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Leadership in the College Classroom

Updated on May 22, 2016

Education and Leadership

I was listening intently to a director at a prominent university who was discussing techniques used for fundraising and marketing. One word kept recurring: passion. Ironically, the attention given to a potential donor's passions which are an intricate and necessary part of fundraising is the same consideration for inspiring students to learn and to work toward becoming great leaders. Passion is the first element to consider when implementing a leader-building component into a college classroom.

This article will cover not only passion but also other critical elements of building leadership skills inside a college classroom: openness, collaboration, and autonomy. Part information, part abbreviated lesson plans, this article is intended to provide a starting point for incorporating leadership-building activities into the classroom.


Passion is the source that fuels a great leader. Passions drive decisions, drive action, and drive change. Knowing what passions students possess is imperative and can help in the development of leadership skills. How might one go about identifying passions? There is one sure fire way of achieving this task: ask. Once those passions are known, they can be integrated into classroom activities. The following is a simple plan to break the ice and to begin to learn the passions of students:

Brief Introduction Lesson Plan

Introductions: Establishing a relationship/identifying passions


Any-Interdisciplinary use - this means that this exercise can be used in any classroom regardless of the subject being taught.

Time duration

Depends on class size - generally speaking, it is good practice to allow 2-3 minutes per student.


  • Introduce the instructor to the students.
  • Introduce the students to the instructor and each other.
  • Provide an opportunity for the instructor to identify students' passions.


Note cards - any size. Students may also use a portion of the paper they have in class. The mode of recording/remembering information is up to the discretion of the instructor.

Activities and procedures

  • The instructor provides all students with a note card of some type. The student may also be asked to bring one to class.
  • The instructor asks students to write down the answers to the following questions: Name, major/possible major, where students are from, 2-3 subjects that students are interested in/passionate about. These may be worded as the instructor deems necessary. It is highly recommended that the questions be written down for students to eliminate confusion.
  • The instructor models an introduction in the format desired from students.
  • All students are asked to stand up to discuss what they wrote on the card using the note card as a guide; other students are encouraged to ask questions if desired.
  • At the end of introductions, the instructor prompts the students to “give yourselves a hand”.
  • Instructor collects note cards or notes passions and other information in a way that can be recollected later; a seating chart with notes on each student may be helpful.

Additional information

This exercise accomplishes several things. Instructors:

  • Learn what passions and interests exist inside the classroom for incorporation into class activities during the semester.
  • Make the initial connection with students and between students.
  • Give praise to all students-not just those who are excellent public speakers. This may help build confidence, and may increase communication/public speaking skills.

Simplicity is best

While this exercise may seem simple, it is often overlooked for its value to the students and the instructor. If the first thing that happens in a classroom is that an instructor asks what students care deeply about, listening carefully, and allowing other students to ask any questions, this simple exercise sets the stage for future relationships in the classroom. It increases the likelihood that students will perceive the instructor as interested, invested, and open to hearing different perspectives and ideas. This type of attitude can lead to greater quality of education where students feel an initial connection. The activity does far more, but at a basic level, it will:

  • Set the stage for collaborative and autonomous activities in the classroom.
  • Make the initial connection with students and between students.
  • Give praise to all students-not just those who are excellent public speakers. Giving praise may help build confidence, and may increase communication/public speaking skills.


Once the instructor is aware of students' passions, it's important to begin incorporating them into the classroom lessons and activities. To do this effectively, an environment of openness needs to be established (this was partially done in the introductory activity). The goal is to help students feel comfortable sharing ideas in the classroom. To establish an open/tolerant atmosphere:

  • Set the ground rules for tolerance/openness in the classroom up front. If time permits, allow students set the rules within reason. The activity might be set up in the manner of the introduction activity where students write down rules. A brainstorming session might be a good method where all rules are written down and voted on as necessary.
  • Encourage openness and remind students of the freedom to share thoughts. This encouragement should take place in every class. Reinforce the open policy.
  • Periodically review the rules in a concise way. Having them posted in writing is good practice as well.
  • Model desired behaviors which may assist students in feeling more comfortable. This seems self-evident, but in a busy schedule, it may be easy to overlook things.
  • Encourage sharing and respectful criticism. This too is something an instructor can model for students in the way he or she responds to students in the classroom.

