With touchpoints like the computer terminal and the phone within arm’s length, our students have 24×7 access to summarised educational content. Their failing interest in their learning has perturbed their teachers and prevented them from achieving the educational goals of their respective courses. This lack of interest is seen in their absenteeism, below-par assignments and plagiarized projects. Although some actions like quizzes, case studies and live projects are popular, how well they spark their students’ interest is a moot point.
Student engagement is an indicator of their interest in their learning activities. It is also a blend of their enjoyment, concentration, attention, curiosity, optimism and passion for their learning process. It uses ideas from concepts, theories and practices in learning and education domains.
The foundations of learning:
Why is learning necessary? The simplest answer comes from Herbert Spencer’s observation that ‘The great aim of education is not knowledge but action’. He was an English philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist and one of the boldest thinkers of his time. He denigrated the acquisition of knowledge (often seen in the form of certificates and degrees) if it were not for purposeful use. Benjamin Bloom had proposed that learning must go beyond mere studies (e.g. of the syllabus or in terms of memorization) and must be used to understand, apply, analyse and assess what is understood, and to create something anew. Aren’t you surprised that learning for curiosity (what happens to the soul after death?) or for fun (what existed before the universe was born?) is not in this list? Me too! Spencer and Bloom’s directions remind us that student engagement actions should guide the students to apply their knowledge towards specified and useful goals.
How should individuals learn? Pavlov’s cause-and-effect experiment with his salivating dogs showed us that repeated actions and external circumstances could produce new learning and behaviour. Albert Bandura suggested that mastery experience and vicarious learning developed the individual’s conviction to complete a task, effectively. Mastery experience was the learning that resulted from repetitive actions, while watching and imbibing others’ experiences produced vicarious learning. Self-efficacy was made of traits such as determination, perseverance, and the ability to assess yourself. Our research in the context of simulation games showed that self-efficacy was also made of openness to experience and information and the willingness and eagerness to deal with novelty and uncertainty. Pavlov and Bandura’s research suggest that any engagement initiative must include experiences that produce learning from repetitions and observations.
We know the meaning and significance of meditation and mindfulness, although most of us practice neither. How can we create a similar situation where our learners could get so lost in study that nothing could distract them? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proposed a psychological state of consciousness called Flow where participants were focused, as if in a trance, on tasks that they could complete despite its challenge and complexity. Such tasks offered enough mystery to engage the mind and the skills of the individual so that nothing else distracted him. He knew what he must do and how to do it, and he had the freedom to do it. He could track his progress which served to give him usable feedback to learn from and adapt. Thus, time stands still for anyone who is fully engrossed in a task that challenges his skills and intellect.
Our students want fun, excitement, novelty and challenge in their learning. We can meet their expectations easily with actions such as those described below.
a. Classroom lectures should be chunked, i.e. offered in small sessions of (say) 15-20 minutes around themes and keywords. Chunks are easily remembered, connected, and digested. They are simpler and therefore, encourage focused interactions.
b. Exercises (including assignments and homework) that can be completed within two hours will be receive better attention from the students. Use longer exercises only for senior and research students. You could have an exercise during or at the end of every chunk or class.
c. Today’s students are passionate about their cellphones. Why not offer exercises that need them to take photos and videos to explain their learning?
d. How precise are your instructions? Did you preview them with your students before use?
e. Exercises must be challenging but doable. They should stretch the students’ mental muscles and goad them to think deeper than before. The students’ reach should exceed their grasp (Robert Browning), making them exert towards an achievable goal.
f. Repeat some actions in your successive exercises. Repetition sharpens ability and builds skills. Every successive action of the same movement needs less conscious effort and is done faster. As actions become easier, your students will like what they do, and experience Flow, self-efficacy and mastery.
g. At the end of every student report, the conclusion must include a summary of his learning, an assessment of his work, and a recommendation of his learning for use. A tight jargon-free summary may reduce a mass of written material into concentrated insights; his assessment acknowledges the weaknesses and errors in his work and improves his judgement of his capabilities; and in his recommendation, he explores how to use his learning.
h. If we can wean away the students from the use of PPT, they may discover new skills and confidence in themselves. Why not extempore presentations of (say) 10-12 minutes without notes? It may breed oratorical skills that would support selling, influencing and negotiating roles in their careers later.
i. For meaningful exercises, link them to contemporary events and common problems. Don’t forget to seek original clippings of print newspapers and magazines as evidence.
j. How do we avoid plagiarism? Ask for handwritten reports in cursive style. It’s slow and tedious but the hand works at the pace of thought and disciplines the mind. Short student reports (200 words or less in two hours) will prevent the need for dishonest work.
k. Your instructions must include a checklist for self-regulation and self-assessment. Avoid marks and grades unless you point out causes that are valid and correctable. Qualitative feedback encourages correction and adaptation. If your students get a rubric of your assessment process, you will be respected for its ethical stance.
l. Finally, let’s review some engagement techniques that work. Story telling works across most audiences because they excited at and cannot wait out the suspense. In simulation games may be found the highest engagement because the students enact roles that lead to learning from discoveries, errors, and conversations. The role play transports them to a place of fantasy where they get the freedom to act to accomplish a clear goal within the game rules and without a pre-determined end as in a case study. Whether listening to stories or playing games, students learn surreptitiously from their experiences where they imbibe more and faster than any other educational experience.
Engagement needs policy support:
High levels of student engagement bring better attendance and interactions in the class, produces curiosity and learning beyond the syllabus, and builds closer teacher-student bonds. Teachers will find it easier to achieve high levels of engagement if such efforts were conducted under an organisational policy with explicit directions for action, oversight, review and adaptation. Else, their interest and initiatives to offer their students a memorable learning experience may wither away due to leadership apathy.
Dr Vinod Dumblekar is a teacher, trainer, researcher, and consultant. He has taught postgraduate students in business and corporate strategy, mergers and acquisitions, financial management and entrepreneurship. His research papers have been presented at conferences at Munich, Atlanta, Singapore, Bangkok, and Warsaw. He is also the founder of MANTIS which has designed and facilitated games on business themes such as marketing and strategy since 2003. His games have served managers and students of management schools and engineering institutes, business firms, and universities in India, Thailand, and Dubai. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and +91.9818631280.