Front-load Engagement

One of the great things about the structure of university life is that we get this opportunity for a do-over every semester. So we can let go of last semester’s slag—the student presentations that disappointed us, the papers so full of words and so void of meaning, the brilliant class discussions that never quite got off the ground—and focus instead on the fresh faces before us. To reduce the likelihood of May regret, consider front-loading the semester with some tools that are shown to improve student success.

Front-load engagement.  Invite students to think about the big picture of your course by asking a big question to get conversation started.  James Lang’s wonderful On Course (Harvard University Press, 2008, 33) offers three examples:

  1. In Art History: Describe for me one work of visual art that has really impressed or interested you; what made it stand out for you?
  2. In Philosophy 101: What makes a person ethical?
  3. In Human Biology: What fields or careers do you think depend heavily on an understanding of human biology?

Your own responses to these kinds of questions offer a chance for students to see your passion for the field, which has been known to be contagious.

Frontload high expectations. Setting the bar high is critical for real student learning. This is done not only by making clear statements about rigorous course requirements and classroom accountability, but also by making it clear that we believe students can learn, meeting them where they are now, and giving them the tools to keep climbing.  (This is an insight at the heart of current conversations around “mindset” and “grit” in education.)

Frontload support. You know that you are there in office hours to help with any course-related issue, and that you are not a scary person. Students may not know this, especially if they are new to college. I’ve heard great ideas about how instructors promote office hour visits—requiring a mandatory shared cup of tea; offering a suggested script for what they might want to ask; assigning them to come in pairs to diffuse the anxiety; creating a simple course task that must be done in person—pick your ploy.  Just by getting the student into your office, you have established a connection on which he or she is more likely to draw when the going gets tough.

And it’s not all on you.  Our university has a great range of support services that we could surely do more to promote. Post on your Blackboard site and remind students frequently about all the resources relevant to your course, starting with the free tutoring that is available in the Student Learning Center.

*Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.

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