October 9, 2019 9:49 am

Norman Eng

It’s just past mid-semester. How’s your teaching going so far—are students engaged and learning?

Here are some imperfect and wholly informal indicators. But indicators nonetheless.

Students are participating.

The most obvious sign is when students raise their hands. But we know the same handful of students are always participating, which distorts our perception of engagement and learning. Educator Jennifer Gonzalez calls it the Fisheye Syndrome, where certain visible students appear “larger” than others.

It’s more telling if there are NO (or very few) hands raised. This suggests issues with engagement and the learning environment. Have you made the classroom a “safe” space to talk? Have you made accommodations for shy or introverted students? Students won’t talk if you cut them down (or cut them off), make sarcastic remarks (you may not even realize it!), or make them feel stupid in any way.

Basically, teachers who go out of their way to encourage participation will engage more students. If you haven’t made a point to do this, then you’re leaving it up to the whims and dynamic of your particular group.

Students’ work is promising.

Are students “kinda” getting the assignment? At this point in the semester, we’ve all been grading assignments, whether it’s text responses, article analyses, or problem sets. If students collectively demonstrate a decent grasp (as in B grade), then that’s positive. Basically, anything that isn’t a “wow-this-is-bad” reaction while grading can be considered positive. And I’m not talking about students’ bad writing. (That, apparently, is a pervasive problem beyond the scope of this article.) 

Aside from raising hands and students’ work, experience tells me that there are other subtler signs that indicate engagement and learning. Usually, it’s when students go out of their way (i.e., above and beyond what’s required) to show they’re engaged with your class. Even a few students can be telling! Here are some specific indicators:

A non-regular participant actually participates without your prompting. 

It could be a shy or introverted student or simply someone who sees little reason to raise his/her hand. By default, the quieter folks won’t participate (or email you) unless it’s important (e.g., they can’t come next class or they have a question about the assignment). So when they do, it’s because they’re compelled to talk. Hopefully, it’s because they’re engaged.

I had a student last semester who simply felt more comfortable emailing me than talking in class. But midway through the semester, she started to raise her hand—every once in a while (about once out of every 3 classes). Speaking up is less likely in larger classes, however. But if you get that kind of message from one, two, or three, that’s big. You’re doing something right.

Students are posting more than the minimum for online discussion boards.

Yes, most times, students will post the minimum. The required number of comments. But do they respond to others without your prompting? Do they share additional information, say, from an article they read on their own? Or answer questions others pose? Note: if students don’t go above and beyond, it doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t engaged. However, the presence of “above-and-beyond” posts might indicate above average interest (in a particular topic or the class in general).

There is at least 90 percent attendance every class.

This is a tricky one. A lot depends on your attendance policy. A hands-off, laissez-faire approach will likely mean lower attendance rate on average. Much as with discussion boards, I’m referring less to the absence of students and more to their presence. Two or three absent students in a roster of 20 to 25 is not unusual. But if you notice that every class 90 plus percent of students are just there, it might show they care. Then again, it may be due to a stricter attendance policy. Just remember, it’s about patterns of behavior, not one particular thing. Attendance is simply one indicator. 

You hear good things about your course.

Typically, students may tell you stuff or you hear indirectly from colleagues and/or other students. Some examples: 

  • “Professor, do you also teach [course XYZ]?”
  • Students tell you what other professors do that annoy them.
  • More than normal amount of students visit you during office hours (without prompting)
  • Your department colleagues tell you they hear good things about you from students

Again, this is just another indicator. The lack of them doesn’t necessarily mean anything; but if they exist, that’s something. 

Students stay after class.

This is related to the previous. Do students stop after class (or email you) to:

  • Express their appreciation for this topic/class? 
  • Add something they didn’t get a chance to articulate during class?
  • Ask follow-up questions?

This suggests they care. Of course, this may just be the “A” students, but even top students will clam up if they feel the teacher is inaccessible. Particularly telling is if “average” students come after to talk. 

However, this is different from students who stay after because they are confused; especially if it happens regularly or if several students are asking. You may need to clarify the content. 

You’re not experiencing “pushback.”

