Personalizing Teaching

An additional element in creating an engaging classroom environment is the match between an instructor’s personality and approaches, and their course environment. For students in lecture-based courses, the instructor is naturally the focus of their attention. Students respond well to a genuine instructor. When instructors play their strengths, such as humour and passion for the field, their interest is evident. A positive instructor attitude can affect the course environment in several ways:

  • Faculty who exhibit a friendly personality and good communication skills are perceived as being more relatable and approachable. (Cox, McIntosh, Terenzini, Reason, & Lutovsky Quaye, 2010,  p. 769) This creates a climate of immediacy, in which students feel little psychological distance between them and the instructor.
  • Faculty attitudes toward best teaching practices powerfully affect their students (Umback & Wawrzynski, 2005). Therefore a classroom climate in which students have an affinity for the instructor and the learning environment creates a receptive setting for the introduction of best practices such as in-class interactive strategies (Denker, 2005).
  • When students feel their instructors are approachable and good communicators, students will feel encouraged to communicate with their professors and become more motivated in the course (Myers, Martin & Knapp, 2005).



  • Incorporate research into lectures where possible. This makes the course material more relatable for students by showing how you are currently contributing to the field.
  • Integrate real-world applications into assignments and tests. This creates a sense of how course themes are relevant beyond the scope of the course, and serves to motivate students.
  • Bonus assignments can be a way to introduce fun or intriguing elements to your course design. The extrinsic motivation of earning a small grade increase can incentivize learning by creating an intrinsic motivation for students to achieve in the course (Rassuli, 2012), and improve course engagement.
  • Anecdotes, stories, and current events can be useful for illustrating complex ideas, and are often more relatable to students than abstract definitions. Current events and popular culture can be good sources for interesting additions to lecture that complement the assigned readings.
  • If you do not know the answer to a question from a student, admit this, but promise that you will respond to them, and ensure that you follow-up with the answer. It will strengthen students’ impression of you and give you an opportunity to speak further.



It can be challenging to introduce cultural examples because to be successful relies on a shared background for everyone in the audience. Be aware of cultural distance in a group of students with mixed backgrounds, ages or upbringings, to identify when extra explanation is useful. Planning for expected diversity can also be inspiration for in-class activities. For example, in icebreaker activities students can share something about their background, e.g. the town where their mother was born, an event currently happening in their hometown.

Remember that the primary goal is to connect with students over the course material. If a current anecdote or pop cultural piece seems too difficult to match with the material, avoid forcing it.



  • Cox, B.E., McIntosh, K.L., Terenzini, P.T., Reason, R.D., & Lutovsky Quaye, B.R. (2010), Pedagogical Signals of Faculty Approachability: Factors Shaping Faculty-Student Interaction Outside the Classroom. Research in Higher Education, 51, 767-788.
  • Denker, K.J., Student Response Systems and Facilitating the Large Lecture Basic Communication Course: Assessing Engagement and Learning. Communication Teacher, 27, 50-69.
  • Myers, S.A., Martin, M.M., & Knapp, J.L. (2005), Perceived Instructor In-class Communicative Behaviors As a Predictor of Student Participation in Out of Class Communication. Communication Quarterly, 53, 437-450.
  • Rassuli, A. (2012), Engagement in Classroom Learning: Creating Temporal Participation Incentives for Extrinsically Motivated Students Through Bonus Credits. Journal of Education for Business, 87, 86–93.
  • Umbach, P.D., & Wawrzynski, M.R. (2005). Faculty Do Matter: The Role of College Faculty in Student Learning and Engagement. Research in Higher Education, 46 (2), 153-184.