Crowdsourcing ideas for student engagement and student challenges

One of the most persistent questions that faculty face is how to engage our students productively, both in and out of the classroom. In some settings this is easier than others: when students are taking elective courses in their area of interest, the road is often smoother than when they’re taking courses that are required or considered “hard.” What moves can we make to help students engage? How do we deal with students who don’t engage or who challenge us?

Faculty in our Junior Faculty Teaching Fellows program raised these issues this year, asking for an opportunity to think through these questions with each other and with senior colleagues. I invited three outstanding Vanderbilt faculty members to share their ideas and experience over dinner with the Fellows:

We began the dinner with a panel, where I asked our guests to describe a specific example of something they do to help their students engage in one of their courses. Anjali Forber-Pratt teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses for students who are focused on careers related to human development, such as careers in counseling or student affairs. In both her graduate and undergraduate courses, Anjali asks students to do activities to help them prepare for those careers—attending particular events, developing projects—and she said that a critical piece to these activities is to have students create an action plan. When she has students reflect on the steps they’re going to take and why each step matters, it helps them see the value of the overall task. She finds that it helps them engage in a more meaningful way throughout the course.

Lily Claiborne also draws on the power of reflection to help her students engage in both her introductory course in geoscience, which primarily serves nonmajors, and some upper-level majors courses that can include somewhat esoteric topics (thermodynamics, anyone?). She said that in the introductory course, she has her students (all 100+ of them!) write two short essays that explain why the science they are learning is valuable to a topic of personal interest to them. Grading is pretty easy, she said, because each essay is unique, and she’s grading on ideas rather than writing. Importantly, she finds that the assignment really helps bring the content of the course home for students. In her upper level courses, she knows her students are pretty invested overall, but she also knows that specific topics can appear to have limited value to them. To help with this issue, she shows students survey data from potential employers describing skills they are looking for in prospective employees. Throughout the course, she returns to those data, asking students to reflect on how specific course topics are helping students build the skillset they need.

Mary Ann Jessee pointed out that what all three panelists do is to help students identify meaning in their work, often by helping them see its utility value (or how it will help them in the future). Depending on how they frame it, these reflections may also help students see how their learning can have a self-transcendent purpose—that is, how it is helping them prepare to impact the world in some way—which Yeager and colleagues have found to help people persist in tedious or unpleasant tasks.

One commonality to these examples is that they invited students to personalize their education, thinking about how the course applies to them and their goals specifically. These elements of personalization and reflection carried over into how the panelists dealt with—or in several cases, sought to prevent—challenges to their authority.

Mary Ann talked about how we can sometimes perceive challenges in email communications, and how important it is to remember that tone is hard to read, both in emails we receive and those we send. She recommended that faculty reflect back what they’ve read and respond if they can do so in one or two sentences.

Dear X, Thank you for your email. I think you’re asking whether Y is true for this assignment. It is true, and the rubric can be found here. Let me know if you have further questions. Best, Dr. Z

If you can’t address the student’s questions or comments very briefly, she says it’s best to meet face-to-face—even if that F2F meeting is through Skype or Zoom.  The F2F meeting helps you be more sure that both you and your student is reading the tone correctly, and it helps remind both parties that they’re dealing with individual people, not deidentified and impersonal “students” or “professors.”

Anjali said her best idea for preventing challenges came from Sharon Shields in Vanderbilt’s Human and Organizational Development Department. She has an online “request for regrade meeting” form that becomes available 24 hours after a graded assignment has been returned to students. On it, students explain the reason for their regrade request. Both the 24 hour delay and the articulation of their specific concerns helps students be more reflective, and having information about a student’s concerns before the meeting helps Anjali think about how she wants to respond. She also thinks that the form helps reduce the number of grade challenges—when encouraged to think about why and if they want to make a challenge, students often decide not to do so.

Lily talked about the importance of personalization for responding to in-class challenges.  She said that her nonmajors course is designed for first- and second-year students, building in small regular assignments and a lot of accountability. While that design works well for students early in their college career, juniors and seniors can resist this level of support—and Lily said that they sometimes show this by talking in class or getting up and leaving. She said that for several years, she ignored the disruptions because she wasn’t sure how to deal with them, but that in recent years she’s taken a more proactive approach. Specifically, as she moves around the classroom while students are doing think-pair-shares or other small group work, she’ll pause by the disruptive student and say quietly, “I’d like you to see me after class.” She’ll then set up a time to talk to them in office hours, where her goal is to get the student to articulate why they engaged in the disruptive activity. Importantly, Lily is intentionally warm and supportive with her students during class and office hours. She knows and uses their names, and she moves around the classroom a lot. Therefore when she names their disruptive behavior during this office hours session and asks what their thinking is around it, the student knows that Lily is not trying to shame them but is instead trying to confront a problem in order to solve it.

During the dinner discussion that followed the panel, the group built on these ideas for preventing or dealing with challenges. Several people talked about the value of explaining the rationale for different teaching approaches and assignments, which can help students see value in what you are doing and can help them see you, the instructor, as a pedagogical as well as a content expert. Others talked about the value that can come from explaining your path to the classroom—in other words, giving your academic pedigree—and providing examples of your professional activities, such as explaining what you are doing when you have to miss class for a conference or using one of your publications as fodder for an assignment. Several language instructors talked about the value of using humor to deal with potential disruptions, naming behaviors in a lighthearted way in the target language during a lesson: “Oh, you didn’t understand that we don’t use laptops in this class” or “Oh, you’re using social media.” In these introductory language classes, the goal is to learn to communicate, and so any behavior in class can be fodder for discussion. One important element that emerged from our conversation is how important it is for each of us to accept who we are as an instructor and to build our strategies around that basis. Whether we are quiet and contemplative, loud and humorous, or another combination, we can build on the bases of student reflection and personalization to engage our students and work with them through challenges.

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