Let’s face it: as professors, we’re competing with the likes of Greek life, parties, college football, and intramural sports for our students’ attention. Many of them are going to chose those other options over studying for our classes more often than not. So how can we maximize the time we have with them and maybe even convince them that additional time outside the classroom will be worth the effort? In my early teaching career, I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but here are five ways I engage students:
1. Be willing to risk and try things. Don’t we ask this of our students? In class discussion, while making topic selections and writing papers, while revising creative projects? If we ask our students to take risks, then why do many of us become predictable and dull? That isn’t to say that when something works, we shouldn’t keep doing it, but a little variety helps, too. Even when we try something and fail, that’s okay. It can actually serve as helpful modeling, since everything our students try isn’t going to work either.
2. Speak our students’ language, at least some of the time. I mean this literally as well as figuratively. So ask them if they went to the football game. Show them popular video clips that tie in to your lesson. Use social media as a classroom tool. I don’t know what that would look like for you — I know teachers who have found ways to use blogs, Pinterest, or Facebook — but I have had some success with Twitter. It serves as a way to get students to interact with each other about ideas, while also launching fascinating conversations about genre, discourse, and brevity.
3. When giving an assignment, do not clarify whether or not it will be turned in for a grade. This might not work for all professors in all contexts, but I do this as a way to hopefully shift some of the motivation for why students work at the subject I teach. I do not want them to play the game of doing what the teacher wants to get an “A.” This world has plenty of those people; I do not need to pump out any more of them.
4. This has to be worked toward, but put more and more of the onus on the students for class leadership, interests, and creativity. One of the ways I do this is with a method for class discussion. It starts by dismantling our comfortable rows of desks and instead facing each other in a circle. I may write a couple questions on the board to start the discussion, but then it’s on the students to start and pursue whichever directions they want to take about a text we read. I limit the number of times each student can speak — four, maybe — to discourage the extroverts from dominating and to encourage the introverts to get involved. Sometimes, this means we have to embrace the discomfort of silence, but that’s okay, too. Often, students surprise us with their ability to hold their own when we have high expectations for them.
5. Hold mandatory one-on-one conferences with students at the beginning and end of the semester. Depending on the particular institution, you may even be able to do this during class time. Most students really do want to be known and seen, despite their initial nervousness and insecurity. Space like this can be used for a number of purposes, including but not limited to understanding a student’s past educational experiences, learning about his or her interests, talking through a cognitive process about an issue or project, or even a pulse check on how things are going outside of class. This investment can pay off big dividends later on if students learn to trust you.