February 4th, 2009

Building Student Engagement: Beyond the Classroom

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In this, the final installment of a six-part series on strategies for building student engagement, I offer suggestions for engaging students beyond the classroom. As professors, we impact students not only during classes, but also through office hours, emails, and feedback.

Manage your office hours: For your office hours, encourage students to drop by even if they don’t have specific questions. Leave your door open unless you are discussing a personal issue with a student. Have a sign-up sheet on your door so students don’t have to wait.

Reach out to students who miss a class: Contact any students who don’t show up to class to find out if they need help. One idea: if a student misses a class for any reason, ask that student for a three to five-page analytic paper on a topic related to the missed class, showing that the student can apply the concepts covered in the class to a case or issue.
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Be responsive to e-mails and calls from students: Respond promptly (within 24 hours or less) to all student emails and messages. Add your home, office or cell phone number (wherever you prefer to be called) under your name at the end of the e-mail so that students can call you if needed. If you can’t fully respond right away, write a brief response saying you will do so in a few days. You may want to keep electronic copies of all e-mails with students and the faculty responses for at least one semester after the class has ended to keep a record in case of any disagreements.

Give plenty of student feedback: Students want rigorous, critical and detailed feedback in a constructive and encouraging manner. Just be sure to criticize the product, and not the person. For example, you might say “This paper misses the point” instead of, “You missed the point.” It’s also a good idea to ask students to submit short proposals about papers and projects well before the due date and provide extensive feedback on the proposals to make sure the students are on the right track.

Permit homework counter-offers: Let your students take more control of their own learning by allowing them to counter-offer when you give an assignment. For many assignments, this won’t be appropriate, but where it is appropriate, allow a student to say to you, “Professor, instead of assignment X, would it be possible for me to devote an equal amount of time, if not more, to assignment Y because this will be more helpful to me in my future career.” Note on the syllabus which few assignments this may be permissible.

Call the parents of outstanding students: Toward the end of the semester, select the top half dozen students in your class, and ask their permission to call their parents so you can tell them how well their son or daughter has done in your class. Once the student gives you permission, call their mom and dad and tell them that they can be very proud of their son or daughter for the diligence, creativity and tenacity they have shown in your class. The parents will be delighted to receive this call from you. The downside is that you diminish the notion that students are independent adults, and could even embolden parents to contact you over say, a disputed grade.

Although this article concludes the series on building student engagement, I continue to welcome your thoughts – either on effective strategies for beyond the classroom specifically, or any other tips on engaging students. Please share your comments below.

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

For Further Reading:

Allitt, Patrick (2005). I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student.
Bain, Ken (2004). What the Best College Teachers Do.
The Chicago Handbook for Teachers (1999). A Practical Guide to the College Classroom.
Davis, Barbara Gross (1993). Tools for Teaching.
Magnan, Robert (1990). 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Professors.
McGlynn, Angela Provitera (2001). Successful Beginnings for College Teaching
McKeachie, Wilbert J (2002). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers.
Palmer, Patrick (1998). The Courage to Teach.