If you read the blogs, websites and published articles about teaching these days, you read a lot about things like making your class more engaging through active learning, or how to get your students engaged with a myriad of strategies. What does it mean to “be engaged”? Whose responsibility is it?
From much of what I read about teaching pedagogy, I sure get the impression that it’s up to me as the professor to design and deliver an engaging course. That, if I build it right, they will just naturally be engaged. I disagree. There’s much more to being engaged than the format designed by the instructor. It’s a two-way street.
Some of my best classroom experiences were actually listening raptly to a professor lecturing up at the chalkboard. What did it take to engage me?
1. I had to WANT to be there in that class at that moment.
2. I had to BE PREPARED to be there in that class at that moment.
3. I had to WANT to PARTICIPATE in that class at that moment.
4. I had to BE ATTENTIVE in that class at that moment.
Wait….these are all characteristics of me, the student, right?
I do my utmost to help my students feel engaged in class. I use a variety of active learning approaches, both in and out of the classroom. I organize course topics to be relevant to my students’ lives and to cater to their interests. I put lots of energy, enthusiasm, caring and yes, entertainment into my courses. Heck, sometimes I even bake cookies, brownies and muffins and bring them to class. My students work in groups, work on projects with relevant outcomes and on and on. Check out earlier posts on this blog to see lots of ideas of ways about creating engaging content and approaches.
Sure, lots of the time, these strategies work and students seem deeply engaged and active participants in their learning. But, not always.
Sometimes the groups just sit there silently. Sometimes groups chat but not about the course work (maybe instead they chat about dorm room draw or pre-registration or an event that happened on campus). Sometimes you find that the exciting new tactic you tried just wasted a bunch of time and no one seemed to learn what you set out for them to learn.
I think these flat experiences happen more because your students do not step up. They don’t take responsibility for their learning. They go through the motions with whatever format you throw at them, but their hearts are just not in it. They may be unwilling to flow with a group exercise (maybe they had bad experiences in high school with group work). Maybe they are distracted by their social lives (ever notice some groups where at least one group member has that iPhone nearby?). Sometimes, too many of them are sick, sleep-deprived or stressed out. You will need to be flexible and adapt to the situation. Have a Plan B in your pocket.
But in the end, it’s up to the student to actually do the learning.