student at the University of Oklahoma College of Pharmacy. Educational scholarship interests include leadership development, student engagement, and personality assessments. Ashley enjoys crafting projects on her Cricut machine and spending time with her 4-year-old daughter and husband.

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning

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