While reading over professors’ responses from the article “Dreaming of the Ideal Student,” I was surprised to see what was most commonly mentioned. Half of the professors specifically use the word “engaged” to describe their ideal student. This is interesting because if you were to ask students to describe their ideal professor, I bet “engaging” would be the popular answer. While classroom engagement requires effort from both the student and professor, I offer a student’s perspective about what professors can do to meet us half way.
Keeping students engaged is a considerable task, as professors now have to compete with things like Facebook and Skyrim. The traditional lecture class is no match against the online world of instant gratification. Activities, guest speakers, and demonstrations all can break up the monotony in the classroom, but I imagine trying to make a production out of every class to battle for students’ attention could become exhausting. As one experienced in the realm of classroom distractions, I can personally attest to the effectiveness of a very simple yet underutilized technique to increase student engagement: ask questions at random.
Professors underestimate how well modern media has trained us to sit and consume information without having to fully process it. The surprise of being called on by the professor during a lecture to demonstrate some higher level thinking about what was just covered can help break this bad habit. The embarrassment from being called on after zoning out of the lecture makes me think twice about browsing Reddit or logging into Facebook during class, and the satisfaction of answering a question correctly serves as additional motivation to come to class prepared.
Besides keeping students alert, questions can also be used by professors to gauge how well students understand what is being taught. Moving on from a difficult concept too quickly and proceeding to build off of what students never understood in the first place is the easiest way for a professor to kill classroom engagement. If I get lost in the first twenty minutes of class, chances are that I will be lost for the whole class and eventually stop paying attention, nullifying the rest of the period. Having accurate ways to measure classroom understanding is essential to increasing engagement.
In my assessment, professors depend too much on students to ask questions when they are confused, but unfortunately this is not as reliable as we would like to think. Even at the university level, the ugly truth is that many students still have reservations about asking questions—myself included. When I am really lost, I have trouble forming my confusion into a question. Even if I have a question in mind, I begin to second-guess myself about whether it would be redundant to ask because maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention when it was covered. And although we all think that we have outgrown this, sometimes we are afraid of looking stupid. In most classes, the students that already had the best understanding of the subject from the beginning of class tend to be the only ones asking questions. When teachers rely solely on student questions to gauge classroom understanding, they may find themselves teaching to only a small percentage of the class.
Some professors at Georgia Tech have started using a polling system to get a more accurate picture of classroom understanding. This allows them to quiz the class with a basic question about what was just covered both to entice students to pay attention and to use the results to decide whether to move on or spend more time on that subject. As a warning to professors, you may be surprised to find out how much students missed from your lecture, but ultimately, seeing the feedback will help you communicate to students more effectively.
So maybe turning every student into an “ideal student” is out of the professor’s control, but at least for the most important aspect, professors yield substantial influence. Engaged students start from engaging professors. These professors know how to capture students’ attention and pace their lectures to maximize comprehension. Don’t wait for students to ask questions; instead, try asking students questions.