Sometimes you build it, but they don’t come

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.

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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.

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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.


3 thoughts on “Sometimes you build it, but they don’t come

  1. I am a student-teacher working on my Masters of Arts in Teaching in Maryland and I have attempted many times to find engaging activities for my students. My mentor teacher uses these activities called POGILs to involve students in inquiry-based group work. If you are not aware of what a POGIL is, it’s a Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning activity in which students complete a packet as a group. These activities are pretty engaging, since they can be paired with labs or hands-on activities. They are structured such that the students are not required to have prior knowledge of the content to do the work, reducing the stress associated with learning new content. They are also very useful in explaining difficult topics as they include all the information needed to learn the content, often replacing pieces of guided instruction conducted by the teacher.

    My mentor teacher loves to use these activities to conduct group work, especially since the county emphasizes inquiry-based learning. She places students (grades 9-10) in groups of 4 to complete these activities and assigns specific roles to each student within that group. Students are either a process analyst, timekeeper, facilitator, or spokesperson. While this allows students to act the roles of a scientist and highlights the idea that scientists collaborate in specified roles, students never maintain those roles and do not seem to realize the potential of collaboration provided by these activities. No matter how many times you emphasize how important this experience will be to their future collaborative efforts, they do not seem to care. They just want to get the work over with to please the teacher and be able to [sarcastically] say, “Look at what a good student I am finishing your interesting activity.” They won’t concern themselves with what cool or interesting things you have planned because their minds are too scattered by lack of sleep, social media, urges to be elsewhere, concerning grades, unfinished homework, friend disputes, etc. From this, I have learned that you just can’t win them all.

    I want to do the best I possibly can to create an engaging and inquisitive classroom atmosphere; and don’t get me wrong, I have been trying many new things. I know, in theory, we are supposed to try every tool in the box before we throw our hands in the air. However, at what point do you say to yourself, there is nothing more I can do; it is now the student’s responsibility to complete the work and learn the material I have provided, no matter how it is presented? When you consider how many other things need to be prepared and finished by the end of the day, at what point should we stop stressing over constantly developing exciting, new things, or enticing total engagement?

  2. Lia and Kate,
    As both a college professor and a former classroom teacher and a current school administrator, I too understand the frustrations of trying to garner student engagement. I wonder sometimes (often, actually) if what the larger issue is that we are trying to engage students in what WE want them to learn, not necessarily what THEY want to learn. Kate–you wrote that you as the learner had to have intrinsic motivation to be engaged. So what might happen if students had more autonomy over their learning? What if we did not give them a packet, no matter how well designed, but instead asked them to decide the best way to master the content and demonstrate proficiency with the learning standard? Chaos? Maybe, but maybe also we would have students intrinsically motivated to pursue learning. Just my thoughts…

    • Great thoughts! Thanks so much for sending them in. I think I’m going to try the “chaos” and see what happens!

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