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Engaging Students in the Classroom

Published by Kim Johnson on 4.6.2019

I taught my first undergraduate class last semester, so you need to know that I am not personally an expert on engaging students in the classroom. I am just another professor trying to figure out the best way to make sure my class understands the essential elements of the course material. One day after class, I had a student send me an email complaining that his classmates were all distracted by their mobile devices during class and he was somewhat angry for me and wanted to be sure that I recognized their disrespect.

But I, myself, was a PhD student distracted by my mobile device not very many years ago. I understand the frequent urge to check to make sure I am not missing important communications from work, or family or other obligations. As well as the occasional desire to relieve boredom by a quick check of social media or news sites. So, I asked the class what I should do to address the use of devices during class. Their responses were interesting.

First, a couple working parents said that if I had banned their devices to their backpacks or purses, they may have elected to drop the class. They felt that it was important to be available to their children and their caretakers and needed to peek at their phones periodically to check for messages. These parents admitted to being distracted; but explained that they were as committed and present as they could be given their circumstances.

Other students suggested we use devices more often for classroom activities. I had used an online polling application for a couple classes and had them working in groups to conduct literature searches on their laptops and smart phones on two occasions and they suggest that the more I incorporated their devices into the work of the classroom, the more I would be able to address their distraction.

Which leads me to the final point. They needed to be more active in class. They were the most engaged in the classes where I stopped lecturing and got them to do the work. The literature supports this idea of an “upside down classroom” where skills are practiced and learning demonstrated during the classroom period and reading, watching videos and listening to lectures are the homework that conveys the information. With so much content available now online, we don’t need to use our precious classroom time conveying information. We can use it to develop understanding of information through discussion and to practice skills and receive feedback. When I think about my own undergraduate biology program that ended 35 years ago, what I remember are the labs not the lectures. I remember specific labs in organic chemistry isolating the molecule that creates the lemon scent in lemongrass, the cellular biology lab where we grew muscle cells and made them twitch in a petri dish, and the drosophila genetics experiment where I identified the chromosome where the gene for red eyes resided. My recollection of lectures is a jumble of single sentences, out of context now, and probably obsolete after all these years.

Here is a link to an open access journal article that is the experience of a law professor in his experiment with conducting an upside-down classroom. He cites all the literature, so I don’t have to! I would be interested to hear from you about your experiences improving classroom engagement.

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