Three Ways to Engage Students In and Outside the Classroom

group work activity in college classroom.

When students become directly engaged in the learning process, they take ownership of their education. The following learning activities have helped me to engage students in and outside the classroom. The strategies also help keep my teaching relevant, fresh, and creative.

Get real

Silence filled the classroom when the grimacing woman wearing layers of torn sweatshirts and mismatched work boots kicked an empty desk by the door. She fished out a wrinkled paper from her jean’s front pocket and waved it high in the air. “The court sent me,” she said, looking directly into the eyes of a startled young freshman. “And I want to know, who’s gonna make me stay?” Rolling the document into a ball, she quickly darted to the back of the room and dropped it onto the desk of the biggest guy in the room. She asked him, “Is it you?”

For the past several years, I have invited professional social workers to role-play clients that my students may one day encounter in their careers as social workers. Role-plays may include clients experiencing addiction, domestic abuse, or mental health issues. Students assume the role of a social worker and, as a group, are responsible for assessing the problematic situation, determining client needs, and formulating action plans.

These realistic role-plays are primarily designed to be problem-solving exercises. Students work together, building on each other’s questions, to determine a plan of action to help each of the role-playing clients. With each role-play session (four each semester), I have observed improvement in the group’s ability to develop meaningful questions as well as confidence in asking the questions. In follow-up discussions and surveys, students indicated that this collaborative experience helped them to better understand the social worker/client relationship. The exercise reinforces my belief in the value of active learning.

See a show

That’s right; I take my social work students to art shows and museum exhibits on campus. I’ve learned that art can speak to students in a way that many lectures cannot.

A recent art show featured works by an artist who painted young adults experiencing such issues as isolation or abandonment. I asked the students to select one of the individuals in the paintings as a potential client. I then asked them to imagine how their client would respond to several questions relevant to their uniqueness.

One student wrote, “Although I feel like this lady is trying to move forward in her life, something in her future or in her present state, like racism or discrimination, is holding her back. She is trying to find her identity. When I asked her what makes her unique, she said, ‘Being fierce enough not to back down from the hard challenges.'”

Another had this to say: “The painting was really shocking for me to look at. It seemed like I was looking into my own mind when I was a teenager. The words written on her arms: abuse, hate, unwanted, and get out were exact things I went through and feelings I felt throughout my teenage years. To be honest, it was scary looking at it because it was as though I could feel what she was feeling.”

Subsequent discussions were profound and powerful. Indeed, engagement sometimes happens in the gallery.

Breathe fire

Breathing life into concepts is the hallmark of effective teaching. With nearly 30 years of direct practice in the field of social work, I work hard in the classroom to illustrate ideas with compelling stories and “real-life” experiences. My job is to capture my students’ attention. If I don’t, concepts become unanswered essay questions or, worse, rote textbook definition recitals.

Earlier this semester, I was explaining the term, macro practice, in one of my classes. “When we change the environment so that it works for the individual,” I told the students, “we are using the macro approach.” The yawns and glazed-over eyes were signals for something more, so I shared a story that took them to an old, dirt road in rural Oklahoma where I spent a week knocking on doors asking residents to sign a petition so that my client, a dying hospice patient, could get meals delivered from an agency that told him he was ineligible due to delivery geographics.

We talked about advocacy and tenacity and a few unfriendly dogs on porches. We talked about policy and stamina and standing up to just-the-way-it-is mentality. We talked about injustice and anger and action plans. We talked about focus and pluck and the power of a pair of dusty shoes. We talked about change and choice and what it really means to do social work.

Breathing life (sometimes fire) into concepts goes a long way. Passion fuels engagement, which often leads to more effective teaching.

Richard H. Kenney, Jr., is an assistant professor and Director of the Social Work Program at Chadron State College in Chadron, Nebraska. 

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