Pedagogy: Maintaining Student Engagement

Word Cloud on Student Engagement from the Berlin Fang's North Institute blog.

Word Cloud on Student Engagement from Berlin Fang’s North Institute blog.

Faculty Focus’ Teaching and Learning blog this week listed their top 12 teaching and learning articles for 2012. The list covers some great topics, including strategies for engaging students, developing effective online assignments, helping students move from surface to deep learning, addressing the challenges of group work, and debating the pedagogical effectiveness of PowerPoint.

But the one that struck me the most dealt with student perceptions of multitasking. Unless you’ve been teaching on a remote desert island (and even then, I’m not sure) you’ve had to deal with students texting, surfing the web, or engaging in other activities which distract from the learning process. Among my colleagues, some have banned electronic devices outright, some attempt to manage it on a case-by-case basis, and others take a permissive attitude, concluding that students are only hurting themselves through their actions.

But Marellen Weimer’s post on her Teaching Professor blog cites several studies showing sharp declines in student performance among multitaskers. Faced with this evidence, do we have an obligation to intervene and help students avoid this pitfall?

For me, a similar question arises with respect to class attendance. Should we require class attendance, penalizing those students who choose not to come regularly?

Here’s my solution. On the first day of class, I share a scatterplot diagram with my students. The figure, based on data collected from my classes over the past few years, graphs class attendance against final grades. I also tell students I don’t grade based on attendance. Yet in these classes—particularly in the larger sections—there is a clear correlation between the two. While there a few outliers—students who come regularly but nevertheless struggle, and the occasional student who can do well without coming regularly—the graph shows that, on average, every class missed after the first leads to a one step decline in final grade. In other words, students who miss one class over the course of the semester perform at the same general level as those who miss none. But students who miss a second class generally earn a grade one step lower (a B- rather than a B, for example) than a similar student who missed didn’t miss class. This continues in a straight linear regression all the way down. Interestingly (perhaps alarmingly), students always seem to be surprised by the data.

From my perspective, this solution provides students with the data they need to make an informed decision while leaving them the agency to actually make that decision. Now I’m considering a similar graph on multitasking.

What do you do to address the challenges of maintaining student engagement? How do you manage classroom attendance and multitasking issues? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

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