Student engagement in the classroom is at the forefront of most discussions and professional development. And for good reason. But what does engagement mean, exactly? And how can that apply to post-secondary learning institutions such as colleges or universities?
In short, engagement is the degree to which a person, in this case, a student, is interested in the class, content, or even the teacher. The more engaged the student, the more successful they will be in the classroom and beyond.
It is important to note that engagement does not equate to entertainment. If that’s what teachers were there to do– entertain– then we’ll all be playing movies or video games all day. Engagement is different in that it creates opportunities for students to interact with each other and the content and necessitates the use of critical thinking skills and effective methods of communication.
The Next Level
So how can an instructor engage adult learners then? There are a variety of suggestions and ideas I’d like to offer teachers. Some of them may be familiar, some may even serve as friendly reminders, while others may be new. Either way, I hope you find these helpful as you improve your practice. And if you’re interested in learning more about how I can help you improve your practice, visit the Liberal Arts Lite services page to check out my coaching services!
Probably the #1 most important factor when working with students, no matter the age, is relationships. They are so important in establishing a classroom culture where students feel heard and valued because when that happens, engagement occurs.
In working with adult learners, relationships are everything. You may think that since they are already adults, teachers don’t need to focus as much on relationships, but you do. Make it a priority to get to know your students. Start by learning their names, fast. Surprise them on day three when you have all their names memorized. Obviously, this is more difficult to accomplish for lecture-style courses, but you can still make connections to your students.
Making connections not only makes the classroom more enjoyable for both teachers and students, but it also gives students hope. It continues to encourage and support them long after they leave your classroom. Gallup conducted a meta-study in which they surveyed over 5 million 5th through 12th graders. According to their 2018 report, “Engaged students are 2.5 times more likely to say that they get excellent grades and do well in school, and they are 4.5 times more likely to be hopeful about the future than their actively disengaged peers.” While the participants were in elementary and secondary levels of schooling, the results are still telling and quite relevant for adult learners, too.
Engaging students in discussion activities can help create a classroom environment where students feel heard and understood. It’s an opportunity for them to build relationships with each other and even walk away with more empathy and understanding of others’ world views.
Creating this type of environment does not happen in one sitting, however. Discussion should be a regular part of your classroom instruction, even if you have a lecture-size class.
One of my favorite ways to get students to discuss is through exploration and inquiry. I use what is called a Dilemma One Sheet where students are given a historically significant event or court case and they must analyze it to help answer a guiding philosophical question. These always result in productive and lively discussions among students!
Make it relevant.
There are so many ways to connect your content to what’s going on in the world today. This is about the time when your students’ worldviews are broadening and they are thinking critically about their values and beliefs, maybe even separating from what their parents believed.
This is a time for more independence and exploration. Making a conscious effort to help students see how the content of your class is relevant to their lives will significantly increase attendance and participation.
On a similar note, create assignments and activities that not only stretch their thinking but require that they rely on their own experiences to analyze a problem and create a solution. It’s important to validate your students’ prior experiences. Do not assume you are the lone source of knowledge. As the instructor in the classroom, you are the expert in your field, but you are not the only custodian of knowledge.
Simply put, students are more successful in classes where they are engaged. To keep my own students engaged and help other teachers do the same, I created a series of activities and lessons that increase engagement, here are some of my favorites:
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