A Short Treatise on Student Engagement
A Modest Proposal……
For those of you who get the alternate title, there are days when students can engender these kinds of sentiments. Seriously though, I would like to share with you four things I learned to do in my classrooms that helped me improve student engagement. In the process, I discovered that I was really working on the precursors of engagement such as trust, risk-taking, and caring about them in my own way. To be very honest, I was quite shocked when I first invited student participation (given that I hadn’t experienced the opportunity too often as a student myself) and it wasn’t forthcoming. So, I learned, it wasn’t just a matter of me getting out of their way, per se, but of developing the context and desire on their part to do so.
When I think about student engagement, the first axiom that comes to mind is “Before you delve, divulge.” It is important that we expose ourselves as caring risk-takers before we ask them to do the same, and more importantly, to demand that the risk taken in the classroom is respected by their peers. We can set that standard emphatically ourselves through our actions instead of by defensive reactions to inappropriate student reactions. When you combine the multiple factors that limit engagement in our classes (i.e., low subject skills, past humiliation or embarrassment, resentment at being at this level, being too cool for school, unclear academic and career goals, etc.), it is a wonder they open their mouths at all. Then when some do, I wish they hadn’t.
I start encouraging engagement the first day of class, and I ratchet it up through the term. Here are a few key activities that I do every term with every class I teach (from the developmental to the graduate level):
1. Syllabus Goals – When I hand out my syllabi, I have them turn the paper over and write down three to four goals they have for the class. In recent years, I have even incorporated into the syllabus itself:
Sometimes I have to prod them but they usually come up with a few. I have them share them with the class. At this point I begin to randomly call on them to share one if they don’t offer. When we then get to the expectations and rules of the class, I have them connect these regulations to their goals. Before I get to my list though, I ask a question of them that often startles them. I ask them “What behaviors from me will show you that I respect you as students?” This takes a few minutes for them to understand and to respond, but they do. I get things like “be patient with us”, “don’t laugh at us”, turn our homework back to us quickly”, etc. After letting this take its course, I ask them what the next question will be and they usually get it – “What behaviors will you see from us that show we respect you as our teacher?” From there, my list becomes largely redundant and a social contract has begun, far more tangible and palatable than the standard classroom syllabus review. It builds by-in from the beginning and creates a friendly feel for the syllabus and the class.
2. Attendance Cards – I take attendance every day in my classes, and I use a special tool to do so. I give them each a 3 x 5 notecard. I then have them write the following on one side:
Hobbies and Interests:
I have find it useful to collect addresses and phone numbers as they don’t always match what the college has on record. I focus on the last two pieces of information as I try to get to know the students. I tease them and try to integrate examples where I can that exploit their information. Each day I go through these cards quickly and I keep track of their attendance on the other side of the card. I simply place them in two piles after calling roll; one stack for those attending and one for those absent. They know they have to see me after class if they come in late to move the card to the present pile. When they are absent, I write the date. When they are tardy, I write the date with an L after it. I learn their names very quickly this way (an important concept that many of you work hard at I have noticed), and they like the attention.
3. Letters – I have my students write me a letter the second or third week of class. The object is for them to let me know what they think I should understand about them as my students. I have done this for thirty years now and have rarely received distressing responses I then respond to the letters and continue the activity periodically throughout the class. My greatest breakthroughs have come through this exercise, and I will share one here from my personal blog:
Nearly fifteen years ago, I was asked to teach a special study skills course to a special group of students. I was intrigued by the challenge, and I wanted to test the efficacy of some new learning theories I was developing. I learned that the class was in a cohort, a learning community, and that I would be teaching them study skills applied to psychology. They were seventeen, eighteen-year old black students who had low entrance scores, and had not been very successful in high school. I was set for the experience.
The first morning of the class, I was walking down the hall still composing my initial remarks when I noticed they had put us in a small, narrow classroom. I knew how crowded it would be before I opened the door. There would be seventeen young students sitting around a rectangular set of tables, with only a few feet from their backs to the four walls, I was not pleased. I opened the door, walked in, and was startled with what I found - all the students were there, crammed around the tables, none of them smiling, with the lights off. It was an inauspicious start.
