Let’s talk about student engagement

Well hello there!  Miss me?

So the semester from hell finally ended and I am *determined* — DETERMINED, I tell ya! — to get back to blogging.  And this time I’m going to *continue* blogging through the school year.  Or, well, that’s the plan.  And I hope not to go so long between posts any more. And I’m trying to be more active in commenting at *your* blogs, too.  I should say, though, that I’ve been more active than it appears — a few of my comments have disappeared into the ether, especially at Blogger-hosted blogs, and I’ve been so frustrated that I didn’t bother reposting.  But I’m reading y’all with interest!

Hey, btw, on a related note of reading blogs, does anyone have any idea why my site visits spiked on May 5?  I haven’t posted since March, so it’s kind of weird.

Anyway, back on topic…I have some upcoming posts, including finally, about the details of that awesome class from the fall, but I want to save some of that until the medievalists are back from the Medieval Congress next week. In the meantime, I thought maybe I could start a more general conversation, about getting students engaged in their courses. It’s something that I’ve been either working on or frustrated by in all of my courses this year, and so it’s been on my mind a lot, and since a lot of you are also finishing up academic years (though I realize, not all of you), I thought you might also have some “year in review” musing to do on the topic.

My Fantastic Fall Class (FFC) was fantastic in part, I think, because I handed over a lot of the responsibility to the students.  Now, I don’t mean I abdicated my responsibility as the expert in the room, but I put a lot of burden on the students through frequent short-writing assignments and discussion questions submissions, all of which were due *before* class started, so everyone came to class having something to say. (Well, theoretically.  There were still silent students.) And though the class took a *lot* of time upfront, over last summer, to design effectively and coherently from beginning to end, it actually didn’t burden me with grading, because so many of the assignments were so short.

So, that’s the secret, right? Lots of low-stakes, high-engagement assignments that take less time to grade, right?  Hang on, not so fast.  *That* class may have been an *F*FC, but my other Fall term class, which we shall call *Dismal* Fall Class (DFC), didn’t go well at all, and I was using many of the same theories of engagement. I put them in charge of their own learning, I assigned lots of short and low-stakes assignments (that were easy for me to grade, too), and everything built to a single, cumulative experience that drew from all those past lesson (which was also true in the other class, btw). I even did what all those trendy TED-Ed videos are telling you to do and “flipped” the classroom. (Side note: can I tell you how much I hate the people who suddenly “discovered” that classroom time can used to do “active learning” instead of being used for passively received lecturing. No shit, Sherlock?) That is, students did a lot of the content preparation themselves, along with exercises designed to help them apply and test their knowledge, which we then went over together in class. And yet…DISMAL, I tell you. Students were deeply unhappy and frustrated, and they somehow managed to remain pretty passive in the face of the assigned work, despite the fact that it was supposed to force a necessary engagement. In fact, in a midterm self-assessment the students did, one student wrote something like, “I feel like you expect us to do it on our own and then you teach it to us” and ze meant that as a criticism. And this was someone who was simultaneously taking the composition pedagogy course and reading about taxonomies of learning and so on. Sigh.

Now, I’m leaving a few things out, things that probably give some context for the major differences in these classes. For one thing, FFC was a literature class, where guided discussion can rule the day easily, and technical stuff can be taught along the way, whereas DFC was a linguistics class, in which students have to learn basic technical stuff first before they can get to the Big Questions. And, for the life of me, I cannot figure out an interesting way to teach this technical stuff, which is why I “flipped” the classroom so I could spend less time doing boring presentations and more time helping them review higher-level learning in which they applied the lessons in the book.  But I think part of what went wrong was psychological.  The students told themselves that said technical stuff is hard. (It really isn’t.) And they freaked out because they think it’s hard. And “dry.” They love to toss around the word “dry.” Someday I’m going to ask them how to make it “wetter.” (I crack myself up sometimes imagining these scenarios.)  And then! — wait, it gets “better” — when we got to the juicy, non-dry stuff, they were underprepared to really engage in it because they hadn’t done the hard work on the basics. They’d *done* it, but in a “have to get this done” way, and so it didn’t stick. I mean, I was launching all sorts of the sexy at them, but they didn’t get it, because to get it, you had to work out the boring technical stuff first. So they *couldn’t* be engaged then. By then it was too late.

