Engaging Students with Technology

How one professor at Michigan State University utilized technology in the classroom to increase student engagement, promote critical thinking and improve student exam grades. 

Students walk into Dr. Kaston Anderson-Carpenter’s psychology course at Michigan State University, take their seat and pull out their laptops, tablets and smartphones. His classroom quickly fills with rows of students interacting with their devices. However, what fills their screens is not the social media or text messages that many professors notice distracting their students. Instead, students in Dr. Anderson-Carpenter’s class are opening education applications such as Packback to review their posts in preparation for the day’s class.

Dr. Anderson-Carpenter recognizes that today’s young adults depend on technology to do everything from communicating with their professors to conducting research and accessing their textbooks. His goal is not to discourage students from using their devices, but to use their devices to keep them engaged during lectures. “For me, it’s about being innovative in the classroom, whatever that looks like,” says Dr. Anderson-Carpenter. “I know that students are going to use technology in the classroom, whether it’s Facebooking [or] online shopping while the instructor is giving the lecture, it happens. So, I asked myself, ‘What can I do to get them using technology in a more engaging way so that I could minimize them getting off track?'”

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Using Packback In Large Lectures

The first time I taught a 100-student course, I felt overwhelmed by how different it was from a 20-student class. Suddenly, I had five times as many names to remember. Five times as many papers to grade. Five times as many emails to answer. It was an adjustment, but with time I discovered new tricks for learning names, I set boundaries for myself on answering emails and I moved from a discussion-based class to more lectures and group activities. After experimenting for a few semesters, I finally felt comfortable.

Then I was assigned a 400-student class.

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The Value of Discussion

As enrollment and class size increase, professors face more challenges in keeping students engaged. According to a study from the University of Sussex, students in large lectures become passive recipients of information because the fast-paced environment doesn’t give them an opportunity to actively engage with course content. Whether classes are in-person or online, professors are challenged with finding ways to empower students to take ownership over their own learning and relate course material to their lives.

After teaching psychology at the University of North Carolina Charlotte for 12 years, Dr. Kathleen West found that students who weren’t able to see how the material related to their other studies were the most disengaged students in the class. These students, who are often preoccupied with electronic devices and don’t utilize time outside of class to study or prepare for the course, can be challenging to reach.

One way Dr. West pulled her students away from their devices and into the classroom was by incorporating peer discussion. This interaction challenged students to explore the course content and formulate their own viewpoints. Dr. West used discussions to tie in relevant course information and help students make connections between their learnings, current events and their lives. Dr. West found that by opening up discussions and giving students an outlet to participate at their own pace, students engaged more in class and showed more of an interest to learn.  

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Building Connections in Large Lectures

It is no secret that class sizes in public and private institutions across the country are growing. In fact, teaching a large lecture or non-traditional classroom is often required to advance along a tenure-track or to earn a promotion. And the rapidly changing classroom structure isn’t slowing down. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2000 and 2016, undergraduate enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions increased by 28 percent (from 13.2 million to 16.9 million students). Increasing class sizes bring challenges to educators, such as lower student engagement, an increased grading burden, more questions from students and often teaching methods which worked in smaller classes don’t scale to a larger class.

When Dr. Stacey Combes transitioned from a class of 20 students at Harvard University to a class of 400 students at the University of California, Davis, she quickly learned the challenges of connecting with students in an auditorium. In a small class, she had time to build relationships with her students and students were comfortable discussing class topics, debating ideas and asking questions in class. At the University of California, Davis, she wanted to build that same sense of community but knew creating an environment where hundreds of students were excited to share ideas would be challenging.

Dr. Combes’ challenge isn’t unique. More and more professors across the country are tasked with developing a classroom that is engaging for students, teaches core subject matter knowledge and leaves the student with a positive experience. It’s nearly impossible to speak with each student and many students feel uncomfortable sharing their questions or ideas in front of their peers. Often, the same students speak up in class discussions and it becomes hard to know where students are on the class material. One way to overcome these challenges is to focus on creating a collaborative environment where students feel empowered to take ownership of their education.  

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Creating An Active Learning Environment in College Classrooms

College enrollment for the 2018 fall academic term in the United States is expected to hit more than 20 million students according to a report from Statista. The rapid enrollment growth is putting a burden directly on professors to innovate in overcrowded lecture halls and meet the needs of Gen Z students.

These overcrowded lectures, where devices can be as much of a distraction as they are a tool, are a challenging setting to engage students. But students who don’t actively engage often lose interest in material and become less willing to apply themselves on assignments and exams. These students are also less likely to have a positive perception of their learning experience, which can be reflected in semester evaluations.

Unfortunately, there isn’t one simple addition or change in class structure that will empower students and encourage them to participate. However, one popular method professors in top colleges and universities are successfully incorporating is active learning. In fact, many different active learning techniques can be tailored to fit any classroom and can lead to increased engagement and a better understanding of class materials.

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