Student Engagement

min read

In April, Helen Mongan-Rallis, Kyle Keegan, and I sat down to talk about their experiences as professor and student/teaching assistant, respectively. In particular, we focused on their familiarity with and personal insights into student engagement in university classes. The interview with them, summarized here, illustrates how student engagement has evolved with the impact of new technologies.

Helen Mongan-Rallis is an associate professor of Education at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). Helen grew up in South Africa, where the inequities in education had a profound impact on her thinking about teaching and learning. She earned a BA (Honors) in Geography from the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, in 1981. After immigrating to the United States in 1984, she earned an MA in Geography at the University of Miami in 1985 and a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction at Penn State University in 1989. She is a member of the University of Minnesota Academy of Distinguished Teachers.

Kyle Keegan is a Music Education major at UMD. He grew up in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, where he had an outstanding education, especially in music. He credits his high school music teachers with inspiring him to become a teacher. He is currently participating in the Undergraduate Teaching Opportunities Program (UTOP), where Helen is his supervising faculty member. As part of this program, he is a co-teacher with Helen in one of her classes. He will be student teaching during the fall of 2010, after which he plans to find a job teaching music in a secondary school.

Helen began the conversation by describing her 21 years of teaching at UMD, during which she has taught many different courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels. Helen said:

"I love to teach, and what fuels my passion more than anything is engaging actively with my students and seeing them actively engaged with each other and with what they are learning. Through all the classes I have taught and the many twists and turns that my research agenda has taken, what has been a constant and a motivation behind all of these is my quest to find more effective ways of helping students learn. I constantly seek better ways to reach more students, especially students who have not been able to access education or be successful at education under past methods of teaching and learning. This led me inevitably to seeking ways in which technology can enhance teaching and learning and make education more accessible to all."

I can attest to Helen's passion for using technology to engage students. Looking back over many years, I can't recall a single opportunity Helen has missed to learn a new tool or technique. Helen said, "I still remember being excited by e-mail and being considered on the radical fringe because I used it — and even used it to communicate with my students!" Helen teaches face-to-face, hybrid, and fully online. She noted, "I used to say that I preferred face-to-face, but have found that I love hybrid teaching, because it brings out the best in the students and me, and it really takes student learning and engagement to levels I have not ever experienced either in face-to-face or fully online.

I asked Helen, "How do you normally engage students in a face-to-face class? What do you need to do differently to engage students when you are teaching online?" Helen reported using a wide variety of techniques to engage students in a face-to-face course, including activities alone, in pairs, and in groups; groups reporting orally and recording their group responses in a wiki; online discussion forums; whole class discussions following a short lecture, a YouTube video, or a podcast clip; simulations, role plays, and case study analyses. Helen said, "I also try to make the most of the face-to-face time with activities that are best done face-to-face, and I keep the things that do not need to be done in class for online learning or independent learning." Outside of class, Helen asks her students "to participate in online discussions, in which they are asked to synthesize class work, readings, personal experiences, and practicum experiences." She also has them use Google Docs and wikis to do group work outside of class. In online classes, Helen uses Adobe Connect, Skype, Google Docs, discussion forums, wikis, and Webspiration.

Kyle has taken both face-to-face and hybrid classes, but he has not taken any fully online classes. He is very enthusiastic about the hybrid class that he experienced as a student last semester and is co-teaching with Helen this semester. I asked Kyle to "think about a class when you have felt most engaged with the class experience and tell us about it." Kyle related his experience as a music student in high school, where his two band directors had a unique approach to teaching and student engagement. He said, "The teachers fostered skills in the older students and asked them to help teach the younger students. The students loved this. It is such a great opportunity for the students with seniority to have that experience."

Kyle continued, "Helen's philosophy is, 'Don't tell students something that they can tell you.' To see students get to this point is truly incredible." Helen added, "I rarely say anything in online discussions. I am there, but I don't interfere. It is much more powerful if students make discoveries themselves and lead each other to it. I try to make online discussions high-level discussions. The discussions must be connected to students' lives. If they are simply parroting back something you already know, it is meaningless."

