Tagged Student Engagement

Posts involving student engagement.

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.


Engagement: Understanding the Students We Encounter

14-0070 football players in classI 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.

Passionate Students

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.

Grade Focus

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.

From Spaced Repetition by Gwern Branwen

*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.


Goal Driven

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.

From 5 tips to avoiding boring PowerPoint presentations, by Thomas Umstattd, Jr.

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.