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What is a Faculty member’s role in student engagement?

The semester is coming to a close, and I am thinking a lot (as usual) about teaching. This semester I taught a 2000-level course on Roman Art and Architecture. This course is, essentially, a general education course, with students from a variety of majors taking it for a requirement. I had a few majors in the course (I think two and I recruited one). Thus, the majority of my students were majoring in subjects other than art history. I like it that way. But it does bring about some problems, namely that since they are not already invested in the material as their choice of majors, I feel that I have the responsibility to make the course engaging.

And this is where I am finding that I differ from some of my colleagues. It has me thinking: what is my responsibility in terms of engaging students in this course? What is the individual student’s responsibility? Where do these responsibilities overlap, if they do at all?

I want an active classroom. From my reading and research, I have come to understand that students learn more by doing and not from passively listening to a lecture, no matter how captivating the lecturer might be (and I would like to think that I am pretty engaging). This is not a condemnation of the lecture model, however, it is a statement that some will take to be controversial. I am not sure why. Except this: in saying that lecturing is passive, some will feel that it’s enough, that they don’t have a responsibility to make the course interesting, and that they feel it is the responsibility of the student to be engaged.

I’m not sure I agree that it’s up to them because I am not sure that students know how to be engaged. I say this in part because I have some students who are “middle of the pack.” They are C/B students. They don’t have great skills at writing/reading. They have to do those things in my courses, but they are not among the top 10% of students. How do I engage them? Don’t they deserve the same chance at engagement as the student who can read and write well?

I had a couple of experiences in my Roman Art and Architecture class that showed me I am on the right path for student engagement. I had an activity planned for which students had to use material from assignments that were to be completed prior to class. Sometimes, to set up that activity, I lectured for a short period. After that lecture, I sorted them into different groups and asked them to figure a problem out. Examples from this class include certain scenarios that I pre-arrange, such as: you have limited funds and must rank and prioritize five infrastructure projects (roads, aqueducts, walls, etc.) to the Senate and be ready to justify your request for funding in the order you determine. Another day they were advisors to the new emperor Vespasian and had to help him determine the style of his official portraiture. There was a Reacting to the Past game that seemed to be the favorite activity because they played an actual Roman character alive at time the game is set.

The papers I graded this weekend, however, demonstrated to me the deep engagement that the student had this semester. It was my “Daily Life in Ancient Rome” assignment. For this assignment, students choose a socio-economic class that they come from by choosing a slip of paper out of a box. I pre-determine the percentages of how many patricians, plebeians, freedmen and slaves there are vis-à-vis our class enrollment. They choose an identity randomly from the box and must research that socio-economic class and write a paper that talks about where they would go, what they would see, and what they would do in a given day. They usually write in first-person for this assignment, and they can choose the time period in which their day is set. Having just graded those papers, I was amazed at the level of research this year, which demonstrated to me that they were engaged not only in this particular assignment, but the class as a whole. There were references to topics and monuments we had discussed earlier in the semester, as well as new research to bolster their “daily walk around Rome.”

Another assessment of the learning through active engagement this semester was during the class that I held prior to our trip to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD. The Walters has excellent examples of Roman art in their collection. While it’s not an extensive collection, the pieces are excellent examples of the different periods of Roman art, ranging from the Republic to the later Empire. When I showed them a sampling of the art monuments that they would see, I asked what sub-period from which each work came. They were spot-on for each work of art I showed them: Republican head; portrait of Vespasian; portrait of Augustus. They named them all. Combined with the “Daily Life” papers, I am convinced that I had a class engaged in the material, but most important to me, I had a class that learned.

I don’t want engagement for the sake of engagement. And I often worry that even when I see them engaged, I don’t know if they are learning. I don’t give a mid-term exam that requires memorization, as I believe that method only tests lower-level learning. I’m not interested in that, because I don’t think that will “stick.” And what is the point if they will just forget that information after they graduate, if they even remember it that long? I do have a final exam, but it, too, is not based on memorization. It asks them to provide what they learned by asking them broad questions about themes from the course. For instance, we talk a lot in this course about the propaganda messages that the emperors were attempting to make with their art and architecture programs. On the final exam I ask them: what propaganda messages through art/architecture do you think was most effective and why, and then I ask them to think about the ones that were ineffective and why. This requires them to know the material, but to think about it in a way that doesn’t require massive memorization of images on a flashcard, which was the way I learned art history.

