Complacency is the enemy of student engagement. For anyone who has ever taught a room full of first-year college students, this phenomenon should be quite familiar. How well we all remember the eagerness and uncertainty of the semester’s first few weeks, when our freshman learners raised hands and paid attention as though their lives depended on it. As our students grow accustomed to the rhythms and repetitions of college life, they grow depressingly capable: learning when to reserve their energy, when to skip a reading assignment, and how to avoid participation altogether.
This is understandable—but inaction is, often, contagious among college students and a disengaged few can create a class-wide feeling of lethargy.
For these reasons, complacency and a lack of engagement must be treated as a direct threat to the well-being of any classroom. If we wish to elicit the engagement of our students, we must disrupt their routines and encourage something “new” in our classrooms.
Redefine their space
If left to their own devices, students—acting out patterns learned in grammar and high school—will usually claim an “assigned seat,” even if the instructor hasn’t assigned one. This results in a layout of desks that remains largely the same from class to class and allows students to approach the course content and discussion from a fixed vantage point. Whenever possible, it’s a good idea to shift seats around. New configurations may be devised to group students together for applicable assignments. In disrupting a student’s familiar approach to learning (spatially, acoustically, visually) the instructor is asking them to consider the course content from a new vantage point.
Foster a spirit of play
For course content that lends itself to quiz work (Mathematics, History, Language Instruction), consider foregoing the obvious and turning the traditional classroom into a game show. Dividing students into teams, a program of “guided competition” can prompt them to invest more deeply in the material they need to study. Instructors may choose to model their competition however they wish, so long as the atmosphere is fun and low-stakes. (One note: those instructors who plan to make competition the stuff of habit ought to keep their teams rotational, making sure that each group has an even distribution of strong and struggling students.)
Though many instructors resist inviting controversy into their classrooms, the discussion of provocative subject matter is perhaps the surest way to ensure student engagement (without sacrificing intellectual rigor). For disciplines that require the rhetorical study of argument (Composition/Writing, Philosophy, Sociology, Political Science), choose the most outlandish arguments and ask students to play Peter Elbow’s believing game. Rather than “scrutinizing fashionable or widely accepted ideas for hidden flaws, the believing game asks [them] to scrutinize unfashionable or even repellent ideas for hidden virtues” (Elbow 2). In the spirit of keeping things counterintuitive, ask students: under what conditions might this argument make sense? If handled carefully, forcing them to inhabit (rather than merely dismiss) an unpleasant or shocking argument asks them to think outside the realm of conventional wisdom. It also nudges them toward unsafe territory—and what could be a more exciting antidote for complacency?
While researchers disagree on the precise number of minutes, the human brain can only focus its attention on a limited amount of time (Thomas). This should deter any instructor from lecturing too long-windedly. Student-centric activities prove that learning can happen without “teaching” and, more relevantly, they make students responsible for the content of the course (Bonwell). Even if the class is resistant to group work, assignments that force them to hash out the implications of a particular reading, topic, or argument can put them in a position of inarguable responsibility. Complacency then becomes impossible.
Disciplines that allow instructors to integrate current events have a marked advantage over others. When the principles of a curriculum can be linked with contemporary news, they become urgent in new ways. Thanks to social media, students are already accustomed to weighing in on reported news—sometimes passionately. Connecting the abstract principles of a textbook to their real-world analog gives students an opportunity to weigh in on the issues that structure their world.
Let your students enjoy you
Above all else, student engagement happens through sheer force of personality. Honest self-disclosure, humor, and a genuine interest in your students’ ideas contribute to an overarching sense of community. When students like their instructors, they feel a responsibility to them and will interrupt those deadly lulls in participation. Students are only likely to share an opinion if they feel their professor will treat it meaningfully.
Conduct a survey
Even if your department does not require it, it’s an excellent idea to conduct a semester-end survey of your students—if only for your own reference. Ask them for the best methods and practices for promoting student engagement. Let them tell you what ignites their interest and how you can strive to do more in the future.
Bonwell, Charles, “Learning Activities: Created in the Classroom” (2000). https://www.asec.purdue.edu/lct/hbcu/documents/Active_Learning_Creating_Excitement_in_the_Classroom.pdf
Elbow, Peter, "The Believing Game—Methodological Believing" (2008). The Journal
of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning. 5.
Retrieved from https://scholarworks.umass.edu/eng_faculty_pubs/5
E. J. Thomas (1972) The Variation of Memory with Time for Information
Appearing During a Lecture, Studies in Adult Education, 4:1, 57
62, DOI: 10.1080/02660830.1972.11771885