And it probably didn’t help that I was kind of grumpy and stressed out Fall semester (except for getting married! that was awesome! and also about as low stress as a “wedding” can be, seeing as we eloped and everything), although that didn’t seem to affect FFC. Or perhaps it was class chemistry. There was a person with a really *strong* personality in the DFC class who was also one of the loudest malcontents, and I think a lot of the other students deferred to this person.

Here’s the other thing you should know about DFC: a lot of the most stressed-out students took it to fulfill a requirement. And those who take it for such a reason often assume, erroneously, that it’s the “easier” route to that requirement. (It’s not hard, but it’s not easy, exactly. And it takes diligent work.) So, yeah, I’m always fighting an uphill battle to begin with. And so maybe I’m answering my own (implied) question here, maybe *that’s* what the real, substantive difference in these two classes is. But then again, the FFC fulfills a requirement, too, and a lot of students end up in there — with a lot of trepidation — because of that requirement. So maybe that’s not *entirely* it.

Meanwhile, that issue of required classes, and the kind of student bodies you get in them, brings me to my Spring Shakespeare class. (Which I’m just going to name, because lots of people teach Shakespeare. The others I’ve named in other posts — and will again — but I don’t want my very obvious combination of courses in one post.) Anyway, I taught the required intro-level Shakespeare class again for the first time in 5 years this spring, along with two other courses in my usual rotation. Because it was the first time I’ve done 3 regular courses (plus I was also doing an independent study) in a number of years, and because I always find it harder to get the spring courses launched than the fall ones, and also because I was changing a number of things in the other two courses, I didn’t change Shakespeare as much. But one thing I did change was the final “exam.” Instead of an actual exam, I assigned students to groups to do a final performance of a short scene from one of the 6 plays we’d read that semester (they were assigned the play, too — that’s how I kept order), plus a short report on why their group picked that scene and why they made the choices they did as actor, director, prop master, or whatever their role was. Thus, it really did have an analytic component, although in subsequent years, I may beef that part up. At any rate, that assignment was *awesome* and I think the students got a lot out of it. Former lumps on the log performed in front of their classmates and made me wonder where they’d been all semester. Students who said they struggled with the language were up there reading like it was their own words coming out of their mouths.  It was beautiful!

But the rest of the semester? Not so much. And I’m pretty sure it’s because I didn’t do enough to require the students to come to class prepared to talk and be engaged — or, more important in this junior-level class, to *teach* them *how* to come prepared. But I think that even if I start doing something like I did in FFC, the fact that Shakespeare is a required course will still put a damper on things. We’ll have to wait and see, though, because I’m not slated to teach it next year. Maybe the next?

So, what’s the take-away from all this?  That you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink? I suppose that’s a part answer. After all, even in FFC, there was one student who was somewhat disengaged day after day, or only engaged enough to complete the assignments, not excel at them. (And yet, the course must have worked for hir in some way, because ze signed up for another of my classes next year.)

But I still want to start a conversation with you guys. Especially: what do you do to help students be actively engaged in the material in your courses on a regular basis? And what kind of material is it and how does that affect how you run class and design assignments? I’m especially interested in those of you teaching the kinds of things where you can’t just jump right into discussion, as it seems I’m having the most trouble with those kinds of courses.


17 thoughts on “Let’s talk about student engagement

  1. I’ve taught the same (required core hard math) class for many sections for many years and had it be FFC and DFC. And yes, “There was a person with a really *strong* personality in the DFC class who was also one of the loudest malcontents, and I think a lot of the other students deferred to this person,” is really important.

    And all I can come up with is checking that person, in private, either in person in a conference, or, if they send inappropriate emails telling them that you can’t respond to said inappropriate emails until they have been composed correctly here are directions to the writing center to learn how to write a professional memo because there’s no way we can let our graduates represent our school not knowing how to communicate professionally. (The latter works like a DREAM.)

  2. Yeah, as I wrote that, I thought, “Hm, maybe that really was the key.” Because he was in the “sequel” class in the Spring, too, and got worse at first, but then withdrew, and morale and the class vibe both improved *immensely*. (Talking to him didn’t help. He was kind of immune to reason. But that’s a longer story.) Maybe I should just chalk it up to class chemistry.

    Still, any advice for making “dry” material “wet” and getting students engaged in it?