Am I teaching to the middle, those students who may never have another art history course? Maybe. But I am engaging them, too. My gut tells me that. But my assessments actually prove it.

Fellow college educators, what do you think about your role engaging students?

21 thoughts on “What is a Faculty member’s role in student engagement?

  1. Student

    I really enjoyed this article. It is spot on! I am the type of student who struggles with lecture, reading, and writing. Dr.McKay has really engaged me with her teaching style including getting the students involved, allowing us to teach the class, by leading discussion, and researching topics and presenting them in class. Sitting in a class and just listening to someone talk does not allow the student to engage, and this will lead them to not retain info. And will then lead to struggling on test and other assignments!

    1. Gretchen McKay

      I guess you know from this post that I think you all learned a lot. I appreciate your posting a comment on the blog, "Roman." 😉

  2. Abby M.

    I absolutely agree this is the BEST way to learn! Granted I am an Art History major so I am already interested in the material but engaging us (students) with real life scenarios like RTTP, writing as a person of the time, etc., really sticks. Out of all my Art History courses Dr. McKays are always the ones I come back to, whether to reference material and or where I've LEARNED the material.

    1. Gretchen McKay

      I appreciate your comments and thank you for taking time to post. Why, specifically, do you think the way the material is offered to you makes it "stick"? I am trying to understand so that I can keep developing these types of assignments.
      Miss you -- GM

      1. Abby M

        Well, mainly because it includes us. I suppose some can argue that lectures and power points do too but they don't immerse us into the material. The material sticks because we are involved now -like in RTTP or writing as someone of the time, we have to defend or make a stance about x y & z. I guess a simple explanation is: it's just more fun!
        Miss you too!

  3. Perry Stefanelli

    I definitely agree with your argument. I understand the idea of exams and their function. They are meant to evaluate how much a student has or has not learned. However, exams also make students cram at the last minute, and people can only remember the information for a short period of time. In your class it is different. I do not feel pressured to learn about Roman art and architecture, but rather I engage because you encourage me to engage for the sake of learning. Therefore, I feel that I am learning for a greater cause than just a gpa. I engage more and retain more. Also, one assignment we did about interpreting the donations of Augustus resulted in us not only doing our own research, but we were asked to engage the classroom about what they thought. This really helped us engage in the material. Your teaching style class is very effective, and I wish more teachers viewed teaching the way you do. If a professor shows his or her desire to engage me in the material, then I will want to more do on my own.

    1. Gretchen McKay

      Thank you for writing this message on my blog. I appreciate it (I was actually writing a response when I looked up and saw all you guys traipsing into class and realized class was about to start!). I believe that what you say about exams are true: people cram and can only retain information for a short time. I think activities in which students are compelled to apply information makes it sink in and stick. One of your colleagues told me he'd not forget the whole toga wrapping after seeing it done in class. I told you all about it; but seeing it brought it together in a new way. And thus the second phase of the Daily Life assignment - how do you apply the material that you researched for your individual assignments (that were very well done) into a group scenario? I can't wait to see what you guys do next week.
      Again, thank you for taking the time to comment. Share widely! I'd like more comments, from students, and I'm hoping that some faculty will chime in, too (many don't agree with me!).

  4. Josh Eyler

    Fantastic post, Gretchen. I couldn't agree more that we have a responsibility for making our courses engaging, largely because we have a responsibility to ensure that students are learning, and we know from the science on learning that one of the most effective ways to do this is to create the kind of environments, assignments, etc. that you describe above. The brain seeks stimulation and relevance, so the more students are engaged, the more they will learn.

