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Engaging the Students

By Bob Bruner-

A week ago, Darden’s teaching faculty gathered for a seminar on “Engaging the Students.” Students come to Darden (and most schools) with the expectation of engaging with the faculty. Such an expectation is possibly higher at Darden because “community” is a key pillar of our culture. We aim to make an “engaging community” more than just words. But how do we help new faculty colleagues know what “student engagement” means (and remind seasoned colleagues as well)? How should the instructor get to know the students? How can one make use of students’ biographical information in the most useful way? How can one be present in ways (i.e., after class, in the hallways, at coffee) to give the instructor a better grasp of how the students are doing? How can one engage the quiet students more effectively? What boundaries should the instructor set on engagement? And so on. The how of student engagement is a subject that no authorities expound upon, but that virtually every teacher has to resolve.

Robert Carraway and Mary Margaret Frank led us in a spirited discussion. Plainly, the subject matters to colleagues, as shown by the biggest turnout of the meetings we’ve had this calendar year. I had the sense that the participants were primed to talk. Mary Margaret and Robert harnessed this energy to consider what faculty can do to build engagement both in the classroom and outside of the classroom. Their core message was that faculty engagement with students is important because at Darden we believe at discussion-based, student-centered pedagogy enhances student learning.

Mary Margaret and Robert opened the session with a question that was counterintuitive, and somewhat jarring. They asked, “What can an instructor do to disengage one’s students in the classroom?” This was like asking a group of expert sharpshooters, “How do you shoot yourself in the foot?” However, the kickoff question was brilliant. Focusing us on failure and the easy ways in which an instructor can slide into a flat and disengaged course culture framed the session around professional diagnosis and better practice. The resulting discussion surveyed well the challenges of trying to build student engagement with classroom discussion. And not too far into the session, we began to discuss remedies.

Here are some of the faculty’s replies about best ways to disengage students in the classroom:

1. Never call on quiet students. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.

2. Start late, end late, and pay no attention to the flow of discussion. This signals to students that no one is really guiding the discussion. So, why should the students try to lend any direction?

3. You talk too much—this encourages students to slip into passive note-taking mode.

4. Shut down students. An instructor’s sarcasm or dismissive comments on a student’s participation probably signals to everyone that the classroom discussion is risky and rigged.

5. Ask poorly-structured questions. Discussion leadership questions that are either vague (students wonder, “What was the question?) or over-directive (ventriloquism, getting the students to say only those things that the professor wants said) can cast a pall on the class.

6. Show no discipline. Let the classroom conversation go astray into generalities or a student’s pet topic. And allowing a few talkative students to drone on bores everyone.

7. Ignore students’ energy and needs. Pay attention to where the students are, not to where you imagine them to be.

8. Calling intensively on “experts.” Students who have already gained some solid professional experience (e.g., engineers, investment bankers, accountants) can become a crutch for the lazy instructor and for students who are prone to be passive participants. Knowing that the expert will always pull the rabbit out of the hat discourages less knowledgeable students from taking a risk in class by presenting their analysis of the case.

9. Violate section norms. Sections of students in case method environments will develop some unwritten rules for engaging with one another. Such rules typically aim at creating an environment of respect, fairness, and good order. If you try to exercise a different set of norms, don’t be surprised when students decline to go along.

10. Lame humor, slang, profanity, and generational differences. I’ve seen some instructors try to be “cool” where “cool” was defined by a culture somewhere else than where they were teaching—the results were at least awkward and in some cases humiliating. Remember that the students get to define what is cool. It’s a good idea to gauge the student culture before trying to be “cool.”

Culture and the learning environment remind us that student learning does not stop at the door to the classroom. Students learn on their own, in learning teams, and if necessary, with the help of student tutors. Clubs, athletic activities, and parties in student housing, and nights out on the town with one’s fellow students afford a very rich environment for cementing the mastery of ideas and expectations. The instructor who thinks the whole learning experience occurs in the classroom is like the ship captain who ignores the 90% of the iceberg below the surface of the ocean. A little sampling by the teacher of the out-of-classroom environment can yield useful insights. The section Representative and club leaders are good conduits of the pulse of the community. Coffee breaks, club events, and inviting students to lunch or beers can give valuable insights. There is faculty engagement outside the classroom too. The three main objectives behind out-of-classroom engagement are:

  • Show students that you care, both about them generally (ask about their career aspirations) and with respect to your course (what THEY are learning, not just what YOU are teaching);
  • Get a deeper understanding of how students are engaging with the material (what they understand and don’t understand, how they are framing the situation differently from you, etc.; this can often best be achieved in one-on-one help sessions, provided your LISTENING as part of helping);
  • Model engaging behavior: the willingness to engage even when YOU are not comfortable that you “know.”

