Take a moment to reflect on a time when you yourself were enrolled in a class and asked to participate in a learning activity that made you question what the teacher was trying to have you learn. How did you feel about participating in the activity that you didn’t understand the purpose of? This phenomenon is often referred to as the relationship between affect and learning and it can play a significant role in the ability to engage students in any course you are teaching. As Barkley states “how students feel about what is happening in the classroom is critical to how they engage – or disengage – in the learning that teachers are trying to engender in the classroom” (2010, p. 35).
Having student engagement in any course I teach is something that is very important to me, as I’m sure it is for most other instructors as well. I’ve always known that each student comes into my courses with their own experiences, knowledge, thoughts and feelings and that these can all affect their ability to become engaged or not, however, I never spent a great deal of time really considering how much their feelings regarding particular learning activities could play such a large role in this relationship.
I agree with Barkley that a student’s feelings about what goes on in the classroom really can play a critical role in how well they will be able to engage in the class. If a student doesn’t understand the importance of the particular learning activity that you have given them, then I doubt even the best instructors would be able to truly get them engaged in what is being taught.
When I reflect on my own learning experiences, I can definitely see how strong the relationship is between how I was feeling about the learning activities and how it affected my ability to engage in the course content. If I didn’t understand what the learning activity’s purpose was and how it related to the overarching course competencies, then it made me feel like I was wasting my time and really affected my ability to learn and become truly engaged in the class.
If a student is feeling stressed or overwhelmed and they show up to your class and find out they are going to have to participate in an activity that they do not recognize the importance and value of, then they are going to mentally check out. They may go through the actions of participating in the activity but if they don’t see the value in it, then they will be very unlikely to retain any of the learning that has occurred. This can then lead to them becoming unmotivated to learn and, as Wlodkowski says, “[w]hen there is no motivation to learn, there is no learning…[P]eople motivated to learn are more likely to do things they believe will help them learn” (2008, p. 5-6).
If we truly want all of our students to be motivated to learn and become engaged in our courses, we as instructors need to ensure that students understand the importance of the learning activities that we have chosen and how these activities will help them to learn the material. “If students clearly see how coursework connects to their goals, interests, and concerns, they will be more likely to value it, and thus more motivated to invest time and effort” (Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation, 2008, para. 1).
Some strategies for increasing the value of coursework to students include clearly articulating course goals, showing relevance to students’ other courses, demonstrating relevance to students’ professional lives, highlighting real-world applications of knowledge and skills, connecting course content to students’ personal interests, creating a sense of community showing your own passion and enthusiasm, and allowing the students some degree of choice over their learning activities and grades. (Barkley, 2010 p. 45-77) (Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation, 2008, para. 1-8).
Although I have used some of these strategies in the past, I must admit that until recently I didn’t recognize the value in using some of these strategies. One particular strategy that I plan to incorporate in the future is to allow students to have more control over choosing the learning activities. I plan to facilitate this by seeking feedback from the students at the beginning of the semester and ensure that I try to use each suggested strategy at least once throughout the course.
The second strategy I want to incorporate is allowing the students to have a say in how the assignments are weighted. This strategy is also something that I would complete at the beginning of the semester with the students as it would be vital for the students to know this information from the start. Both these above strategies will help the students to feel more in control of their learning and empowered by the decisions that they make. This will also help them to foster their relationships with their peers and contribute to building a learning community.
In order for me to assess whether the above strategies are in fact useful in helping to engage my students I also plan to start administering the CLASSE (Classroom Survey of Student Engagement), which was created by Judith Ouimet and Robert Smallwood, at the end of the semester. This survey is used to assess student engagement and will allow me to get an understanding of whether my students really do want to have more control over their learning environments.
Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation. (2008). Solve a teaching problem: Students lack interest or motivation: Explore strategies. Retrieved from https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/solveproblem/strat-lackmotivation/lackmotivation-01.html
Wlodkowski, R. J. (2008). Enhancing adult motivation to learn: A comprehensive guide for teaching all adults (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.