Want to engage students? Don’t be an idiot!

For engaging students, the title says is all. OK, I completely borrowed this from an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. http://chronicle.com/blogPost/How-to-Avoid-Being-a-Jerk-in/26427/ I’ll be honest, I was almost afraid to click on the Chronicle article, thinking that I’m just clueless as to what students would perceive as jerky behavior. But after reading Billie Harra’s advice, I have to say … I concur.

Few things will have your students disengage from statistics faster then having to deal with an obnoxious professor. Sure, we aren’t rock stars, and most of us may not even be a little bit cool. However, we don’t have to be “cool” to engage students. We don’t have to be “hot.” Yet, we cannot be mean or belittling. We need to be sympathetic when appropriate and know the right times to be motivational and even when to growl. But alas, I do not know the right combination. I know when I get it right for a single student … one in particular is getting ready to graduate in December. I know when I didn’t get it right, when students avoid me for three academic years. Though we can’t be perfect for every student every time … we do need to care.

The following are my tips to engaging students:

(1) Follow the link above and read Harra’s tips.  

(2) Evaluate your own self esteem. When one’s self esteem is weak, it is at that moment mean or belittling comments could come out of ones mouth, truly stabbing  a student in the heart,which has the interesting effect of “closing minds.”So, what can we do to protect ourselves from a stinky self esteem?  Chance are, we all get nice notes from students, some times even from their parents, thanking us for the great job that we are doing. My tip is on bad self esteem days, before entering into that class room, read over the positive notes. If that doesn’t work, “Fake it till you make it!” I also suggest avoiding the cranky faculty who surround you, at least on days that you teach. Chances are they are cranky due to a low self esteem anyway, we don’t need to be spreading such negative attitudes like a bad virus!

(3) Read students’ facial expressions. Let’s face it, if we talk enough, we will all say something that is stupid during class. Lot’s of stupid things can be laughed off with no long term negative consequences (of course, let’s hope we aren’t being observed teaching at that moment). However, if you see a look on the students faces that they are pained, recognize that what you wanted to convey and what you did convey were two different things … then, explain it further to the class.

(4) Help create a class that adopts an incremental view of intelligence. Students with an incremental view of intelligence believe that it is through hard work that they can become smarter. This belief alters their behavior and results in them working harder through a class, seeking out additional help from the professor, and not surprising, learning more. You can aid your students by talking about the benefits of this kind of thinking and by using praise (and criticism) that focuses on effort. For more information on this and other adaptive ways of thinking about academic success, I encourage you to read Carol Dweck’s (2006) Mindset. You can also learn a bit more by going to the following links: http://www.indiana.edu/~intell/dweck.shtml  or http://www.learning-theories.com/self-theories-dweck.html 

(5) Be mindful of your own prejudices or biases towards students. Especially be careful NOT to set up a situation that elicits a stereotype threat in your students. http://reducingstereotypethreat.org/ This web site contains a great deal more detail regarding stereotype threat, but in short, pay attention that you do not make gender comments implying men do better in your classes than women, or racial comments … but it goes beyond comments. Pay attention to whom you are calling upon? To whom do your eyes naturally gaze? Is there a gender bias in your behavior? A racial bias? If you are really keen on evaluating this, have some one sit in  your class and code your actions during class. With effort, you will view the class more fairly.  If you want to learn more about stereotype threat, I encourage you to read Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi.

Remember, not every student is going to love you or the stuff you teach, but if you can keep from hurting students, and can help convey to students you really do care about their learning, they will most certainly work harder for you and learn more about statistics.



Filed under Engaging students

3 responses to “Want to engage students? Don’t be an idiot!

  1. Hal Kiess

    Bonnie has made some very salient points and I would like to add two more. One, create a syllabus that you can stick to. Not an easy task the first time a course is taught, but crucial in my mind. Students want to know what they will be doing in class, what they should study and what assignments they should complete. An overly ambitious syllabus that can’t be followed leads to confusion and complaints–”I never know what we will be doing in class or when something is due!” Two, start and end classes on time. Most of us are unhappy if we have an appointment for something and then have to wait. Students waiting for a professor to show up are no different. In these tight financial times, many students think of themselves as paying by the hour for their education, and they are unhappy if they don’t get their money’s worth of the professor’s time.

  2. Two great suggestions, Hal.

  3. Pingback: Bain’s (2004) Approach to What Makes a Great Statistics Professor | Statistical Sage Blog

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