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Why Didn’t Anyone Do Today’s Reading? – Engaging Students by Building Relationships 

Article by Pamela Rivers

The semester is well under way. Your students have taken their first exam. Some are active and excelling. Others have stopped coming to class or are not completing the assigned readings. Welcome to the end of September.

Maybe you thought this time it wouldn’t happen. Everyone was eager and excited and answering your questions for the first few class sessions. Now, however, you are right back to encountering some disengaged students doing what feels like the bare minimum, and it’s eating away at your passion for teaching. Is this the fate for our classes, or are there more or different things we can do to reach students?

First, to be clear, engaging students is not magic, and although it should be informed by science, in many ways it’s also an art form. Like all art, some of it appeals to us and some of it doesn’t. No one can promise you a room full of fully engaged students who always turn in their homework, laugh at all your jokes, and come prepared every session. No trick or strategy works for every person, every time. There are, however, certain strategies you can employ to make it more likely your students will listen, attend, and want to do well, for you and for themselves.

Relationships Matter

In “Culturally Responsive Teachers Create Counter Narratives for Students”, Zaretta Hammond argues that relationships can be the “on ramp to learning.” She says that relationships can be as important as the curriculum. One research study cited in Relationship-Rich Education showed that alumni who had a faculty member who cared about them as a student felt more connected to their current jobs. Unfortunately, only 27% of graduates surveyed had someone in that role. This powerful research shows that developing relationships with our students not only engages them, but can also lead to their success down the road.

That is compelling research, and it can take a lot less than you might imagine to make a real difference in the lives of your students. Students want to know that you care, and they want to feel welcome in your classroom. Research suggests that colleges and universities need to invest in a “relentless welcome of their students,” (Felton and Lambert, 2020) but faculty can lead the way in their individual classrooms by integrating activities that build relationships and encourage engagement.

Getting to Know You Surveys

Before class starts, whether online or face-to-face, send out a “getting to know you” survey through Canvas. This survey can ask questions specific to your discipline, but it is also a place to show interest in your students and what might hold them back from being successful. You could ask about your students’ pronouns, how they prefer to be contacted, any worries they are having about your class, and any specific needs they have. You can find a lot out about a student by simply asking. Need a ready-made survey? Reach out to CATL to get a copy of our Canvas Template, which includes a sample survey.

Ice Breakers

When you hear the word “ice breakers,” you may groan. The truth is a silly, active icebreaker is a wonderful way to get face-to-face students moving and is a start to building classroom community (Sciutto, M.J., 1995). A people bingo game, for example, can help get students talking and will help them get to know each other. If you are teaching online, there are plenty of icebreakers you can do asynchronously, including video introductions or a game like two truths and a lie.

Class Norms

Developing a set of agreed-upon class norms (expectations or guidelines), both for your students and you, that everyone is involved in creating goes a long way toward building both trust and community. Next semester, take part of your first class session to have your students help you develop norms. If you need some ideas for what these class expectations might look like, check out the “Trust” section of this CATL toolbox article.

Make It Matter

Find ways to tie your assignments to students’ goals, lives, and futures. If you ask me to spend 2 hours every week looking up dictionary definitions for words I’ve never heard of for a random quiz that doesn’t seem to have any bearing on what I’m supposed to be learning in your course, I am unlikely to be motivated to keep spending my time looking in the dictionary. If, on the other hand, you explain to me the importance of the words I’m learning, how they will be useful in my next class, and even how they may show up on a licensing exam for my future career, my motivation changes.

Unplanned Conversations

In face-to-face or synchronous online courses, you can use the time before class or while students are working to chat with those students who are unoccupied. Mention something you liked about their work, ask how their weekend was, and show a genuine interest in them. You never know what you might learn in these conversations. It may not lead to anything, or it may lead to a student feeling seen. Establishing a friendly and open line of communication with students in this way also makes it more likely that they will feel comfortable coming to you if they have a question or issue in the class.

Give Your Students a Chance to be Successful

As you build up to the major coursework in your class, have small, low-stakes assignments that give them all an opportunity for success and to receive formative feedback. As students get a small taste of success, they will want to feel that more.