Openness a.k.a. allowing students to communicate in a safe environment can be a key element in helping students build on current skills as well as build stronger communication and critical thinking skills. Building a safe place for students to share ideas may also lead to better collaborative skills. Students can share individual ideas and contribute to others' ideas creating an environment that is conducive to autonomous and collaborative idea generation.

Leaders are Made

Taking small steps can build a foundation for leadership.
Taking small steps can build a foundation for leadership.


Warren Bennis, an author and expert where leadership is involved discusses the importance of autonomy. The author asserts that all of us need some level of autonomy. A few ways to allow autonomy include:

  • Allow students to help plan assignments.
  • Allow students to help set assignment deadlines.
  • Allow students to help instruct.
  • Allow students to facilitate discussions.
  • Encourage independent study.
  • Encouraging critical thinking skills.
  • Allow students to evaluate each other (especially when projects are done in groups).

There are many other ways to achieve this autonomy which can help students build lasting leadership skills.

Author, Daniel Pink puts the need for autonomy eloquently when he says, "Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.” Adding to Pink's thoughts on autonomy is that autonomy may contribute to increased leadership skills. One might see the possibilities simply by looking at some of the suggested activities in the bullet points above.

Leadership Using Groups

In a college classroom, instructors may be inclined to randomly separate students into groups or allow students to choose which groups to be in for group projects and assignments. Here are a few ideas including a simple group lesson plan that may be helpful in building student leadership skills.

  • Instructors can divide groups based on observations and interests/passions.
  • Group struggling students together. A leader will rise.
  • Utilize group exams, group assignments, and group research.
  • When necessary, assign the leader to lead (one that you feel has some skills that may have not been expressed).
  • Designate the followers as leaders to see what happens. There may be a leader waiting to emerge.

Group Lesson Plan

Interdisciplinary Research Project


Interdisciplinary - someone recently asked me if this could be used in math. Why not? Simply modify the research to fit the subject to be covered.

Time duration

Depends on class size; generally 2-4 weeks, but can be done simultaneously with other assignments. Much of the work will be done outside the classroom.


  • Students will work in groups to research and analyze a chosen event.
  • Students will organize and develop a written research paper and class presentation that is appropriate to the audience.
  • Students will improve critical thinking skills, writing, APA/MLA formatting, and overall research skills.

Materials & Media

Access to online library/database information, and/or public/university library. This may include newspapers, websites, television, movies, books and other applicable forms of media. Notebooks to maintain sources and notes are highly recommended. Social media may also be used to facilitate and organize research among group members.

Activities and procedures

  • The instructor will assign 3-4 students to a group based on student interests and level of leadership ability (as determined by the instructor).
  • The instructor will provide and discuss the rubric for the project. Click the word "rubric" in the prior sentence to access a web page that contains several types of rubrics.
  • Groups will choose and complete research on a chosen area indicated by the instructor.
  • The instructor may also require students to choose at least 2 of the following topics to be included in relation to the chosen topic/event: cultural norms, music, art, fashion, technology, architecture (and related associated math problems), politics, and scientific discoveries. Other areas may be chosen by students at the instructor’s discretion.
  • Each group member will present a portion of the presentation. While guidelines are provided, the specific methods of presentation are decided on by the group.
  • Group members evaluate each other on participation in the activity after the presentation and the group research paper is turned in. The instructor factors in student comments when assigning grades if it is being graded individually as opposed to group efforts.

Additional information

This exercise may be modified to include nearly any subject(s). Preliminary work may be necessary including a unit on how to research, research formatting, presentation techniques and other applicable units of learning.

Putting It All Together

Ultimately, building leadership skills in the college classroom requires a good model. An instructor serves as a mentor, a facilitator, and a resource constantly taking steps to help students learn in a way that is lasting. Offering praise, setting a standard for openness, building on passions, and intuitively leading in the classroom can build on that spark of leader ability that is present in each and every student. What better way to ensure that today's students become the great leaders of tomorrow than to begin in the classroom?

Why I Recommend It

This book is very helpful to instructors who want to begin to use group discussions or to improve group discussions in the college classroom. It is always best to use different modes of instruction, including, but not limited to group discussions.

Why I Recommend It

Daniel Pink's book covers what drives people. It is especially useful to instructors or others who have a desire to assess personal leadership strengths and weaknesses.

Why I Recommend It

This book covers classical leadership topics. It is for readers who want to know about leadership in the context of management and business. Skills are transferable to the classroom. It is not a colorful read, but useful.


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