As life-long learners, we are, at the least, passionate about our fields of study.  As professionals, we are responsible for inspiring the learning of students.   This passion and responsibility motivate us to discover ways in which learning can be inspired with 21st century learners.   During the EHHS community gathering at the beginning of the semester, we worked in small groups sharing ways to engage deeper student learning (https://ehhsdean.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/engaging-students-learning/ ). 

Since our meeting, I tried several of the suggestions in my class.  I still can see the expressions on my students’ faces when I said, “It’s ok to make mistakes in this class.”  (I was thinking about our discussion and about a statement from Ken Robinson from his book The Element when I said this.  He said, “What is true is that if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”  The students also were surprised when I used an analogy about a potter where clay represented the information they needed to learn and the potter’s skill to form the clay represented their problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity.  I said the clay was important, but I was most interested in what they could do with it (of course, I know the potter has to know the clay well to make a great vessel). 

After sharing our division’s collective work in my last blog about engaging learning and following my first class, I started to wonder what students would say about what engages them most deeply in the learning process.  What follows are the results of what students shared in an undergraduate class and in a graduate class within the teacher education program.

What engages your learning?

Undergraduate Class

  • Classes are small
  • Get to do hands-on activities
  • Small group work
  • Close, intimate seating
  • When the teacher gives you candy
  • When we get to do community builders
  • Strong class community
  • If you are interested in what you are learning
  • Professors who make it interesting
  • Watching films involving technology
  • When the teacher shows he/she wants us to talk
  • When teachers “curse” – puts us on an equal level – we can be more open (there are ways to do this without cursing) 
  • When we get to do field experiences
  • Having breaks
  • When questions are deep and meaningful

Graduate Class

  • No lectures
  • Lots of discussion
  • Having professors who know us and we are comfortable with Using a “turn and talk” (a technique where students are asked to discuss a professor’s question/statement with a neighboring student before reporting out to the class) during class discussions.  This gives us a chance to think before we speak in front of the whole group.  
  • Building classroom community and getting to know our professors
  • Having professors care about what their students are interested in
  • Helping us get to know our classmates and getting to know us
  • Caring about us
  • Using different tools/techniques and showing us what it looks like in action
  • Using class time to talk about the readings
  • Giving us responsibility over our own work – choices in readings and class requirements
  • Being in democratic classrooms
  • Having the professor be organized
  • Humor – encouraging it
  • Honesty
  • When professors share their own stories
  • Having time to ask questions
  • Knowing how much work we have to do and adjusting schedules and work load
  • Understanding how each class fits into a whole program
  • Really, it’s about the professors’ engagement – their enthusiasm rubs off on us
  • Responding to our assignments and reflections with specific feedback
  • Letting us reflect – not just on what we learned, but on what we think about what we learned.  (Metacognition)

There are many areas of alignment between the students’ lists and what we developed during the community gathering.  There are, however, some gems in the students’ lists that are not found in the list created at the community gathering.  I wonder what answers students in your classes would give to the question about what engages learning?

Last week, I tried something one of my colleagues suggested, I asked my students to look something up on their cell phones – another moment when there was a look of bemusement on their faces due to many strict rules from professors about cell phones.  The discussion that ensued with these 21st century learners was engaging.  At the end of class, I asked them what was and was not working in class – something I feel should not wait to be asked until the end of the semester on a COS form. 

If you are unsure of trying a new approach in your class, then announce your approach as an experiment.  If it doesn’t work, then consider working with the students to design a new experiment for engaging learning.   My greatest hope is that our discussions about engaging learning inspire a deeper, enthusiastic commitment to teaching and that this will result in deeper learning for our students.  Sharing stories with each other about what we have tried in class inspires our growth.  I am excited about teaching my next class and am grateful to all who have shared approaches to improve my teaching!

   Robinson, K., & Aronica, L. (2009). The element: How finding your passion changes everything.  New York, NY: Penguin Group.