What is student engagement?

When a student is invested in their own learning, they become engaged.

The concept of student engagement really didn’t hit me when I first started teaching.  I was too busy building lectures (we used acetate slides and chalk boards back then), exams, and grading.  In the back of my mind I knew I needed to help motivate students, and so I started experimenting with different assignments and projects.  In reflection, I was working on engagement, but in a haphazard, unfocused way.

The scholarship regarding engagement is down right confusing.  It seems there is a new model of engagement every few months, and people keep throwing money and terms at the issue.  There is an issue there, tangled and thorny, but there are problems with student motivation to learn.  I guess it starts with our society mandating twelve years of primary – secondary education, and then shaming you if you don’t complete a bachelor’s degree.  Let’s face it, no one like being told what to do, and we always seem to turn it into a chore.  Doesn’t matter if it is “good” for us or not, we still perceive it as an inconvenience, waste of time, or an invasion.

During GSU Incept, our Freshman Orientation, I speak at the Academic Meeting, basically a little show where we tell students what we expect out of them.  There are three things I try to bring up to our transitioning high school students:

  • Forty can’t tell twenty, and twenty won’t understand until their forty.  Stop this cycle, we have been where you are, and we know what it takes to get where we are!  Learn from our successes and failures!
  • There are no elevators or escalators to the top of the Ivory Tower of Academics, you have to walk, and don’t expect to be carried.
  • College is an opportunity!  You will be presented with opportunities to learn, to do, and to become.  You won’t have these later.  Parents, don’t you wish you had time to do now all the things you could have done in college?  Students, don’t waste these opportunities; they don’t come around again.

This gets to the heart of motivation and engagement, you ultimately have to want to learn.  But that seems like a rarity in students.  Don’t get me wrong, I see many eager students, but do they want to learn?  Most loose that eagerness when they start realizing that I meant what I said about my expectations, namely that I am expecting students to study at least 12 hours every week.  They’re shocked when I show little sympathy because they just had to go on a week long vacation in the middle of the semester (I have one of these students every semester).  Students are even more shocked when I ask them to map out everything the did the previous week, and then asked them to list their priorities based on that map.  So far, studying or learning has never been at the top.

So, how do you build engagement when intrinsic motivation is lacking?  That is my ongoing internal debate and organizing point when I think of my classes.  I’ll admit, depending on the class, the carrot/stick model is used, but I don’t see that as an effective model in most situations; I mainly use it in classes where student safety is a concern, i.e., lab.  This is where I start having problems describing some of what I do, hence the blog as a way of reflection.

The best way for me to approach this is to talk a little about some of my non-content objectives for students.  Yes, I have course objectives that are not related to the content.  I would like to thank Dr. Sandra Demons for helping me put this in perspective (one comment from one meeting can have a profound impact): “I have to teach them to be adult and professional.”  Dr. Demons taught at Atlanta Metro, a community college in the economically depressed south Atlanta area, and I’ve seen the result of some of her students; they were far better than most.  That one encounter helped me to take some of the things I was already doing, and bring them into focus.  So, what are some of these objectives?

  • Engage with your discipline on a daily basis.
    • A biologist isn’t a biologist only when they are in a class, and a doctor thinks about medicine even outside of work.  Your discipline becomes a core model/paradigm through which you see the world.  Even if it is not an obtuse academic tome, you are constantly reading in your discipline.  This is not something that comes naturally, it is something you have to start doing.
  • Growing to be an independent learner.
    • There is no way any instructor in biology can cover the full content of a class; that is, read the book or publisher PowerPoints to students.  Instead of seeing the instructor as one who lectures to you, start seeing the instructor as a mentor who is there to help navigate, encourage and redirect.
  • Understanding and meeting expectations; become adult and professional.
    • If a doctor has to write a report about a patient going into surgery, does she have the luxury to turn it in late? NO
    • Does a nurse have the option of “questioning” her score on the NCLEX license exam? NO
    • When working in industry, does an industrial biologist have the option to miss a project deadline because they didn’t feel it?  NO
    • Does a research scientist have the option to not turn in a final report to a federal agency just because they didn’t want to?  well, they could, but they will never get money again.
    • Learning to be adult and professional is not something that just happens.  It actually takes time and practice to build those personality patterns.
      • Over the last few years, I’ve spent time looking at Student Handbooks and syllabi from various professional schools, and talking to Nursing and Med School faculties about their expectations.  Frankly, my students aren’t ready.  Listening to professional school faculty, they admit that it is a hard road for most of their students, hence the Drop/Withdraw/Fail rates.  I’ll get into some specifics in later posts that deal with individual classes, but I do want to mention this next one.
      • The following two comments come from the Georgia Regent’s University, Medical College of Georgia’s student policy guide, and both are grounds for expulsion from med school:
        • There are no challenges of exam question answers.
        • Discussion of the exam outside of the exam review is prohibited unless otherwise specified by the faculty. 
        • How many of your students would survive in an environment like this? How many would struggle?  AND YES, people are expelled for doing this, even for challenging one question.  Where is the transition point where they learn these professional personality traits?
      • I’m not going to be this harsh with my students, but I am going to let them know what is coming up.  I’ll let them know that they will have classes where there is a 24 hour turn around time for a 10 page, fully referenced report about a clinical experience.  I’ll even give them assignments to help them get use to rapid response papers.  The thing is, I have to work on getting them to realize that ultimately it is their responsibility to meet the expectations laid out.

So, how do I engage my students not only in the content, but to become adult learners?  That will be in my next few posts.


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