Teaching intelligence: student engagement is more than entertainment

Most of what affects a student’s engagement happens outside the classroom, including for the lecturer, according to one expert

November 28, 2019
sleeping in class
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Student engagement has been a buzzword in higher education for years. The holy grail is to have highly involved students, lapping up everything they are taught, absorbing and retaining knowledge.

How to get there is the question: do lecturers need to learn how to present in entertaining ways? Or is a carefully curated lesson plan the best way forward?

Ella Kahu, senior lecturer in the school of psychology at Massey University, New Zealand, has focused her research on this question, and it has led to the development of a specialist framework used to inform university policy in New Zealand and Australia.

For Dr Kahu, one of the most important things is to recognise that it is not just what happens in the classroom that affects engagement. “When we say we want to engage students, more often we are thinking that we want to get them to come to class, to do the activities, etc. However, what we must understand about learning is that although it is behavioural, it’s also cognitive and it’s also emotional.”

Her framework looks at those “pathways to engagement”, she added.

“Whether or not a student is engaged depends on a multitude of factors,” Dr Kahu told Times Higher Education. “That’s what makes it so hard. It’s not just the student and it’s not just the university, it’s the interaction between these things.” A student’s background, personality, their support systems – they all interact with the university’s curriculum, its culture and its teaching staff to have an impact on engagement.

Dr Kahu continued: “People say it’s important to be ‘an engaging lecturer’ – and no one really knows what that means. It usually means entertaining, but I have found it’s actually about the lecturer’s engagement with the content.

“When you have a lecturer who is passionate about whatever they are teaching, the students see that and they learn to be enthusiastic about it. They take that out of the classroom, that enthusiasm goes with them.”

Dr Kahu quoted another student from her research. “She said ‘if [the lecturer] is bored why should I be interested?’…We have an infectious effect on our students.”

“Students really notice when we disengage,” she added. “It is hard being a lecturer at a university, especially when you teach the same content every time, but you’ve got to dig back to why you love this stuff and bring that back to the table every time.”

As part of Dr Kahu’s research, she has found that students’ sense of “belonging” is an incredibly important pathway to engagement, not simply for their well-being.

“One of the students in my study explained that she had chosen to study journalism but when she came to it she didn’t feel it suited her as a person or that she belonged there. It meant it stopped being enjoyable and relevant, so she disengaged,” Dr Kahu said.

Universities must think about the whole student experience if they want students to engage, she added. “For young students it’s a really complex time…if we can improve their well-being, we improve their ability to engage.”



Print headline: Get (and hold) their attention

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Reader's comments (2)

I'd like to believe that this is true, for an extremely, so-called "boring" theoretical subject that I teach, teacher's engagement and passion is the only that I can bring to the classroom. However, there's no guarantee that the whole of the class will go along and be mesmerised by your passion for the topic. So there's always going to be a gap somewhere. Perhaps it's best to say that not for every Subject and every topic need the teacher feel obliged to be entertaining--whatever that may involve (I clearly have no idea what entertaining students involve).
What an incredibly content-less blogpost. Aside from the blather, the only two factors mentioned are 1) lecturers being interested in their own subject and 2) a student not liking the subject generally. So, nothing we can do anything about then. Maybe the headline should have been "Expert finds that engagement is nothing to do with lecturer teaching"? And no link to the "pathways to engagement" framework?

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