I asked Kyle, "Did you ever have a course that was horrible in terms of student engagement?" Kyle replied, "The courses that were worst were, for example, a night class that relied on PowerPoint presentations and lectures. You could see students sleeping. You sometimes wondered how the professors think it actually works." Kyle added this thought about his work with Helen's class: "What we do relies heavily on getting to know your students. I think this is so important with respect to engagement. The better you get to know the students, and the better the students know you, the more they are able to connect to the material and to your teaching."

Emphasizing the importance of engaging students in her classes, Helen said:

"It's critical for them and it's critical for me. If they are engaged, it's more fun and more meaningful. I am a big believer in social construction of knowledge. If we work in silos, so much is lost. If we bounce ideas off each other, it can go from strength to strength. Even the concept of cheating is so outdated, so 20th century. I encourage working and learning together and call it collaboration."

According to Helen, student engagement:

"...leads to deeper understanding, higher level, critical thinking and better retention. I know that the research is controversial. It depends on what you are trying to get them to retain. If you want them to memorize facts, then maybe it's better to lecture at them, because then they know exactly what you want them to know. But if you want them to have retention in terms of making connections, then activity is important. If students are sitting and listening to you lecture, then you don't know if they've gotten it. Technology like clickers and polls gives you some evidence, but once they participate, then they are engaged."

About the importance of engagement, Kyle said:

"There is a direct correlation between being engaged in class and what you can get out of the class. I can think of moments in class where you get that inner 'aha' and you'll never forget it. In music, when you are able to find something out through engagement with the teacher and learn a new approach to playing, it's really great."

I asked Helen if she has seen differences in student engagement in face-to-face classes as compared to online classes and if these differences impact student performance. She acknowledged she has a bias toward hybrid classes, saying, "Some students do not do as well in online discussions, but shine in face-to-face discussions; conversely, some students who rarely speak in group discussions, shine in online discussions. I have seen this in the depth, quality and quantity of their online posts." Helen observed that students' preferred methods of communicating sometimes change as a result of experience in a hybrid class. "Sometimes I see that students who excel at face-to-face get affirmation from other students, and then they begin to do better online. Conversely, students who are quiet in class begin to talk more after they have success online." About different learning styles, Helen opined:

"While I am a big believer in learning styles and multiple intelligences, I don't think that means you teach people only through their preferred intelligence. I believe in it as a motivation to try other styles. If students believe they will get a chance to learn in their preferred style, then they are also more willing to try other styles and to appreciate what other students are doing."

Kyle described his experience as a student in Helen's class at UMD when Helen was suddenly called away to South Africa by a family emergency. He said, "When Helen was in South Africa, I was in class with the other students, and Helen was talking to us via Adobe Connect. It was really cool to see how students reacted. It really opened their eyes about the ability to teach in this way." Helen added, "When you are teaching 'from an electronic box,' then you still have to do things to keep students engaged. For example, I used an online poll to get each group to answer a yes-no question. Three groups said yes and two said no. Then I asked each group to explain why they answered as they did."

This reminded Helen about watching another teacher who was teaching online:

"I was at Connections Academy last week, and this teacher was unbelievable. I have never seen anyone teach so well using Adobe Connect. She had them so engaged. The chat window was scrolling constantly. She had the poll open, and if students got a question wrong, she was sending them private messages, all the time while she was talking."

Helen would like to follow her lead:

"I want to embrace the challenge of teaching totally online. I know that it can be extremely effective. Research shows this, and I know there are abundant examples of highly engaged, effective online teachers. I'm not there yet, and I know I need to put aside my own bias and reservations. When a class is fully online, I can't see the light go on in their eyes online, so I have to develop other skills to ensure they remain engaged. I also need to adapt my style of teaching to the fully online world. If everything I say and do is captured, I will need to be more careful, because it is so easy for things to be taken out of context. For example, in a face-to-face class, I provoke and am sometimes risqué, to challenge students to see things differently. Online, it is a screenshot away from being on YouTube, where the viewers have no way of knowing the context in which my remarks were made."

Kyle commented in conclusion, "One of the most important things for me is the student-centered approach to student learning. It acknowledges the students' voices as being central to learning."

Through these observations, it is apparent how teaching and learning are changing as students take charge of their own learning through engagement in all classes: face to face, online, and hybrid. For most students, engagement contributes to student learning, critical thinking, and retention of meaningful knowledge.