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Find insights to improve teaching and learning across your campus. Delivered on Thursdays.

November 12, 2020

From: Beckie Supiano

Subject: Teaching: Don’t Force It, Have Fun, and Other Ways to Engage Students

This week:

  • Our colleague Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz, in a guest post, shares strategies for improving student engagement.
  • I highlight Beth’s recent story on faculty burnout.
  • I pass along some recent articles on teaching that you may have missed.

Our colleague Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz recently sparked a good discussion on Twitter that we thought would interest newsletter readers. So we invited her to write up what she heard:

Don’t Force It, and Other Ways to Engage Students

In normal circumstances (whatever that means for you), it can be tricky to foster connections in your courses. When you add a pandemic, a mass shift to online teaching, and a nail-biting presidential election, it’s no wonder some students are distracted. That can make it harder to engage students and build a community.

Last month, inspired by this advice piece on building community on Zoom, I used The Chronicle’s Twitter account to ask followers to offer their own advice for student engagement in online courses.

For one thing, don’t force engagement. Penelope Adams Moon, director of digital learning and engagement at the University of Washington at Bothell, wrote that students should decide how and when they will interact. It doesn’t have to happen on Zoom or even synchronously, she wrote. Students may want to use other tools, in or beyond the learning-management system, to collaborate.

Keep in mind that students have different preferences and varying access to strong WiFi connections. So ask them how they want to participate, wrote Andréa Rodriguez, director of the coalition of urban-serving universities at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.

Cassandra Carlson Hill, an associate professor of communication, media, and culture at Coastal Carolina University, wrote that students may feel that they don’t have much control in the current circumstances. If you can, she suggested, give them a list of topics to choose from at the beginning of the semester, and tell them that their top choices will be taught in the course. Giving students agency and choice helps them feel invested in the course.

Another proven measure to boost engagement: fun. One reader wrote that she starts each class with a student-selected song. Recently it was Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” Frank Diaz, an associate professor of music at Indiana University at Bloomington, also suggested playing tunes during breaks; bonus points if the music matches the lesson. Laura Killinger, an associate professor of legal writing at William & Mary Law School, wrote that she asks her students to guess how the class’ intro music relates to the topic. Brittany Heintz Walters, an assistant professor of neuromechanics and motor control at Seattle University, suggested kicking off class with a five minute team-building activity. Every week a different student picks the activity and leads it for the class.

But sometimes what students need most is a little quiet time. Katherine M. Lechman, a graduate student and coordinator of campus engagement at the Michigan State University Writing Center, wrote that instructors can give students processing time, a few minutes to journal, or a quiet brainstorm session in downtime during classes.

If you have more ideas for engaging students on Zoom, tweet them to @Chronicle. We’ll share more tips on our Twitter account. And if you’re not already following us, you’re missing out.

Survival Mode

“At first, she thought everything would work out if she just got up earlier.” That’s the pitch-perfect opening line of Beth’s recent story on faculty burnout, which you can read here.

Spend any time in the Chronicle newsroom — or, these days, our Slack channels and Zoom meetings — and you’ll surely hear the phrase “the lived experience.” It’s our common shorthand for one goal of our coverage: capturing what life is like for the people who learn and work at colleges. Beth’s story does exactly that. It resonates with just about every conversation I’ve had with faculty members since March, and between that and the response to the story I’ve noticed on social media, I expect many of you will see yourselves in it, too.

As Beth describes, one way to alleviate burnout is forging meaningful connections with colleagues. Another is for employers — colleges — to provide support. Has your college or department come up with a useful way to help you through this time? How do you think colleges could best support professors right now? Share your thoughts with Beth at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, and they may appear in a future newsletter.

ICYMI

  • Might the Trump era “foreshadow a deep and enduring schism between those who have a college credential and those who do not?” And if so, what does that mean for colleges? Our colleague Eric Kelderman unpacks the possibilities.
  • How does having students on campus affect the transmission of Covid-19 in the broader community? Our colleague Francie Diep breaks down the latest evidence.
  • Many colleges are using outdated methods to educate students about online misinformation, write Sam Wineburg and Nadav Ziv in this op-ed for the Los Angeles Times.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

—Beckie

Learn more about our Teaching newsletter, including how to contact us, on the Teaching newsletter archive page.

Beckie Supiano writes about teaching, learning, and the human interactions that shape them. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.