January 22nd, 2009

Building Student Engagement: First Classes

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In yesterday’s post I provided tips on how to use the syllabus to build student engagement. In this article I offer some suggestions on how to get students involved in the first few classes to ensure a more engaging course throughout the semester.

Learn students’ names: Make a serious and obvious effort to learn your students’ names within the first one or two classes. Learning students’ names and having students learn each other’s names creates a warm environment that encourages learning and participation. Use their names when speaking in class. Ask your students to address each other by name, rather than “he” or “she.” It makes a big difference in forging bonds between them. Methods to learn names quickly include creating “name tents” placed in front of each student or having your TA take pictures of everyone and create a handout.

Introduce yourself: Many students will be interested in your background and experiences — allow students to ask questions about you [McKeachie 23]. Robert Magnan suggests play “Meet Your Teacher” and distribute the syllabus and relevant handouts, give students time to read everything, then divide the class into groups and have them decide on questions to ask you [Magnan 5]. Some professors include a brief bio in the syllabus to give students a way to talk to parents and friends about the instructor. During the semester, look for opportunities to tell your students more about your professional experiences, relating them to the learning out comes for the course. They can learn from your success and especially from your mistakes. Students should know their professors are human.

Ask students to introduce themselves: During the first class, have students introduce themselves and say something of substance about themselves. For example, a goal they have, or what they plan to do after completing their studies [Chicago Handbook 22]. Or you could have students interview one another and briefly present that other person.

Fill out a questionnaire: Have the students fill out a questionnaire about themselves, including contact information, as well as goals, interests and expectations for the course. Questions might include: Why are you taking this class? What do you hope to learn? What are your career aspirations? Can you give me any hints about teaching and learning strategies that work well for you? What is your greatest hope for yourself in this class? Discuss the students’ answers when you meet with them one-on-one. A questionnaire like this helps you know more about your students and shows them you care. If a student doesn’t want to answer some of the questions, that’s OK, too.

Meet one-on-one with students: Tell your students that they have to meet with you within the first two weeks of the semester. In these meetings, learn more about each student, including their backgrounds, interests and life goals. Make an effort to get to know individual students’ interests and concerns and to acknowledge their individuality. For large lectures where the professor cannot meet with everyone individually, invite in groups of three or four, or assign students to meet with a TA or other faculty mentor. There is a line beyond which the conversation might be perceived as prying, so watch out for that.

Learn from your students: Tell your students what you expect to learn from them, not only during class discussions, but also from their research and papers. Students want to feel that their work has the potential to make a valuable contribution. You can also tell your students about a recent time that you learned something from a student.
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Establish standard of grading: It is important for students to understand your grading standards. If you build in assignments, quizzes or other gradable events early in the semester, your students can judge your reaction to their work and be better able to meet your standards as the semester progresses.

Share your tips for building student engagement in the comment box below.

References:
The Chicago Handbook for Teachers (1999). A Practical Guide to the College Classroom.

Magnan, Robert (1990). 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Professors.

McKeachie, Wilbert J (2002). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers.

Chris Palmer is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. He can be reached at palmer@american.edu