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Managing Student Energy

By Bob Bruner-

Recently, the Darden teaching faculty gathered for one of our periodic seminars on case discussion leadership. Colleagues Jim Freeland and Mike Lenox focused our thinking on how to deal with slumps in student energy. At about this time in the calendar year, many instructors experience a flatness among formerly energetic students. What, if anything can the instructor do to achieve the kind of dynamic discussions that promote great learning?

Teachers instinctively sense that high energy is an indicator of high student interest, readiness to participate, and commitment to the course. Freeland and Lenox invited us to consider some tell-tales of lagging energy. The students are abnormally quiet. A growing number of students come to the instructor before class asking, “please don’t call on me today; I’m not prepared.” There is little or no eye contact between the teacher and students—the students stare intensively at their notes, or worse, the screens of a cell phone, tablet, or computer. Or maybe the body language speaks volumes: poor posture, leaning back in chairs, and that hang-dog look. Or maybe students are voting with their feet: the number of voluntary absences increases.

Freeland and Lenox invited us to think about the causes of low energy. As the faculty discussion gathered speed, it seemed that causes clustered into three groups:

· Micro: these are causes specific to the classroom and course. Classes that meet at 8:00 am present a challenge to night-owl students, who don’t really get going before noon. Perhaps the teacher has chosen some cognitively difficult or boring material. Maybe the teacher experiences a slump in energy that gets taken up by the students. Or maybe the teacher fails to respond to the sag in classroom energy.

· Meso: these are causes specific to the school and local community. At Darden, first year student get back their first round of grades about now, some of which can be discouraging. If a feeling of incompetency grows, some students will grow fearful of being wrong in their contributions to discussions. Distractions (such as job recruiting) can cannibalize student preparation. And some local events can distract student preparation—Central Virginia enjoys the Foxfield Races twice per year, which occasions some hard partying.

· Macro: these are causes impinging from the wider world. Days grow shorter, possibly deepening a sense of gloom. The presidential election in 2008 generated huge distractions. Terror attacks (9/11/2001), war news, and macroeconomic phenomena (the Great Recession) can pre-empt the best efforts to kindle excitement for ideas. These are the kinds of causes of low student energy over which the instructor has no control. (A challenge for the instructor is how to make it safe for students to express their concerns and distractions with what goes on in the wider world—but that’s a subject for a longer and different blog post.)

Some favorite techniques of the Darden faculty for re-energizing the case discussion experience include these:

1. Vary the format. During class time, send students into “buzz groups” to prepare responses to the case. Set up debates or team presentations. Cold-call students throughout the class period, not just at the beginning. Sustain the element of surprise.

2. Vary the tempo. Some Darden teachers stop the discussion and ask students to stand up and do exercises. To break up long class sessions, some colleagues have conducted mindfulness exercises–these tend to refresh the students and center them back in the moment of the class discussion.

3. Press reset. You could simply observe to the students their low energy level and ask them what is going on. You could ask the students to relate the material of a couple of weeks ago to what is being discussed that day—this tends to reinforce the importance of paying attention. Or during the case discussion, you could challenge the students with “Where are we so far in resolving the problem in the case? And what do we have left to do?” Or you could ask, “This isn’t relevant to you, is it?”

4. Ask better discussion leadership questions. Questions that begin with “what” tend to generate short answers, typically regurgitating case facts. Questions that begin with “how,” “who,” and “where” get deeper into processes. And questions that begin with “why” demand the deepest thinking of students. The energy in the class typically lives in part with the quality of the questioning.

5. Diversify your engagement with students. Don’t keep calling on the same students (the “experts”)—doing so discourages novices from participating.

6. Know thy students. Are you pitching advanced material to raw novices? Is English a second language for your students? Are they holding down jobs while taking your course? Having a serious understanding of the students you are teaching can help you calibrate the assignments, discussion leadership questions, and your own expectations.

7. Make the case for active participation. Explain why the success of a course, and of the individual student’s learning, depends on active class participation. One colleague asserted, “Don’t waste your money by sitting passively through a course.”

8. Don’t be afraid of silence. Introverts and students for whom English is a second language will inevitably take a bit longer to process a question and frame a response.

What if the instructor doesn’t feel particularly energetic? This may be a matter of psychological preparation to teach. The Chess Grandmaster, Bobby Fischer, used to program himself to be ready to play. Performing artists and athletes do much the same. Regular exercise can help to create the physical resilience necessary for energetic teaching. Caffeine can give a temporary boost. And you might check your own expectations: do you set an impossibly high standard for energetic teaching? If so, consider lowering your expectations a tad. Some of Darden’s highest-performing teachers are relatively quiet personalities, and yet highly effective. And colleagues acknowledge that some days, you just have to fake it ‘till you make it—obviously, this may be unsustainable, stretched over a semester or a year. So check your own level of interest in teaching the material and the students.

Energy in the classroom matters. It matters not merely for the sake of popularity—and students do like to be around teachers who give off positive energy. No, the most important focus on energy has to do with the deeper purpose of the educational enterprise. Benjamin Franklin said, “Energy and persistence conquer all things.” A teacher who promotes energetic engagement by students promotes the conquering of important lessons.

A coda: the Darden faculty have been meeting this year on a variety of teaching topics. See the following for earlier discussions.

1. Teaching the “Seasoned Learner”

2. Teaching with Technical Notes

3. Getting the Best out of the Quiet Student

4. Getting started in the classroom: How to break the ice on the first day of class and set up a great classroom culture

5. Engaging the Students