  3. I don’t know how engaged you can get the students with “dry” material (I used to teach an advanced Spanish grammar class and that was dry), but probably calming their initial fears (this is technical therefore it is hard) is key to the class atmosphere. If you don’t mind a little self-promotion, you may find this conversation I’ve been having in my blog interesting. It is not the same situation, but I think it has similarities.

  4. That spike in visits isn’t around the time I asked you to put up pictures on facebook, is it?

    In another point, is there any way you can reschedule the Shakespeare performances for the midterm rather than the final? It seems a waste of building all that fun and camaraderie and then not having used to deepen the connections and work done in the rest of the class.

    Perhaps the way to make the “dry” course “wet” is to add more fun literature, so it’s no longer the linguistics class! ;P

  5. One thing that I think helps a lot (and you might have done this, you didn’t say) is being really transparent about how each of those assignments links to what you want them to learn, and to explain what they pay-off is for *them* in doing the assignment, rather than you just lecturing (for example). I’ve found that the more of this context that I provide the more student buy-in I get, and it’s made a big difference in how much students perceive they are learning throughout the semester even when it “doesn’t feel like learning.”

    Also? I tend to directly address the “dry” thing up front. (This comes up constantly in our intro to the major class, but it also can come up in the theory courses that I teach.) Basically, I force them to have a conversation about what they mean when they say that material is “dry,” And then we talk about technical language, and how English is in fact a *discipline* and not just some sort of entertainment center in the academy, and how understanding the “dry” stuff actually can enrich our understanding and enjoyment of the “wet” stuff. It also tends to help when I frame the issue in terms of their expectations in other classes. Do they hold their science classes, say, to the same “wet material” standard? If not, why not? It actually ends up being a pretty productive way to spend 20-30 minutes, and it tends to improve the level of engagement because I’ve taken the complaint seriously and forced us to think critically about it and explained why I think it’s the wrong complaint to make. Basically, I think that the “dry” thing is anti-intellectual. And I don’t have much patience for that.

  6. Some kids are just jerks. I was very happy when the crazy jerk who ended up in my class first semester dropped my class this year. I think we made a special exception for him to take the stats class from a huge lecture class in another department because nobody wanted him. My colleague whose class he demanded she change her teaching schedule so her section wouldn’t conflict with his ROTC thing (she didn’t) thinks he’s a narcissist. I’m just worried about the fact he has regular access to guns. Previous problem students have been more benign!

    Personally I find the technical stuff fascinating– I loved linguistics 101 in college (almost majored in it for my second major, with math as the first, but did better on the first exam in my intro econ class so went with that). It must be required (or they must be taking it if it isn’t required) because it is for some reason important, otherwise you shouldn’t be requiring it (or they wouldn’t be taking it). If you can’t find it fascinating (or can’t find the basics fascinating), then figure out why it’s important and let your students know that it’s tough but important and here’s why (you’re gonna need this later in the semester when we get to the part that I promise is AWESOME and will blow your mind away). That mostly works for my stats class. Many of them don’t want to take it, but they need to, and knowing that it isn’t both scary AND a waste of time helps. I also try to hand-hold a lot through the scary bits. This is hard for a lot of people (even if it wasn’t ever hard for me, but I don’t tell them that), but that’s why we have office hours, that’s why you need to ask questions, we’re going to get through this together. And when they start understanding they feel good about conquering something hard, and I’m all impressed that they got over that fear, and tackled something difficult. It feels good to conquer something difficult.

    This last semester I taught a class that actually IS really difficult. I started by telling them it was going to be one of their hardest courses but they were going to be a ton smarter by the end of it. And I’ve been getting emails from kids saying that they are smarter than they were at the beginning of the semester. That makes me smile.

  7. My classes are 90% students who have to take the class to meet grad requirements, which means their initial buy-in is very weak. The first week I just flat out show ’em how my approach is going to make their lives better and their studies easier. They don’t believe me – until they do it and find out I’m right. They are 80% responsible for their class – including the dynamics. I frame it, scaffold it – and then they are in charge. I accept that there are classes that are going to be dismal – and we debrief those frequently. What worked, what didn’t, why. We talk about learning as well as content – and the most satisfying experience is when they see me later in their university experience and tell me how much my class changed and improved their lives. And they remember their projects, their presentations for years and years. So I totally agree with Crazy (as usual). Make the process and intent as transparent as you can.