Use Your Students’ Names and Pronouns

Another way to make a student feel seen is by how you address them. Ask your students what they would like to be called and what pronouns they use in a “getting to know you survey” or some other activity at the start of the semester. If you are teaching a face-to-face class and are good with names, try to memorize their names and pronouns during the first few weeks and use them frequently. If you are teaching online or have more students than you can remember for a large face-to-face roster, ask students to complete the name pronunciation activity created by CATL to help instructors with names. In face-to-face classes, also consider having students create name tents that they can pull out for class use. These small steps show that you care about making them feel comfortable in class, and help students learn the names of their peers as well.

Engagement is Key for Student Success

There are no silver bullets for engagement, but hopefully there are a few things on this list that you can consider adding to your teaching practices. And the truth is, engagement matters. According to Miller in “The Value of Being Seen: Faculty-Student Relationships as the Cornerstone of Postsecondary Learning,” engaged students experience more academic success and have higher persistence rates. Keeping our students engaged gives them the best chance at success.

References

Cohen, E., & Viola, J. (2022). The role of pedagogy and the curriculum in university students’ sense of belonging. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 19(4), 1–17.

Felton, P., & Lambert, L. (2020). Relationship-Rich Education. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hammond, Z. (2018, June 18). Culturally Responsive Teachers Create Counter Narratives for Students. Valinda Kimmel. September 12, 2023, valinda.kimmel.com

Lu, Adrienne. (2023, February 17). Everyone Is Talking About “Belonging,” but What Does It Really Mean? Chronicle of Higher Education, 69(12), 1–6.

Miller, K. E. (2020). The Value of Being Seen: Faculty-Student Relationships as the Cornerstone of Postsecondary Learning. Transformative Dialogues: Teaching & Learning Journal, 13(1), 100–104.

Sciutto, M. J. (1995). Student-centered methods for decreasing anxiety and increasing interest level in undergraduate. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 22(3), 277.

Evidence-Based Frameworks and Strategies for Keeping Students Engaged

Keeping students engaged in their learning throughout an entire semester is a challenge that exists across all disciplines and modalities. Though the ways in which you implement strategies for increasing student engagement might vary because of these factors, the good news is that the underlying principles remain the same. Below are some of the key methods and strategies that have emerged as common themes across many studies on the relationships between teaching practices and student engagement.

Foster a Culture of Growth, Trust, and Belonging

Part of a student’s engagement in a course is tied to the affective domain of learning, or a student’s thoughts and feelings about their own learning. Does the student feel like they belong in this learning environment? Are they respected by their peers and the instructor? Do they see their instructor as an ally in the learning journey, or as an adversary?

One aspect of the affective domain is whether an individual has a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. The Center for Learning Experimentation, Application and Research at the University of North Texas has a great list of growth mindset interventions instructors can implement. It is worth noting, however, that research seems to indicate the effectiveness of these interventions is contingent on the instructor’s mindset as well. Studies have shown that instructors with a greater growth mindset (as opposed to a fixed mindset) have smaller racial achievement gaps and inspire more student motivation in their courses.

The affective domain also includes students’ feelings of belonging and trust. While the degree to which you can affect these feelings has limitations, evidence-based practices usually boil down to how you interact with students and facilitate interactions between students. A few examples include using a welcoming tone in your syllabus, modelling inclusive language, and taking the time to get to know your students’ names. Even in asynchronous classes it is important to build trust with your students. For example, you might want to consider using a week-one survey to provide your students with an opportunity to tell you about themselves.

Break Up Lectures & Add Opportunities for Active Learning

When there is a lot of content that needs to be disseminated across the duration of the semester, lectures are a common method for communicating that information quickly and efficiently. But the longer and denser the lecture is, the more instructors risk losing their students along the way due to cognitive load.

One solution is to build pause points into your lectures. Students benefit from structured pauses during lectures as it allows them space to question, process, and reflect on the information that they’ve absorbed. For pre-recorded lectures, the same idea can be achieved by breaking up a long lecture video into multiple short, topical videos (research suggests 6-12 minutes is an ideal length for maintaining student engagement). Fortunately, Kaltura (My Media) makes it very easy to trim and save video clips from right within Canvas.

