Tip: The Student Engagement Puzzle
True of any teaching strategy: “They are only good when they are, well, good.”
I am not a lecturer as I remember my lecture-based classes from undergrad, where we would sit for the entire hour without saying anything, taking furious notes. My discipline lends itself much more naturally to an explain-and-do style of teaching than a true lecture. That said, as a student - or, now, a professional development participant - I really have nothing against lectures, and frequently learn more from a great presentation than from breakout room activities. So it was interesting to me to see this tweet pop up:
I was surprised at how many voices chimed in to support lecture as a pedagogical choice, with criticisms of non-lecture activities largely centered around a theme of students not wanting to be a support for unprepared or unengaged peers. Naturally, there is an audience bias, as I assume many of the replies are coming from other professors who, most likely, were fairly successful as students in a traditional lecture-heavy university. But many of the replies cite their own students’ stated preferences, which do not always lean towards more “active” learning activities.
As we grapple with delivering content and engaging students in this not-quite-post-pandemic world, some of the suggestions I’ve written about previously need revisiting.
If “students hate lectures,” does it follow that they hate watching recorded materials? If they don’t hate lectures, do pre-recorded lectures capture whatever it is about in-person lectures that works for them? The whole point of creating recoded microlectures is they allow us to deliver shorter bursts of content, with multimedia support - but they are a lot of work to create if students aren’t watching them and learning from them. While I have some recordings that I can re-use, I find it hard to resist re-recording these mini-videos each semester to better address the particular concerns that have popped up with a given group of students. And then I have to wonder…are students really watching the videos? The more we have to chase after students to prompt and track engagement, the more work it is for the professor.
Plus, there are the slightly creepy stories of recorded lectures living on after the instructor has left the institution, and in some cases, this world, as these art students and these mathematics students found out.
Flipped classrooms sound like a great solution - students will read and watch videos at home, and come to class ready to dig in! - but in reality, the flip falls far short of the ideal. I think the tipped classroom approach is a much more realistic solution to the quandary of delivering content and engaging students in doing something with that knowledge. I have heard from too many colleagues over the past year whose well-designed activities flopped because not enough students came to class prepared. These issues are compounded when some students are online and some are onsite, or students alternate between online and onsite attendance. It’s hard to plan when you never know how many or which students will be in the classroom versus in the Zoom room. Creativity in approaching engagement in online discussions can help, but - again - this is a lot of work for the instructor to build the structure and then facilitate various activities.
Flexible online/onsite boundaries
I have written a lot about flexibility in the design of delivery of content and activities, and creating more low-stakes assignments while allowing students multiple ways of demonstrating mastery of course content & skills. There’s no way around the reality that providing flexibility to students means more work for the instructor - and when I asked if you all thought there was point when flexibility stops helping students, the responses largely affirmed that, yes, flexibility doesn’t always benefit the student. I think we have to walk a fine line between providing the structure that so many students need while not punishing students with poor grades for behavior outside of the course learning outcomes.
I don’t think these are easy concerns to resolve. Sometimes there’s a neat tech solution - I still really love naming breakout rooms things like ‘ready to chat!’ or ‘I need 10 minutes to review the reading’ - but all too often this year, it has felt like students are struggling just as much as they were in two years ago. I’m pretty sure there’s not a neat tech trick for living in an ongoing pandemic, potential world war, and domestic political unrest. I think the answer is somewhere in the middle - lectures can be great, as can non-lecture activities. What Paul Corrigan stated about lectures in his 2013 article, To Lecture or Not to Lecture? could just as easily be concluded about more “active” teaching strategies: “They are only good when they are, well, good.”
What are your thoughts on the puzzle of keeping students engaged?
PS: There was a specific criticism of “active” learning strategies that will be the focus of next week’s tip…