  8. I’m supposed to be grading, but two quick thoughts:

    can I tell you how much I hate the people who suddenly “discovered” that classroom time can used to do “active learning” instead of being used for passively received lecturing. No shit, Sherlock?

    Amen. And apparently at least some of these same people are the ones who can’t figure out what we do all day when we’re not in class (hint: design carefully-scaffolded active learning-based assignments, and grade all the little bits and pieces they produce. Even quick grading mounts up).

    I’m getting an uptick in the “she expects us to figure it out for ourselves” comments, too, with the tone ranging from puzzled to accusatory (I think some others get it, but don’t both to comment at all). This, of course, is called inquiry-based learning (another edu-buzzword), and the puzzlement, frustration, etc. it creates on the way to learning is yet one more reason why student evaluations are a bad way to measure the quality of teaching (although they can, of course, be one useful if small piece of a larger puzzle).

  9. Oh DAMMIT. I wrote a really long response to everybody but then clicked on SpanishProf’s link before I finished, thinking it would open in another tab (like on FB) and it didn’t. I lost my whole comment. Wahhhhhh! OK, here goes again…

    I’m *doing* a lot of what you guys say. (Though I could stand to do a little more of the upfront “this is going to be a little dry but here’s what you can apply it to” stuff in the linguistics classes.) I’m starting to think more and more along the lines of nicoleandmaggie’s comments that one bad apple really poisoned this bunch. I mean, I showed them connections to their present-day language (this was essentially a historical linguistics class in English), to literature from the period in question and every period after up to the very present day, to teaching composition (as a lot of them were doing at the time), to the particular things I knew some of them were interested in, and still, they resisted. So, yeah, maybe it was just chemistry.

    Though happy anecdote, along the lines of what Belle said: one of the *most* resistant, glum-faced students finally started participating near the end of the “sequel” class, turned in a great final project, and wrote me a long e-mail saying ze hadn’t seen how *any* of this was related to literary studies until the end, when it finally all clicked for hir, and thanked me profusely for giving hir hir “light bulb moment.” So there’s that.

    And you know, that student and a number of others said things all year long like “sorry you have to deal with such a stupid student.” I really think there was some serious low self-esteem catching on in those classes and I didn’t find a way to stop it before it ramped up.

    In fact, I may have even inadvertently added to it. I switched my linguistics-oriented class from quizzes, which encouraged cramming and lower-order learning, to this “flipped” model with exercises, and that’s when I got this particularly unenthused class. Correlation isn’t causation, so it could just be crappy coincidence (and class psychology), but maybe, too, they’d heard from the earlier class that it was “easy” rote memorization and then were a little freaked out about having to apply the knowledge. Thing is, the most complaining students — the ones for whom this satisfied a requirement — were probably looking to check off a requirement in an easy way and got something deeper and more difficult than they were bargaining for. They didn’t *want* to learn and I tried to make them.

    As for Shakespeare, and Sisyphus’s comment, I don’t think midterm performances would work because a) we haven’t done all the plays by then and this really is a showcase (I use the entire final exam period) and b) it would take a lot of time out of the semester. But I could assign the students to those working groups early on (after I have an idea of who’s performing at what levels — I like to spread the strongest and weakest students out), not assign them their play yet, but assign them other performance-oriented small group projects (graded or ungraded — or maybe related to participation). Thanks for sparking the idea, Sis!

    But I’d still like to hear more about what you all do in your classes to get students to come having done some of the heavy lifting themselves (no matter what the discipline, field, or content matter). In other words, don’t think of it as giving me advice, but as showing off what you do! I think my short writing assignments and discussion questions in FFC worked awesomely. What have you done that’s worked well?

  10. Contingent Cassandra — Yeah, when you take the No Kids Left Behind generation, who’ve been taught to the test, and then make them do inquiry-based learning, you’re going to have a bumpy transition! But maybe, like Crazy and Belle suggest, we should talk about why we’re doing what we’re doing more.

  11. Oh and Sisyphus, yes, maybe all those visits were from you, looking for pictures, LOL. Actually, weirdly, I think most of them are from Google image searches (god only knows which of my images are popping up there!) and from people looking for Jenna Elfman’s haircut. Seriously. Why they coalesced on that day, I don’t know.

