I started teaching in Higher Ed in 1993, and like so many in STEM disciplines, I used class syllabi, lectures and assessments from colleagues as the starting point for my classes. Throughout the rest of the 90’s I worked on different ways to getting students excited about the material, and more importantly, to study. I did even more when I went back to teaching in 2005. I did’t see any of this as working on student engagement, but now I realize how central this has been in informing the changes that I have implemented in my classes. From experience, there are some common threads among students when it comes to motivation and engagement. To understand engagement, we first must understand the types of students we may encounter.
There are some students that are passionate about a subject. They stop by the office just to talk about something they learned or saw. These students have a strong intrinsic motivation for the class, but they are also the minority. Most students may start the semester assuming they have this passion for the subject, but it can quickly fade when they are faced with the workload that accompanies courses in STEM disciplines. The difference in the Passionate Student and other students is that the Passionate Student continues to investigate the discipline outside of the formal class. Like other students, they may be daunted by the workload, but even when stressed about assignments and grades, they still look at the world through the growing lens of what they are learning. They keep reading and learning, even things not assigned in the class. CHALLENGE: not to stifle or quell the students passion.
Most of my classes are of interest to those who want to go into Nursing, Medicine, Dentistry, Pharmacy, Physician Assistant, and other medical related fields. They have a goal to get in to a professional program, and they know high grades will be critical. Grade Focus makes for some of the worst students*. They do not see how knowledge fits together, and they don’t see the benefit of spending the time to master discipline foundations. They may get good grades thanks to cramming for exams, but they never seem to master material. In higher level classes, many are still struggling with core concepts, and never get the depth or integration of knowledge. CHALLENGE: getting them to realize that a good grade without learning ultimately leaves them in worse academic shape.
*Worst Students: This is not about the letter grade a student gets at the end of the semester. It is about their learning. Repeatedly, I’ve had students in lower level classes that “did well” by conventional grading standards, but who showed no real learning when I had them in higher level classes. From surveys and assessments, it was clear that they had not learned the foundation information of the discipline. This change in definition of what we see as Good and Bad students has been a growing concept with me for years now.
While it may seem similar to Grade Focus, it is vastly different. Seen mainly in non-traditional students who have come back to fulfill prerequisites for professional school, the Goal Driven student knows that they need a solid foundations before getting into the program they want. They are still concerned about their grade, but they also want to make sure they understand core concepts. Yes, this is about maturity level. Individuals over 23 have started to realize that there is a consequence for not learning fundamental concepts, and that there may not be an opportunity to work on them later. The best case scenario comes from when these students work with younger students. CHALLENGE: balancing the student’s desire for a good grade with real learning opportunities.
The High School Scholar
One of the most challenging students, this is common in Freshman/Sophomore classes. Students rarely realize until it is too late that Higher Education is different than secondary school; expectations are vastly different. Higher Education Instructors, no matter the title, will not hold the student’s hand, remind them that their assignments are due, and rarely tolerate late assignments. In other words, they hold their students to a higher level of maturity and scholarship than most students experienced in high school.
In Biology, I commonly get students who tell me that they were A students in high school, and so can’t understand why they failed an assignment or test. Worse, they can’t understand why I won’t let them finish work just because they went on a week long family holiday. There is a disconnect! Most did not realize I was serious when I told them that they would have to student at minimum 12 hours a week to pass the class. They thought that their high grades in high school would allow them to coast through a college level class. These students experience a harsh reality check. These are also the students most likely to tell a teacher that their tests are too hard, challenge grades, protest to any level they can, and even try to get their parents help to deal with the teacher. Why, because it worked before in high school. Again, a harsh reality check is in store. CHALLENGE: Helping them make the transition without crushing their enthusiasm.
The Blasé Student
Normally experienced in the Junior level classes, these students have been around the Higher Education block a few times. They feel that they have done and seen it all. Worse, they have the idea that they know how to “game” classes and teachers. I personally feel that these are High School Scholars that never got the reality check (or didn’t think it applied to them). They think they can coast through upper division classes without a problem, and without studying. I find these the most annoying students to work with. They will look at you with disdain during case studies, and sigh heavily whenever called on to answer a questions (so far, none have been able to answer a question successfully). They will also challenge every grade, every exam, every assignment, and are not beyond threatening to go to upper admin (luckily, I’ve built a strong hide against these arguments). Strangely, this attitude typically changes in the senior year when they realize that they are not going to get into med school (or other professional program). CHALLENGE: You can’t pull a student out of a blasé state! I have tried and felt battered and bruised as a result (this is one reason I HATE JUNIOR LEVEL CLASSES!). From bitter experience, I’ve realized that this is a student you just have to endure. NOTE: not all juniors are like this! Hopefully most have made the necessary transitions, but when they don’t, they become a soul sucking experience for the instructor.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it sets the stage for discussing student engagement.