Pushback is anything that students have an issue with. Say you want students to work in groups. Or present on a topic. Do they complain? I don’t mean isolated complaints. I’m talking more about a pattern of complaining. Typically, there’s something behind the complaints, the pushback. That you either haven’t addressed an important need or that you’re being seen as unfair in some way. Or that the course is not meeting their needs. 

Once, my students complained to me about a course taught by another professor. They wanted better preparation for the departmental math proficiency test (which they needed to pass in order to become a K-12 teacher), but he was ignoring their needs. Apparently, he (and the department) felt it was the students’ responsibility to pass this test. While that might be true, this test was given as part of the course, so students justifiably assumed they would receive some support. Are there subtle or explicit ways students demonstrated some pushback in your course? If so, it can interfere with trust, engagement, and learning. 

If students are going out of their way to “push back,” pay attention. They may be subtle. You might feel they are ganging up on you or communicating what seems like minor (oral or written) comments. 

Have you experienced any of these indicators mentioned above? 

If so, these are signs of engagement, if not learning. That’s good. But what happens if you don’t experience them? Does it mean you’re not effective? Not necessarily. As I mentioned, the absence of these experiences is less important than the clear presence of them. The reason is because there are so many other factors involved, including the instructor’s personality, the classroom environment, and students themselves. So going out of their way to stay after class and talk, write an email of praise, or add an extra post on the discussion board is more indicative of engagement and learning. Do any of these experiences sound outside the realm of reality? They’re not.

By the way, you might have noticed I didn’t bring up tests as indicators of engagement and learning. They don’t really tell you much, since they often illustrate Campbell’s Law at work: anytime you grade people and make it high stakes (as you would in a test), you end up undermining the very thing you’re trying to measure. In this case, student learning. Students cram and often forget content afterwards. 

The only time tests might indicate something is when a lot of students do poorly. Then there’s usually some underlying resentment, discontent, or apathy. You just may not sense it. When I first taught an education foundations class in 2013, I lectured straight from the textbook with PowerPoint slides. The publisher’s test bank—multiple choice and short answer questions—comprised the midterm. And students failed for the most part. But they never overtly expressed any problems—at least until I asked them point-blank. Too much boring content, apparently, that didn’t relate to them. And it didn’t matter that they seemed to like me. But they never went above and beyond. 

That’s the bottom line. Do you students ever go out of their way? Beyond the typical behaviors like the ones listed above? I’d love to hear about them.

Not sure where you stand? Then give students a mid-semester course feedback form. No names. Nothing will be as enlightenment (and as painful) as asking them directly. You’ll know very quickly where you stand. Here’s my feedback form below—feel free to download, modify, and use. 

Mid-Semester Survey TEMPLATE

Download Word template Here: Mid-Semester Survey TEMPLATE

  • Interesting article. However, it seem to portray a utopian view of education. The reality is a lot different. Every measurement I have seen, in our school district, clearly shows that student engagement and academic attainment is plummeting downwards. This is particularly baffling, given that the district has increased spending on school facilities, resources and teacher training. Even where we have implemented many of the suggestions and strategies mentioned in the article, nothing seems to work. More experienced colleagues tell me it seems to get worse every year. Not a very positive outlook for the future!

    • I hear you Dorian. Truthfully it’s a larger societal issue, if not also socio-economic. There are also lots of districts and colleges (at least pockets of them) that have shown promise. Spending can help if it’s leveraged properly. I for one believe that much has to do with improving factors outside of school–outside of school facilities, resources and training. There’s only so much that teachers can do–as much as they can influence–which appears to be a small amount compared with tousled factors. Agreed, not positive. But I’d love to hear solutions that address outside factors, which I think will help students engage and learn more in school.

  • I wonder if it’s possible that even with high percentages of students in attendance that there’s minimal engagement? Especially with strict requirements. How do we balance attendance policies with engaging students?

    • I’ve spoken with professors who try to treat college students as adults and allow them to make decisions about attendance. In most cases I tend to disagree, as students will typically think short term, urgent issues over long term benefits of learning. That’s why I make it the goal to just get students interested in your discipline at the undergraduate level. “Rigor” and content is useless is students don’t care.

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}