  12. Just to add to what some others have been saying: I think that being really up front about the choices you’ve made as a teacher and *why* you’ve made them really helps students. I think it can also help co-opt them into the class more. It might also help to have the students co-create some of the assignments with you. I’ve done this with exams, quizzes, papers, and final presentations and have found that the time we’ve taken as a group to talk about objectives, format, assessment, and other issues has really made for some awesome assignments that the students seem, if not always excited about, then less freaked out or resentful about completing. I have found that when I talk to students right at the start of the semester about my own goals for them, my expectations, and even aspects of my own personality (I have a very dry sense of humor, and sometimes students don’t always get it and interpret it as sarcasm), they tend to be much more actively engaged in the course. I also have a conversation with them in the middle of each semester about how things are going in the class, what’s working well, and what isn’t. I’ve found that, if I’ve done the work of helping to create a sense of community in the classroom, the students are eager to discuss the course and often give me really helpful feedback. It also gives me another chance to explain why I’ve made certain choices or decisions, and what the trade-offs of those are.

  13. Alchemist: you’re anticipating what I’m planning to write about FFC! 🙂 Can you tell me more about the assignments you let students design or co-design?

  14. In my larger survey courses, I take some time about a week or two before the mid-term to talk about it. I get them to generate themes, issues, events, and dates that they think are important, and then we talk about different formats (timelines, maps, short-answer, passage ID, definitions, essays) and come up with the format together. For the final exam I did something new this year: I had the students get into small groups and come up with two or three essay questions. Then they wrote them up on the board and we discussed them as a class. It helped them to think about what makes a good question, and a good answer. Then I took a few of those essays and put them up on the website ahead of time, so that they could prepare for them. I also added in a DBQ that they didn’t see until the actual final. I’ve also had students come up with writing assignments. We might do some class brainstorming about a particular set of primary sources, and from there, go into a conversation about how that kind of work can inform their papers, and then a discussion about how to write a paper. Because of these conversations, I now have assignments that are broken into constituent parts: annotated bibliography, outline, thesis paragraph, draft, final paper, with credit for each, and peer feedback. It turns out that they perceive themselves to be learning more about writing, research, and expressing ideas when they are held accountable for each different part of an assignment. And their final papers have all improved a lot.

    For my seminar this year, I knew that I wanted the students to do a research project, but present their findings in an oral presentation (the seminar was on medieval magic). So we talked about what makes a good oral presentation, doing research, etc. They decided that they wanted shorter, focused presentations, and so I told them about pecha kucha format (20 slides, 20 seconds each). We spent some time looking at different pecha kucha presentations on the web, on all kinds of topics, and then came up with things that work well and don’t work well in those kinds of presentations. A bit later in the semester, I had the students generate the criteria for assessment (and they assessed each others’ presentations, and I evaluated them, as well. I then included some of the comments into my assessments of their work, although peer evaluations didn’t affect their grade). The pecha kucha presentations worked really well, although I did have to do a lot of scaffolding–each student met with me about her project at least twice, and did a complete run-through of the presentation with me the week before the actual class. I ran the last class like a mini-conference, with some refreshments, a program, and introductions. They really liked it.

  15. Are you sure you aren’t me, Alchemist, because your description of your exam in the survey course is exactly what I did with FFC! 😉 OK, I *didn’t* do exactly the same thing with the rest, but that all sounds excellent and intriguing. I’d never heard of pecha kucha format (of course, I’ve also never done a Power Point presentation). And I did something similar on the last days of two of my classes — but instead of presentations, it was performances. You’re giving me ideas to build peer-assessment into some of what I do — thanks!

  16. I wish I had something to add. This is something I’ve been struggling with for some time, and I keep trying various strategies, not all of which work. I keep trying to find the method which gets them not only ready to talk, but in an interesting way. I do try to explain the course, and how it fits into the major / the world, why particular assignments, etc; the assignments are designed to move toward the final, but also address key learning objectives for the major.

    But I’ll keep coming back here for inspiration as I plan the fall class!

  17. Coming very late in the day! But one thing I did that is slightly different is offer a choice of case studies we could use to practice the methods, and have the class discuss which interested them and vote for their choices. I found that having had some say in the topics we’d use in each unit seemed to really help improve the probability that they’d have done at least some of the reading, and come to class with some ideas. Next time I do this, I’ll adopt the ‘discussion question’ type writing requirement too… (this is a higher level science course, so they’re not usually doing much writing outside of the assignments, but that sounds like a useful tool)

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