Discussing how to better engage students

Yesterday Peter Felten of Elon University was our guest on the Future Trends Forum.  The session was so rich and interesting that I’d like to share some notes here before we get to upload the recording to YouTube.

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Peter wears a lot of hats at Elon: professor of history, assistant provost for teaching and learning, and executive director of their Center for Engaged Learning.  That gives you a sense of what we discussed, the best ways to engage students.

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  But it doesn’t suggest how extraordinary professor Felten is as a discussant.

Peter Felten is on the right. That’s the excellent Stephen Ehrmann on the bottom.

Right off the bat he listed what he recommended as the best principles for improving student engagement.  On the institutional side, they include:

  • Students spending time working on learning
  • Instructors giving students feedback
  • Students practicing learning in different contexts (i.e., not just in a classroom)
  • Students reflecting on their learning in a metacognitive way

On the student side, Peter sees their holding these beliefs as crucial:

  • A sense that they belong in class
  • That their learning is purposeful, meaningful

I joked that the session could end right there, as everyone had some fine principles to implement.  It’s unusual for a speaker to hand out their main points less than five minutes into a conversation, but that made sense here, because Peter was much more interested in hearing from the Forum community.

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  Throughout the next 50 minutes he kept asking us what we thought, inquiring after our experiences, inviting us to share our reflections and questions.

(What follows is not necessarily in order, since while I do take notes during each Forum session, my priorities are supporting the guest, interacting with participants (often through chat or direct message), and monitoring Twitter.)

Several people asked about which technologies could best heighten engagement.  I observed that the principle were a-technological, none requiring nor forbidding digital tools.  Peter highlighted two, eportfolios for reflection and video (videoconferencing, I think) to increase a sense of student and instructor presence.

I asked if student motivation can include the desire to get high grades.

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  Professor Felten nearly sighed, but saw that that can work.

Peter commended several readings and projects to us, including Bryan Dewsbury‘s “The Soul of My Pedagogy,” for its passionate call to inclusive pedagogy, and the University of Waterloo’s CrowdCurio project, for its connection of students to research and researchers.  We discussed a good example of redesigning hard courses at Florida International University. 

Temple University vice provost Dan White commended to us:

[r]eflection frameworks, such as Van Mannen in 1970s or Baxter Magolda in 1990s and 2000s allow for levels of reflection and types of development awareness are helpful.

That’s Catherine Bovill of the University of Edinburgh.

By email Peter shared some more resources on redesigning courses to boost student engagement, like this article he co-authored: “Fostering Evidence-Informed Teaching in Crucial Classes: Faculty Development in Gateway Courses.” By: McGowan, Susannah, Felten, Peter, Caulkins, Joshua, Artze‐Vega, Isis, New Directions for Higher Education, 02710560, Dec2017, Vol. 2017, Issue 180.  Also “Team-Designed Improvement of Writing and Critical Thinking in Large Undergraduate Courses,” by Daniel Bernstein and Andrea Follmer Greenhoot. 

So, to sum up: fine and actionable thoughts on how to increase student engagement, expressed through a conversation that embodied some of those very thoughts.  My thanks to Peter Felten and the Future Trends Forum community.

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4 Responses to Discussing how to better engage students

  1. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Sounds great. But how can these practices be used with students who haven’t been educated in these more democratic and enlightened ways?

    Will all administrators, especially at lower tier schools, appreciate these democratic practices?

    Also, how much does instructor pay relate to these labor intensive best practices?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Excellent questions, Dahn.

      Students: we touched on this briefly in the discussion. Peter and one questioner remarked on how many students are trained in test-taking, and how higher ed needs to reprogram them.

      Administrators: this came up when Oskar asked about how to change a university. Check the recording when it goes live (early next week, hopefully), as I can’t summarize that bit well here.

      Instructor pay: didn’t come up. Very good question.

  2. Dahn Shaulis says:

    At the same time, we are hearing about the dark side of online education and lack of accountability, not just of for-profits, but also non-profits like Western Governors.


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