Ever had to compete for the hearts and minds of your students? Research indicates that affording students opportunities for connections with you and other students will engender higher commitment, engagement, and enthusiasm for your course.
Each student has a name, a voice, and a mind seeking a challenge that’s both meaningful and involving. At CMU caring is important. Saying hi, trying to remember and use student names, and holding student learning in high regard are just the beginning of what it means to connect with students.
Know your students, “make it real,” and connect with them. . .
The best teachers know their students well and plan accordingly (Bain 2004). Who will likely be taking your course? Are they motivated? Do they know how to learn? Do they have conceptual or academic skill gaps? In addition, the best teachers assume that learning has little meaning unless persuasive reasons for learning particular content are consistently proffered, thus proactively enabling a sustained, substantial influence on the way students think, act, and feel (Bain, 2004).
If a general education course is populated with younger, “traditional” students, or students who may not be majoring in the discipline, consider a “making it real” approach or exercise to engage students, who typically see course content as meaningless or without context (Toynton,1998). McKeachie (2011) points to the use of a common experience among learners like incorporating current news related to your discipline, appropriate internet sources or lectures, You Tube videos, controversial topics, significant problems, or case studies to begin discussions, or by explaining the relevance of specific material to the course and outside world, permitting them to ask how it is relevant to something with which they are familiar (Bain, 2004).
Utilizing social media is another way to become more relevant to the under-25 crowd in your discipline. With over 100 million users, Facebook now holds an 85 percent market share of students at 4-year U.S. colleges and universities (Facebook, 2008a, as cited in Heiberger, 2008). Hundreds of applications and websites have been developed under the education heading, and numerous others with the potential for educational use have appeared as well like delicious.com or diigo.com (Heiberger, 2008).
Another example is the fantasy stock exchange (FSX), or similar apps across disciplines that provide a simulation experience. When helping students put economic theory into practice, instructors use websites like Stocktrak.com that offer simulations similar to the fantasy stock exchange application (Stocktrak, 2008, as cited in Heiberger, 2008). This Facebook application meets students where they are, and adds fresh possibilities for student interaction to a standard out-of-classroom experience. FSX shows innovative ways for students to participate in learning beyond the classroom yet within a socialization context, potentially building and maintaining relationships formed from this activity. Such applications can be created and used by students, faculty, and staff who have specific educational interests and may also be integrated into the structure of a college to enrich the student experience (Heiberger, 2008).
Some of the best college and university teachers strive to create a critical learning environment where they embed skills and content that not only stimulate intellectual curiosity, but challenge them to rethink their assumptions (Bain, 2004). Students become increasingly aware of the implications and applications of these ideas and information as they use their reasoning abilities to integrate it with larger concepts, and in the process they routinely apply the intellectual standards of a particular discipline.
An entire class may benefit through facilitation of small group and cooperative learning where students often learn more from interacting with each other than the instructor (McKeachie, 2011). Structuring activities where students may learn about each other and network, and where they explain a concept or topic to someone else becomes one of the best methods for gaining a clear, long-term conceptual understanding, which makes such cooperative learning a valuable tool for effective teaching. Students who find personal relevance in course content will be more engaged in class (Toynton, 1998). Instructors who can connect with students' prior knowledge or interests on any given topic will find it much easier to induce new learning as they are simply building on an existing base of knowledge (von Glasersfeld, 1995). Adults have been shown to gain confidence in learning through the recognition and validation of their prior knowledge (Toynton, 1998). Whether or not a constructivist approach is used throughout the course, getting to know who is taking your course and why they are taking it is information that any instructor should take into account when creating course objectives and lesson plans.
Establishing a connection between prior knowledge and the learning objectives for the course is a great starting point when attempting to transform new concepts into operational modes of thinking for the class to build on (von Glasersfeld, 1995). Roschelle (1995), notes that this prior knowledge, tacit or explicit, of the mature learner may distort the very information being taught, since the prior knowledge, whether correct or not, may form the structure for the acceptance of new knowledge. With this in mind it becomes important to clearly define and provide examples of the structure or prior knowledge base that will be referenced throughout a given lesson or the entire course. This will ensure that students are on the same page as the instructor and that the use of examples to link new learning to previous knowledge has the intended effect. Toynton (2005) suggests that, “the learning prospects of a mature student must be improved where the educational experience is brought closer to the learning pattern of life experience. (p. 111)"
Students who find you approachable and easy to talk with will find it easier to ask questions and engage in discussions (McKeachie, 2011). This can begin with simple gestures like saying hello, having conversations about other topics with early arrivers, making eye contact, and learning/using first names. Although it’s not always possible to do this in larger classes, you can still connect with your students through learning ice-breakers and other activities where they can express some of their first-day-of-class thoughts/feelings/expectations (McKeachie, 2011). Anything you can share to illustrate that you’re just as real (and imperfect) as they are by referencing key moments in your own intellectual journey and elsewhere will make it easier for them to be reflective and candid as well (Bain 2004). Strive to spell students’ names correctly and ask for clarification when pronouncing uncommon names, showing that not only do you care, but that you’re actively paying attention to details that matter to them, which sets the tone for them to do the same (McKeachie, 2011). Be yourself – students are typically keen to who is genuine and who is not. Bain (2004) notes that the most effective teachers have generally thought more carefully and extensively about their intentions with students and let those aspirations and attitudes guide them in their teaching.