Does engagement impose a limitless obligation on the instructor? Can there be too much engagement? Most instructors have substantial work and personal obligations beyond the classroom. At Darden, our norm is that we will provide a high level of support for the student’s learning experience. This might entail getting to class early, hanging around for a few minutes after class, seeing students by appointment in one’s office, and occasional lunch or beers with student clubs. But this level of engagement is a two-way street: the student must use the instructor’s time well. The instructor is there not to solve problems for the student, but to help the student think through ways of solving problems on his or her own. The instructor can reasonably draw a bright line at non-urgent, less important, and unscheduled claims on personal time. For instance, years ago, a particularly aggressive student called me at home one evening to discuss the calculations for the next day’s class discussion. It was clear that (A) this wasn’t urgent, (B) the student would have been reasonably prepared for class without my help, and (C) he was either grandstanding (trying to impress me with his effort and initiative) or trolling for insights that would give him an advantage in class the next day. I calmly explained that he was out of line and why. He apologized and respected the limits thereafter. And so did the rest of the section: word must have gotten around.

Skeptical instructors might argue that high-engagement teaching breeds entitlement on the part of students, a customer-vendor model. A student might say, “I’m paying you to teach me; your job is to make me smarter so that I can get a job. Therefore you need to get to work (while I watch).” The flaw in this model is that so much of student learning and later professional success depends on the student’s own effort. The instructor can’t make the student smarter. The customer-vendor model invites passivity and slack effort by the student. A collaborative or partnership model, on the other hand, helps to create a high-performance classroom: more learning, greater discussion participation, and higher energy. Great classroom discussions (and effective student learning) are collaborative efforts. High engagement by instructors with students helps to build a collaborative culture—but you have to assert that such a culture entails a two-way social contract. The student gets but also gives. At Darden, we build the collaborative norm not merely from day one in our programs, but also in our admissions outreach.

In the course of our discussion, several colleagues used the phrase “break the ice.” For many students, especially for those from foreign national cultures, the teacher exists on a pedestal, a distant authority, a person to listen to but not talk with. The American educational culture depends much less on formal distance. And by engaging with students we create a welcoming and inclusive environment. Colleagues asserted that it is important for students to know that you are human too. Laugh with them. Let them know where you find (or found) the material to be challenging. Tell some life stories. Bring pets and/or kids to Darden picnics. Share something personal about you. As Carl Jung wrote, “One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feeling. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.”

Colleagues concluded the seminar session on some overarching issues:

  • Leadership balance between the teacher and students. The teacher gives direction to the discussion; but a high-performance class discussion requires students to lend energy and inquiry and to help bring the discussion toward a useful conclusion. The art of effective engagement with students is to strike a good balance between structured leadership and delegated leadership of the discussion.
  • The balance between process and product. Most class discussions have a “product,” a point or a goal toward which the discussion must steer. But the best discussion “process” probably isn’t a straight line toward that goal. The art of effective engagement with students is to let go of a rigid script or plan sufficiently to permit them to go astray (possibly) and the guide the discussion back to the goal.
  • Allocating one’s time across multiple engagement possibilities. New colleagues shouldn’t simply hear “engage.” They must think strategically about engagement. Does the allocation of my time toward engagement with students help student learning and/or instructor insight? Some engagement opportunities won’t meet that test. Faculty colleagues need to find their way toward student engagement that serves strategic purpose.

Why do we care to engage with students? We do it because we care about student learning. We want to know how students are thinking about the world so that we can lead the class discussions to greater impact. Engagement helps us to build more of a partnership culture, where the teacher is a guide for the student’s exploration, rather than one part of a master-subordinate relationship. And by engaging students, you are essentially inviting them to teach you—this helps the students exercise skills of expression that can contribute to professional success later.