Lesson #1 in Student Engagement – Understand Your Students

Darren Rowse at Problogger.net wrote a great series on engaging readership for blogs. The material is applicable to teachers engaging students as well so we’ve repackaged it for you guys and this is what we came up with.

photo by striatic

photo by striatic

Welcome to your first lesson in engaging students. Over the next seven weeks our blog will contain seven lessons to help you engage students in your classes.

This seven part series will teach you how to tweak your courses so you can create a more engaging and interactive classroom. After implementing these seven tactics we can guarantee your class will be one that students can’t wait to take.

These lessons are simple, but they take practice. When the course is completed, a PDF checklist including all seven lessons will be posted for download, so you can be sure you’ve covered the important points for every piece of content you create.

The Most Important Lesson

If your computer crashes and you never see the internet again, this one tip alone will separate you from other professors on your campus.

This seems simple, but is definitely not easy. Find out who your students are.

There are two steps in this equation. The first is realizing that not all students are the same. College students are different from high school students. Engineering majors are different from music majors. College campuses can be some of the most diverse places in the nation. It is important to realize that there can be huge differences among any two students on a campus.

If you’re lucky, you teach a small class that is very targeted and all of your students are best friends going into the same field. For the rest of us, this step will take some work.

The second step is making sure to teach to these students by creating a lecture or class style that suits their needs.

Discovering Who Your Students Are

There is one very easy way to find out what makes your students tick – Ask them.

At the beginning of the semester have your students take a survey and ask them anything you think might help. (If you are worried that students won’t take the survey – make the survey a few extra credit points. You’d be amazed what students will do for 0.0000001% points.)

Now, I hear what you’re saying – “This sounds great, but what kind of things should I ask?”  Well, like I said you can ask anything you want, but if you’re still drawing a blank here are some ideas to get you started.

  • Why are you taking this class? – Here you want to find out if this class is required for their degree, if it’s an elective or if they are just taking the class for the fun of it. (It also might help to find out if an advisor or past students are recommending the class to other students)
  • What do you expect to learn? – This question gives you more insight into what a student wants out of the class. This also gives you the opportunity to steer students who have a misunderstanding of the course material away from the course.
  • What other activities are you involved in on campus? – Maybe all your students are in marching band. When you know what your students are involved in it can help you figure out what kind of things students will relate to. It’s possible that some students get your baseball references, but if all your students are in band it’s unlikely that your students are grasping the material quite like you envision.
  • What do you watch on television? – Don’t be afraid to ask more intimate questions. If all your students watch The Office then maybe you should watch a few episodes. The more you know the better you will be able to relate.

Note: Keep in mind a survey isn’t the only way to get to know your students. If your class is small and you can take them all out for pizza the first week then by all means go for it.

Teach to These Students

So now you now who your students are and what they are interested in. Make sure all your material is interesting and relevant to these students.

You may be tempted by what previous classes enjoyed or what one particularly excellent student liked. Those students loved it so won’t these new students?

Maybe, but teaching to these students is a mistake. Don’t do it.

Keep yourself laser focused. You’ve done the research. You know exactly what kind of students are taking your class. Don’t sell your work short. If you stick to teaching to this one type of student, your class will become more interesting and engaging.

Rinse, Wash, and Repeat

You now know who your students are, but you aren’t done quite yet. If you teach more than one class odds are you’ll need to do this exercise again.

Remember, colleges are some of the most diverse places in the nation. First-year students in your Introduction to Psychology class will be different than third-year students in your Research Methods class.

It might help to create a photo image of one individual student for each class you teach. This will help you remember exactly who you are teaching to for each course you are an instructor.

Homework: A newsletter for educators wouldn’t be complete without homework. Since school has just started (or for some just getting ready to start) make sure you find out who your students are. Give them a short 10 question survey to help you figure where your students are coming from.

Remember, the more you know about your students the easier it will be to relate to them. The better you relate, the more engaging your class will be to your students.

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