When adding pauses for students to digest information, it is also beneficial to create opportunities for active learning activities. These activities can be very brief, such as using an anonymous polling tool to check for student understanding during a lecture. For more in-depth active learning, consider making time for small group discussions, written reflections, and other exercises that require students to employ higher order thinking skills. For courses with an asynchronous component, PlayPosit allows instructors to add a variety of engagement activities to pre-recorded lecture videos, while Hypothesis may be useful for incorporating annotation and reflection activities into assigned readings.

Provide Transparency and Support

When a student needs to spend a lot of mental energy figuring out the logistics of how to complete an activity, they have less mental energy left to engage with the course materials themselves. Therefore, transparency and scaffolding are both key elements to designing engaging assignments.

The Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TiLT) framework is designed to help instructors write clear and descriptive instructions for learning materials and assignments. For this framework, lay out the task, purpose, and criteria for each learning activity. If a student knows what they are supposed to do, why they are supposed to do it (how it ties to the course learning outcomes), and how they are going to be assessed, they can go into the activity more confident in their ability to engage with it.

It is common for a student to stop engaging with a course if they feel like they don’t have the means or resources to complete the tasks they’ve been assigned. Proper instructional scaffolding can help counter this issue by bridging some of the cognitive gaps and reducing the number of students that fall through the cracks. For example, if the final assignment in your course is an 8-page research paper, consider breaking up the process into several smaller assignments, such as having students submit their topic, bibliography, and outline at various points throughout the semester. Other ways to provide scaffolding this assignment might include modelling (providing examples of papers that meet the outcomes of the assignment), incorporating instructor or peer feedback for the outline or an early draft of the paper, and providing a robust rubric to guide students on how to meet the assignment outcomes.

Additional Resources

Engaging students is a broad topic that we are only just able to scratch the surface of in this post. Below are some resources for further reading if you’d like to dive in deeper.

Questions?

As always, we welcome you to share your ideas for engaging students by dropping a comment below or emailing us at CATL@uwgb.edu. If you’d like to discuss any of these methods or ideas one-on-one, a CATL member would be happy to meet with you for a consultation as well.

Session Recording: “Hypothesis: A Social Annotation Tool” (Thursday, Sept. 1, 2:30 p.m.)

Session Description

Learn more about our new tool, Hypothesis, and transform reading from a passive, individual activity to an active, collaborative exchange.

*Session led by vendor representative with CATL input.

 

Active Learning

What Is Active Learning?

Research has long supported the effectiveness of active learning strategies. What is active learning? It is an umbrella term used to describe classroom techniques in which students must participate in a tangible way in their own learning, as opposed to passively attending to a lecture or other presented material. Sometimes it involves groups of students working together (e.g., think, pair, share); in other cases they work individually to engage with the material (e.g., minute papers).

Overwhelming Evidence Supports Active Learning in the Classroom

You may be very familiar with the idea of active learning, but perhaps you are less well-acquainted with the research that supports its use. As recently noted by Davidson and Katopodis (2022) in Inside Higher Ed, according to “an often-referenced meta-study of more than 225 separate studies, active learning is more effective for every kind of student, in every discipline, than the traditional lecture model or the question-and-answer guided discussion method” (para. 1). Want to review some of the evidence yourself? Freeman et al. (2014) published the meta-analysis just referenced. More recently, Dewsbury and colleagues (2022) reported that active and inclusive learning techniques improved grades and reduced equity gaps in introductory biology courses, supporting previous findings by Theobold, Hill, Tran, and Freeman (2020) with STEM majors. Finally, Deslauriers et al. (2019) offered this interesting study that tackled resistance to active learning. They discovered that students in their research objectively learned more with active strategies but perceived that they learned less. Thus, instructors may wish to explain why they use these teaching approaches and what evidence tells us about the benefits for students.

Practical Implementation of Active Learning across Classes and Disciplines

As with any teaching approach, gradual implementation at a pace comfortable to the instructor and students is often wise. There are dozens and dozens of active learning strategies you can try, so there are opportunities to use these across disciplines and whether your classes are large or small, introductory level or advanced. Using active learning also does not mean abandoning lecture – in fact, it can be interspersed between shorter stretches of lecture that fit better with our typical attention span (e.g., about 10 minutes). What follows are links to practical resources to get you started.