As instructors, we have preferred styles that work best with our personalities, but teachers must consider their students’ needs. Sometimes, we should step away from our favorite strategies when the material and the class would be better served with a different technique (Ginsberg & Wlodkowski, 2009). In this week’s reflection, I interviewed an adult educator about engaging learners. The interviewee’s name has been changed for confidentiality.
Setting and Context
Charles began as a teaching assistant in 1995. Currently, he is an adjunct instructor at a university where he teaches English Literature. His courses are face-to-face rather than online. In the first half of his career, he had mostly traditional students, but the latter half has seen more non-traditional ones (C. Gilbert, personal communication, March 25, 2014).
Nature of the Learners
When speaking of his classes, Charles divides the students by age. He considers adult learners to be the older students. The younger students, those recently graduated from high school, are not yet adults in his opinion (C. Gilbert, personal communication, March 25, 2014).
He divides learners into those categories based on patterns that he has observed in his classes. The traditional students are less adventurous when trying out new learning while the older students are more open-minded. He attributes this difference to the non-traditional students’ time in the working world. They made a conscious decision to return to school, so they are more likely to keep an open mind (C. Gilbert, personal communication, March 25, 2014).
At the same time, however, the older students show arrogance, believing that they know all there is on certain topics. Engaging them can be difficult at times. Conversely, the younger students may not be too interested in different types of learning activities, but they tend not to display that arrogance to the same degree (C. Gilbert, personal communication, March 25, 2014).
Developing Engaging Learning Experiences
Over the years, Charles says that his ability to anticipate his students’ needs has improved. He has an easier time engaging them now (C. Gilbert, personal communication, March 25, 2014).
For the most part, his curriculum predetermined. Although Charles has little input into what his courses must cover, he decides how to arrange the lessons. To keep things more interesting, he alternates among lecture, discussion, in-class writing, solo activities, and group assignments. He also noted an increase in student engagement when he allows class time for students to ask questions (C. Gilbert, personal communication, March 25, 2014).
As Charles plans his learning experiences, he pays particular attention to developing critical thinking. He finds that most students are content to accept whatever is said without question. From the first day of class, he works on coaxing them to question the material and challenge their own assumptions (C. Gilbert, personal communication, March 25, 2014).
Although he said that he is improving on his ability to create engaging lessons, Charles wants to continue learning new ways to engage students. Effective strategies he has found include switching modes of presentation, varying the activities, and giving well-timed breaks (C. Gilbert, personal communication, March 25, 2014).
Presenting Content Effectively
Charles uses lecture for introducing some basic concepts for which there are no alternate perspectives. He gave the writing process and composition techniques as examples. When a variety of approaches are valid, he prefers discussion or group work as better ways to encourage students to assimilate information. When facilitating a discussion, Charles prefers an organic flow to the conversation, so he avoids calling on people, but if some students are not involved, he will direct a question at those students (C. Gilbert, personal communication, March 25, 2014).
Many types of instructional strategies are valid depending on the circumstances and the material, but variation will improve learning by staving off boredom (Brookfield, 2006).
Charles noted that his younger, traditional students were more resistant to doing a variety of activities (C. Gilbert, personal communication, March 25, 2014). At first, I thought that observation ran contrary to Nilson’s (2010) suggestion that the current generation is more active. As I considered the information from Barkley (2010) and Merriam, Cafferella, and Baumgartner (2007), I saw the connections. The discussions and group work that Charles uses are geared toward encouraging more critical thinking (C. Gilbert, personal communication, March 25, 2014). Critical thinking involves challenging our own assumptions and the source material we are using (Merriam, Cafferella, & Baumgartner, 2007). The younger students in Charles’ classes would be of the generation Nilson (2010) describes as being uninterested in self-reflection, so they would resist the techniques Charles is using.
Engaging students is part of developing intrinsic motivation, which helps to create a more inclusive classroom where everyone can learn (Ginsberg & Wlodkowski, 2009). One way to foster engagement is to vary the instructional strategies being used (Davis, 2009). This may require us to move away from our preferred strategies, but in the end, the class as a whole will benefit.
Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Brookfield, S. D. (2006). The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Davis, B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Ginsberg, M. B., & Wlodkowski, R. J. (2009). Diversity & motivation: Culturally responsive teaching in college (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Nilson, L. B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.