Engaging the disengaged student is a perennial problem.
If all students could be easily and efficiently motivated and engaged in the learning process, there would almost be no need for teachers, or at least individuals with special training in teaching because the student population would already be primed for learning. However, matters are not that simple, of course. Students are often disengaged from the learning process and would rather be almost anywhere else, doing anything else, it seems. In addition, today matters are complicated because teachers have not only other students, or what’s going on outside the window, or the student’s own thoughts, to compete with for the disengaged student’s attention but also a plethora of electronic devices. With the endless fascination with iPads, iPods, smart phones, etc., as your main competition, how can teachers possibly catch and hold a student’s attention?
How to Engage Disengaged Students
Cut the DistractionsA colleague of mine once told a group of students who were obviously texting beneath the table, “I don’t know what you’re doing under there, but I can tell you what it looks like from here.”
To begin to engage students in the learning process, teachers must get rid of their main competition, electronic devices. Make and enforce a rule that all electronic devices must be turned off during class. This is easier said than done, of course. But with constant and consistent reminders that electronic devices must be turned off during class and asking students to step out if their cell phone goes off, students generally comply because a class norm of an electronic-free environment has been established. If the rare student violates this norm, mild shaming can be used: for example, I have said to the student who answered a cell phone call in class “Say ‘hi’ from all of us!” Similarly, a colleague of mine once told a group of students who were obviously texting beneath the table, “I don’t know what you’re doing under there, but I can tell you what it looks like from here.” Behavior that becomes a source of class amusement is unlikely to be repeated.
Present the Value of the Course Material
Some teachers are under the impression that they have to do circus acts and can-cans for their students to engage them in the learning process. This is not the case--students know when something is forced and not authentic to the subject matter. To engage students, the most important thing is to show students the value of what you are teaching and how it will benefit the students. For example, I hold discussions with my students about the value of improved writing skills: that individuals with strong writing and communication skills can obtain and hold employment more easily, get promoted, dispute a traffic ticket effectively, write a letter of complaint to a company regarding poor service or a poor product and receive a discount or refund, and in general protect their rights and advance in a technological society more so than those without such skills. This discussion makes a strong case for learning the class content, and students become more motivated as they actually value what they are learning.
Go Beyond the Lecture
The lecture is an outmoded format, designed for a time when most students did not have books--that is, before the invention of the printing press--and a learned scholar, who did have the books, would recite information to students gained from those books, which students would then write down. Because today students have access to any number of print and online materials, this is no longer necessary and will no longer engage students. Instead, go through some direct instruction briefly, if necessary, then have students interact with this each and the material, solving some problem with it such as proofreading a sample paper to learn editing skills. These strategies will engage students more with the course content, giving them a chance to interact with the material and internalize the learning.
Vary Class Format at Least Once During Class, Give Students Choices
We all have different learning preferences. Some students actually do prefer learning something from a lecture, and sometimes lectures are necessary on material that has a number of defined rules and definitions, such as the use of punctuation in standard American English. A lecture on these rules is really the most effective way to learn them. That said, lectures should be brief and occasional, and teaching notetaking skills should be part of the lecture, with the instructor pointing out to students in at least the early part of class what to take notes on and how: what words and symbols to write, for example. Then have students work together to share ideas gleaned from the lecture, such as editing a paragraph for its use of punctuation. Or occasionally let students work on an activity related to the lecture alone, as an option: most students will choose to work with their peers, but for some students working individually is a preferred learning style and should be recognized. Varying class formats from lecture style to working in pairs and larger groups as well as individually will keep more students engaged.
Value Each Student’s Contributions
Students also become disengaged from the learning process at times if one articulate student or small group of such students commands all of the instructor’s attention--a usually unintentional, a well-meant domination of the learning process. Make sure to reach out to different students, involving all in the learning process. This can be done by circulating around the room during the discussion: sometimes just standing by a group of students is enough to get one of them to speak up. Other times the teacher may say something like, “Let’s hear something from the left side of the room; you’ve been unusually quiet today,” etc., thereby taking the focus of the more dominant group without putting anyone on the spot.
Create a Community
Students will become engaged in the learning process if they feel they are actually part of that process and are not only valued as an individual student but as a community of learners, of which they are an integral part of. Without such a community, even if students feel valued as individual students, there is a chance of alienation from the class and learning process as a whole as it may come to seem students can just write their papers on their own and study the text, and attending class may be of little importance. My favored memories of classes are those in which there were a lot of peer interaction and collaboration, even if the subject matter was not my preferred: for example, one of my favorite classes as a graduate student was on educational law, something that would normally hold little interest to me, because of the class community and collaboration that was created. Other classes, even in favorite subject matter such as literature, I have fewer pleasant memories or fewer memories of at all because there was limited interaction with my classmates and less connection to the learning process.
In order to engage students in the learning process, it is not necessary or even desirable to create massive numbers of complex presentations or numerous tangentially related kinesthetic activities.
Rather, students must instead know the value of what they are learning and feel a part of the learning process to become truly engaged with the class.
What are some methods you use to engage students?