I think we recognize that if we’re able to draw students into the learning experience, they will learn more, ask more questions, and retain the information longer. It seems to me that we often hear about different technologies being motivating – using laptops, student response systems (i.e., clickers), integrating video, or using PowerPoint alternatives (e.g., Prezi) to spice up lectures. I’ve known some professors who rely on bringing candy and other snacks to make a class more enjoyable. I don’t know to what extent these “engagement” strategies necessarily serve to improve students’ learning, however.
Emotional vs. Intellectual Engagement
One problem may be that we confuse the need for emotional or affective engagement with intellectual engagement. Ultimately as teachers we should be more concerned that students are engaged intellectually than whether they are having fun. Emotional engagement may have no bearing on what students learn in class. For example, I remember having popcorn parties in elementary school – but where’s the learning in that?
That’s not to say, however, that we shouldn’t strive to make our classes interesting, compelling, and yes, engaging for our students. Over the years I’ve learned from my own experience and my colleagues some strategies that serve to make a class more enjoyable, but that also emphasize intellectual engagement with course content. While you’ll find five strategies below, this list is nowhere near exhaustive.
5 Strategies for Intellectual Engagement
1. Pique their curiosity – When you can surprise students with a provocative demonstration, a powerful image, or an unexpected quotation, you leverage their natural curiosity to understand more.
2. Provide open-ended, divergent learning opportunities – It can be much more engaging for students (and their professors) if they are provided with challenges that offer more than one “right answer” or multiple ways to approach a problem. This will challenge them to devise their own approach and offer opportunities for you to provide feedback on their process rather than just assess the outcomes.
3. Anchor their work in real-world, concrete, and relevant problems – The more authentic we can make student work, they more effort and initiative they will invest – particularly if there will be a wider audience for their work. In a course on community college organizational structure, my colleague Pam Eddy challenged students to create a wiki resource site that she then shared with a group of community college Presidents to support them in their work.
4. Engage them in collaborative work – When students work in collaborative teams with clear, specific, and interdependent roles, they can often produce higher quality and more substantive work than they could alone. The challenge is to make sure that students are assessed both individually and collectively to ensure equal participation.
5. Provide student choice – Wherever possible, if we can give students some choice in their learning, they will be more likely to engage with the content. This choice can relate to the focus of the work (i.e., choosing their own research focus), the format of new material they encounter (text, video, ebook, lecture), or options for assignments to demonstrate their understanding (e.g., paper, film, flowchart).
These are just a few strategies to engage students in intellectual rigorous meaningful work.
What strategies have you used to engage students in their learning?
Please post your comments below.