Student Engagement: Trade-offs and Payoffs

I dread the moments when I look out into a classroom and see a collection of blank stares or thumbs clicking on tiny keypads: a pool of disengaged students, despite what I thought was a student-centered activity. Recently, I have been considering how teachers (me specifically) undermine our own efforts to engage students.

We do that by putting certain educational goals above getting and keeping students involved. If I sense a lack of energy and involvement on the part of students, right then, I may need to adjust my teaching methods, even if that means sacrificing some other laudable goals. Here are some examples that illustrate what I mean.

Student engagement vs. correctness
True enough, students need to be able to produce correct answers. They should know Thomas Jefferson’s beliefs about representational government or how to set up a chemical equation. And asking questions is a great way to engage students, particularly the one who’s answering the question. But some students may be too shy, unprepared, or indifferent to engage with a fact-based question. Plus, once it’s answered, no more students need to engage.

We can, however, consciously craft engagement-focused questions rather than knowledge questions. These are true questions to which we don’t know the answer, they have multiple “right” answers, and they relate to students’ experiences. They may also reveal comprehension or invite critical thinking: What do you think is important for a democracy to survive? Which variable did you consider first in setting up this equation? If necessary, I can give students 30 seconds to jot down an answer or share with a peer before I solicit responses.

Even when I accept all initial answers unreservedly—if I have designed the question well, the answers are all “right” for the students who gave them—I need not abandon correctness. I can then move us into critiquing the field, winnowing toward a “better” answer or a more “academic” response. This process is exactly what I am trying to teach students to do: not to take my word for it but to draw from their own experiences and reason toward a best answer.

Student engagement vs. coverage
The need for coverage presents another challenge: we have one class period to cover the Korean War or advanced research strategies, and we don’t want to spend the whole period lecturing. Instead, I sometimes find myself pelting wary students with “Socratic” questions. In these situations, it may be both faster and more effective to do a shorter, noninteractive lecture and set aside five minutes for a related activity.

And when I engage students before I present information, I don’t lose much speed. I start by asking student groups to pool what they already know about a problem: List three tips for locating scholarly sources. Waiting for students to generate material takes time; I also worry about “the blind leading the blind.” Yet students’ collective knowledge can be surprisingly extensive. After hearing from students, I know better what I don’t need to “cover” and can focus more efficiently on their questions or confusions.

Student engagement vs. control
Making engagement the top priority means ceding some control over students’ learning. Despite our ample qualifications to direct the learning endeavor, we also know that during the moments when we are most engaged in learning, we are often least engaged with our formal teachers or with anyone else’s plans.

True free writes (“write about anything”), group work with loose guidelines (“talk about what surprised you in last night’s reading”), and somewhat random engagement questions (“if you were going to paint a portrait, who would you paint?”) may not push students to use concrete language, wrestle with critical concepts, or understand 18th-century European artwork. That makes this the hardest trade for me to make. I need to remind myself that undirected engagement can be highly productive for learners. If I want my students to surprise me and to enjoy making unexpected discoveries—the hallmarks of engaged, lifelong learning—I need to take these chances and trust that the payoffs will be worth the risks.

Getting engaged
When the blahs strike, I try to look for a way to completely—albeit temporarily—abandon correctness, coverage, or control in favor of getting students engaged. Besides all the good learning that results, I feel a pedagogical rush when my students turn on their brains and produce new knowledge. We all get engaged, and we all move a bit closer to learning “happily ever after.”

Dr. E. Shelley Reid, is an assistant professor and director of composition in the English department at George Mason University.

Excerpted from The Teaching Professor, February 2008.