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A Pathway to Encourage Student Engagement

 

At every beginning semester, I will get butterflies in my stomach for the same reason. I’m excited with the prospect of meeting new students, whilst nervous at the same time. What I’ve learned over my five years of teaching is that that teaching is not always a walk in the park. As a matter of fact, it does not feel like walking at the same park even though I’m teaching the same courses every year. This is because the dynamic of students that I met every semester is different, so the same teaching approach may or may not work. I still view myself as a green horn when it comes to teaching and learning, and therefore, I view this experience of engaging students as ‘a pathway’ that I am constantly exploring every year.

The term engagement is derived from the root word ‘engage’, which is based on a French word engager, meaning ‘to pledge’ (Online Etymology Dictionary). Essentially speaking, the word ‘engage’ connotes a sense of commitment and participation, that is to interest someone in something in order to get their commitment and/or participation. As noted by Schaufeli (2013), every connotation of engagement may refer to involvement, commitment, passion, enthusiasm, absorption, focused effort, zeal, dedication, and energy. In education per se, the Glossary of Education Reforms refers to student engagement as “the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education.”

So, what does it take to engage the students in class? As a constructivist at heart, I firmly believe the answer is not formulaic. Rather, it should be viewed as a pathway, with different approaches and experiences for every educator out there. This writing intends to share the way I shaped my pathway with the students and subjects that I taught previously based on several key principles. All these are based on my experiences teaching medium sized classes of 30 to 40 students for both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

 

If you want to engage the students, you must be engaged to teach first

 

This is probably a very typical advice, but in the process of engaging my students, I always ensure the first impression that I exude, particularly on the first day of class and in the first ten minutes of my teaching, signals to them that I am ready to engage. Since I teach my classes in a block of 3 hours, I often begin with an Agenda slide to show the sub-topics and activities that I have planned for the day. This is to send message to the students that I am well prepared and committed to maximize their learning experiences within the given time frame. Reciprocally, I would hope this would pique their interests and anticipation to learn. Additionally, as much as the topic allows, I begin the class with what often referred to as “the hook strategy”. The Hook strategy is a short opening into a lesson, usually conducted within the first 10 minutes, to capture the interest and attention of the students for the upcoming materials that they will learn. Using pictures, videos, guessing games, and stories or news that are trending for the week, I have done and experimented with this strategy to activate the students’ engagement at the start of my class. As noted by Mesiti and Clarke (2006), “the beginning of the lesson (the first ten minutes) provides an opportunity to arouse the students' interest and facilitate their engagement, to situate and introduce the lesson's content, and to establish the subsequent work pattern for the lesson” (p. 47).

 

Creating a safe space and building a sense of community

 

I still vividly remember how I used to struggle as the only Asian student in my graduate class, surrounded by all my American classmates. What I learned through the process is that my willingness to express opinion and participate in class is very much influenced by the feeling of being in a safe space and a sense of familiarity with the community that I am learning with. As I interacted and built relationship with my classmates throughout the semester, my participation in class felt more natural thereafter. Therefore, I brought this anecdotal experience into my own class and try to facilitate in re-creating those feelings for my class community. I made it explicitly to my students that all responses or “answers” given during class will not be considered neither right nor wrong, in order to provide them with safety net to express their opinions and voices freely as they deemed relevant.  This is aligned with the description of safe space as “classroom climate that allows students to feel secure enough to take risks, honestly express their views, and share and explore their knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors” (Holley and Steiner, 2013): p. 50). Meanwhile, for building a sense of community among the class members or peers, I initiate discussions or activities in every class using think-pair-share (TPS) or small group discussion strategies. I will also randomize the discussion pairing and grouping every week in order to create opportunities for these students to interact with other class members outside of their usual “safe” circle. My favorite moment to watch is often at the end of semester, when I can see the students who started off as strangers to one another, become connected as a community.

 

Using the classical positive reinforcement approach during class

 

This approach may not be everybody’s cup of tea. However, being motivated by a reward is a very innate human behavior, and for me, it works well under some circumstances during my teaching. This strategy especially applies while teaching remotely during pandemic, because all my prior engagement strategies could not be replicated in the same way when teaching online. As the nature of online learning environment is characterized by flexibility, mobility and convenience, it provides a competing situation and very little control for educators to engage the students remotely (Gillet-Swan, 2017). Therefore, one key strategy that I devised for encouraging participation and engagement while teaching online is using points to award for participation, and keeping track of those points using an application called Keep the Score (https://keepthescore.co/). This strategy is based on the classic behavioral approach for providing positive reinforcement (awarding participation with points), and operant conditioning (seeing the scores being updated as a result of participation). The caveat of this strategy is the additional administrative work for me to keep up with the scores on a weekly basis. However I learn to counter such issue by appointing a different student every week to assist me in tracking the overall class participation (plus providing point for this particular student for assisting). Usually after being conditioned by this approach for several weeks, most students shown increased in confidence and became more willing to engage and volunteer during classes.

 

Reflection and lessons learned

 

Now that we are resuming teaching in a post pandemic situation, I am slowly exploring a path to bridge all my engagement strategies from both worlds by blending the best of face-to-face and online learning. Hybrid teaching or blended learning is now viewed as the way forward in teaching; and it is in the pathway that I would like to keenly explore next in my teaching journey.

 

References

 
  • Gillett-Swan, J. (2017). The challenges of online learning: Supporting and engaging the isolated learner. Journal of Learning Design, 10(1), 20–30. https://doi.org/10.5204/jld.v9i3.293
  • Holley, L.C, & Steiner, S. (2013). Safe space: Student perspectives on classroom environment. Journal of Social Work Education, 41(1), 49 – 64. https://doi.org/10.5175/JSWE.2005.200300343
  • Mesiti, C., & Clarke, D. Beginning the lesson: The first ten minutes. In D. J. Clarke, J. Emanuselsson, E. Jablonka, & I. A. C. Mok (Eds.), Making connections: Comparing mathematics classrooms around the world (pp. 47 – 71). Sense Publishers. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789087901639_004
  • Schaufeli, W. B. (2013). What is engagement? In C. Truss, K. Alfes, R. Delbridge, A. Shantz, & E. Soane (Eds.), Employee engagement in theory and practice. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203076965 
 

 
Prepared by:
     
 

Dr. Nur Aira started her career as a senior lecturer at Universiti Putra Malaysia in 2017. She holds a doctorate (Ed.D) and a master's degree from North Carolina State University, United States, with specialization in adult education and adult learning. As early as the first year in her career (2018), Dr. Aira once won an outstanding teaching award (new lecturer category) at the Faculty of Education, and again in 2021 for teaching in postgraduate program (young lecturer category). She also was shortlisted as one the finalists for AFNC award in 2021.

Dr. Aira is also active in conducting interdisciplinary research in the field of scholarship on teaching and learning (SoTL). She is currently the lead researcher for a Peer Assessment study project under the Learning and Teaching Grant (GIPP), under the Academic Development Center (CADe), UPM and also a researcher for a consultancy project for the Center for Teacher Training and Advanced Skills (CIAST) under the Department of Skills Development (DSD/JPK), MoHR.

    Email: nuraira@upm.edu.my
     

Tarikh Input: 06/12/2022 | Kemaskini: 07/12/2022 | azryadeny

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