I did turn the light on, called roll, and started to teach. Several of them, but not all, warmed up a bit, and the class went smoothly. I was pleased that many of them seemed to wake up and respond to me, but I did notice one young woman from the start, Keisha - she sat in the corner with a large hat on, frowning throughout the lecture. I was a little irritated to tell the truth, and I supposed I chalked it up to a bad attitude, one that might take me a long time to crack, if I ever managed to. For the next three sessions, she didn't move and only spoke if I asked her a direct question. She wasn't hostile, but she wasn't very friendly either.
During the third week of class, I assigned a letter as homework, as was my custom. I told them to tell me anything they would like me to know, and that it would be confidential. I always enjoyed reading these notes from my students, as I learned a great deal more about them. I would then answer them, and we would exchange this informal information throughout the term. Keisha's letter caught me off guard: It was long, written beautifully, and full of her hopes and desires. Initially I thought I had gotten the name wrong, surely that couldn't be from the morose, sour student in the big hat in the corner. But it was.
Keisha wrote about being a writer, a computer engineer, getting out of her neighborhood, living a new and exciting life. She also mentioned many of the things we had learned in the first two weeks, and she applied them very astutely to her psychology class. I wrote her back an equally long letter, and I noticed she had perked up and was now sitting at the table the next class period. Somewhere midway through the lecture, I called her out, teasing her gently. She looked at me for a second then smiled, broadly and beautifully, with a pencil thick gap between her front teeth. Later she would tell me she didn't smile a lot, for obvious reasons (I didn't think they were obvious), and that many people mistook her demeanor for apathy and disrespect.
I paid a lot more attention to Keisha from that point on. She was by far the best student I had ever had in a study skills course, and she enthusiastically applied everything I taught her. She had been a C student in high school, and she was now grinding out As on all her other assignments. She continued to write me, sometimes sharing her poetry, sometimes telling me she was making an effort to get to know her other instructors and that they were responding nicely. Keisha was coming out of her shell.
Keisha breezed through my class and her psychology course, as well as all her others. By the end of the term, I convinced Keisha to go to two state educational conferences to help me make presentations about the experimental course and it theories. She was nervous at first, but then she agreed, going on to steal the show at each event. The conference goers were very impressed with her, and stayed afterwards to ask her questions. I was very, very proud of her.
Keisha graduated in a little over four years with a degree in Computer Engineering, graduating summa cum laude, and I was at her graduation watching as she walked across the stage smiling joyfully. She went on to do an internship and eventually to a great job. To this day, I still remember her sitting back in that corner, perhaps daring me to come and help pull her out. I take a small amount of credit for her success, but not too much. I was in the right place at the right time, and stumbled on the right student. Sometimes God lines things up nicely, people too.
4. Questions – Somewhere before mid-term, I like to stop class early on an appropriate day to do so, and to revolutionize my students’ learning experience a bit. I hand out uniform strips of paper to each of them and tell them they can write down any questions they want to ask me at all, about anything they are curious about. At first, some are stunned and some get a big smile on their face and begin scribbling. I tell them not to worry if the question is appropriate or not, as I can choose not to read it aloud if I don’t like it. To date, I have never received a cruel or intentionally stupid question in the thousand or so inquiries students have shared with me. On occasion, they ask more questions openly and I answer them honestly. They are curious! Curious as I was I suppose of this person in front of them. As a small footnote, I should add that I didn’t utilize these last two activities with my more worldly and experienced graduate students until the day I was describing them to a graduate education course as an example of reaching younger students. To my great surprise an older student asked “Why don’t you do these with us?” Several of her peers nodded and I have done so since.
These are not magic bullets, nor do they represent some sort of panacea in this ongoing struggle to reach and hear from our students. In their present form though, they suit my style and philosophy and help me create a consistent environment for the dialogue and participation I demand of my students. I have noticed that the number of inappropriate, cruel, and sometimes vicious remarks made by my students have decreased when I got out ahead of engagement and actually increased it, but with guidelines and tempered expectations. If you like any of these ideas, feel free to use them. If you have other ideas that work for you, share them with me and I will pass them on.