This week I want to write about student engagement. I write not from a position of authority on the subject, but a willingness to learn more. I do know it is incredibly important.
Why is student engagement important? Because research indicates there is a close correlation between engagement and achievement. That is, when students are engaged in your classroom, and the homework you give them, they will learn and retain more. They will build skills and be able to apply them. Achievement, learning, retention, and successful skill building are all higher when engagement is higher.
I don’t know about you, but I am afraid I have to admit my students are sometimes hiding behind their laptops in my class. I suppose they are taking notes, and they are listening (mostly), but… I know they are not as engaged as I would like them to be. Those classes are less fun for me too. Of course, many teachers consider this the student’s fault. I consider it my fault. I understand, of course, that there are times when students are just overwhelmed. The sponge is full and they haven’t yet figured out how to grow more sponge. But I still assume first that I should be doing something different.
Mostly, I try to change things up when I see student engagement start to sag. Get other students in the front of the room teaching a concept. Group work. A guest speaker or a TA on a lesson. These strategies usually work. And I find my students are engaged in the outside of class work I give them to do, part of which is motivated by the grade, but also they know it is directly related to what they came to learn.
Some techniques for deeper engagement in class are these. First, to bring in real-world application of the concept being taught. Second, ask students to present a concept. Third, get students engaged with each other in solving a small task, which often works best when you ask them to get up and move to another location in the classroom with their small group. Moving helps. Fourth, use humor. As I get older, my cultural references are increasingly stale, so I need to work on this. Fifth, remove distractions. You can’t remove student laptops, but you can ask them to close them for a particular topic or exercise.
Collaborative work, as much as students dislike it at times, overall helps with engagement. It helps them to have a premise for getting to know a classmate more than they otherwise would. It requires different parts of the brain to learn how someone else has learned the concept you have asked them to apply, and it does the same for the other student who has to explain the concept to someone else. These all increase engagement and deepen understanding of the concept.
But there is another aspect to engagement that we do not talk about enough: connection. We have to connect with our students as individuals. Knowing their names is such a basic, fundamental, thing. I suggest making flash cards at the beginning of the semester, and spending the time to flip through them - at breakfast, before going to bed, whenever and often. My goal is always to know every student’s name by the third class. (This year was tough with masks, and I fell short of that goal). Welcome office hours, and be genuine about that. Enjoy seeing them, and be genuine about that. Remember something important about them, and refer to it when appropriate. They will appreciate that you made the effort to know them personally. If students know you genuinely care, they will forgive all sorts of small mistakes.
It seems to me that most of us got into teaching because we want our students to learn, to retain what we are teaching them, to develop into life-long learners, and to be successful. Didn’t we? Well then, thinking about how to boost student engagement in your classes will pay off. And, turns out, it will be more fun for you too.
Letters of Recommendation
I seem to be reading a lot of Mary Oliver these days. Not a bad thing, of course. I particularly enjoy her perspective on the natural world, and especially in springtime. I can recommend her collection of poems called Blue Horses. A quick read - a short book and each poem is short too. But of course like all good poetry it rewards another, and slower, reading as well.
Q of the Week
The Q of the Week this week is a Quote from Elizabeth F. Barkley:
Student engagement is the product of motivation and active learning. It is a product rather than a sum because it will not occur if either element is missing.
Hi David, this was thought-provoking, thank you. Connection has been an issue for me recently. This year (my school year started in April) we are fully back in the classroom, but we are masked and I have really struggled to learn everyone's names. I asked my students to send me a profile picture that I could use to make a cheat sheet. It didn't really work.
The irony of the situation is that during the past couple of years, when we were doing everything by Zoom, I felt like I had a much better connection with many students because we had so many short, man-to-man meetings. Even though the conversations weren't very long, I still felt like I had a better handle on who my students were as people than I do now.
But I'll keep at it. Because I think you're right, it makes learning better for them and for us, too.