    1. Gretchen McKay

      Thanks, Josh. I read something recently about the finding the "sweet spot" between delivering content (because we want to make sure that they are learning disciplinary knowledge) and engaging them. I can't put my hands on the article, but it was something about making sure that you aren't engaging them just for the sake of having them actively doing something. That gave me pause, and made me realize the importance of course design and establishing learning outcomes. That might be calling for a new post!!! More and more, though, I realize how my teaching took off once I released myself from what I call the "Tyranny of Content." (maybe others call it that, too). That realization (along with Reacting to the Past) opened a whole new way for me to traverse as a faculty member.

  5. Bryan Alexander

    My dear Gretchen, I already fulminated in your direction on Twitter, so won't repeat myself here. Except to applaud you for this teaching practice, this sharing practice, and your successful engagement w/students.

    (Hello, professor McKay's students!)

    Faculty *do* have a responsibility to engage students, using the full force of their professional development. This means experimenting, collaborating, researching, staying current, iterating practices, and listening hard to learners.

    Faculty who do this also inspire students to carry on engaged learning in other classes. So profs help profs, in other words, when boosting student desire to learn.

    We have to undo years of disengagement, I'm afraid. Years of teaching to the test, of schools leading bad practices, of well-taught cynicism and hard-learned disempowerment. This is an education culture issue, and also a problem for where America is in 2016.

  6. Gretchen McKay

    Thanks for the comments, Bryan.

    Your note about how we have to undo years of disengagement is true. I think part of what needs to happen is to have faculty supported to attend teaching conferences, rather than just disciplinary conferences that are solely about presenting research. I am not downplaying research. I do research in my field in order to be sure I am keeping current and finding new ideas to present in classes. There is a very important relationship there. However, I learned so much when I was in administrative roles, when I attended AACU and other conferences like it, when I learned about the pressures and difficult trends in higher education. I decided that I would do my part to "fix" things - in my own corner of the universe with my classes. I have engagement strategies for fully online, hybrid (which I will try with students in an introductory class this fall), flipped, and F2F classes. Reacting to the Past (you know about that, right? is one of my go-to engagement strategies for F2F and I'm going to try it online, too (in the Byzantine class). But it's also just the tip of the iceberg for F2F teaching.

    1. Bryan Alexander

      RTTP is awesome. Been following them for years.

      You're absolutely right about getting faculty into the teaching-themed professional development world. I'd add the teaching with technology subfield, with conferences like EDUCAUSE's ELI.

      Also, encouraging faculty to use social media, which is a superb, very very low cost PD platform.

  7. Gretchen McKay

    When you say "them" - include me in that, as I am the Chair-elect of the national Reacting Consortium Board. I will be taking over on June 12, 2016 at the conclusion of our annual conference, which is June 9-12, 2016 this year (and always at Barnard in NYC). If you know of people who are using and/or interested in RTTP as you talk to and engage with faculty, let me know. We are enhancing our membership drive, both individual and institutional.

  8. Gretchen McKay

    Bryan - also wanted to note that I will be adding an online Reacting game this spring in my online Byzantine Art class. So another reason to love it! I think I have a way to move RTTP to an online medium. We'll see how it goes!

  9. Gretchen McKay

    I would welcome your help. Some (as in two that I know of) have moved it to the online world. Many resist even trying because many think that RTTP is the "antidote" for lectures - and is best argued as a HIP that is an alternative to online teaching. But I am not convinced that is the way to go. Thus, I have an Iconoclasm game that I have been working on and use in my medieval F2F classes and have decided I'm going to try it in the online Ways of Seeing Byzantium class. I'll be in touch?

    1. Bryan Alexander

      I suspect people have very particular models of online teaching, and might not be aware of the full variety - viz., for example, cMOOCs.
      Look forward to hearing from you. Especially once I escape Snowzilla.

  10. Gretchen McKay

    I'm trying to escape it, too. Please do feel free to send me ideas about how Reacting (have you ever played a Reacting game?) could work online. The problem is that most people think it needs to be *replicated* but I've learned that it won't be the same but can be altered in format, and yet get to the same learning outcomes. That is hard for some to understand, but in my online teaching I teach differently than F2F. Wouldn't it be the same for a Reacting game - online versus F2F?

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