How to engage students in and outside the classroom: a memo

Yesterday, I attended a three-hour crash course on student-active teaching organized by my faculty’s council for educational development. Having been confronted to how difficult it can be to motivate and engage students during lectures and seminars, I was very eager to get some advice on how to shape courses in a more attractive and, from a learning perspective, effective way.

In this context, what I found most instructive during the class were the short presentations given by three different professors from the faculty on their respective student-centered courses – courses that could be considered as “state-of-the-art” when it comes to student-active teaching. The first course described was composed of a combination of traditional lectures, labs, group assignments and oral assessments (carried out in small, randomized groups but assessed at the individual level). Problem-based learning was at the core of the second course, in which students were first required to determine on their own what knowledge they needed to acquire in order to solve the presented problem, and were then provided with the necessary material. The third course used innovative technology in order to make full use of the flipped classroom concept, thus avoiding to use lecture slots for passive teaching.

I found it very inspiring and helpful to see functioning, real-life examples of such student-centered teaching methods. At the same time however, I also felt a certain level of frustration: as a teaching assistant and first-year PhD student, my capacity to carry out any high-level change to the courses I am contributing to is of course very limited. But fortunately, the final part of the class reminded me that even low-level and low-tech methods can make the difference between entirely passive, easily forgotten lectures and interaction-based teaching instances where students are pushed to put into practice and reflect upon what they have heard. For instance, the use of colored paper-based cardboards to have students answer yes/no questions about the course content is an easy way to assess their progress and initiate a fruitful discussion about core concepts of the course.

At the end of the class, we were asked to write down three “take-home messages” on sticky notes, which we later on were told to keep for our own future benefit (a nice touch, I think). To conclude this post, here is what I wrote on my stikcy notes:

  1. Oral assessments in small, randomized groups where everybody is required to participate actively are more effective than whole-class seminars in which most students are daydreaming the majority of the time.
  2. Lecture slots are precious and should primarily be used to have students interact with each other and actively reflect on the course contents.
  3. Adding interactive components to lectures can be quick, easy and low-tech. Even small-scale measures can significantly improve students’ learning outcome.