Your students come to class or log onto an online platform and complete required tasks, which must mean to some degree they are interested in learning. Somehow, through class lectures or informative posts an educator has taken time to develop, these students will acquire knowledge they need, and through the activities designed to ensure they take the time to read and apply what has been read, they will meet the required outcomes. That’s the plan when a course is designed and implemented.
But the reality is many students are going through the motions of repetitive, reactively responding to the course materials and activities they are required to complete. If it is a class discussion, their response may be based upon a world view held now, which is closely protected and rarely challenged. Few will take the information received and apply in such a manner they can demonstrate critical analysis and original thought, unless this is a doctoral-level course, and even then, there is no guarantee responses will reach beyond rote reactions.
Written papers offer the same form of response, and if there is poor academic writing, this will interfere with the thought process students are attempting to establish. While this may seem as if it is a negative view of higher education, it is not meant to be a comment on the state of the industry itself. Rather my experience within the for-profit online school industry has taught me students often come to the classroom unprepared to be fully engaged in the learning process and even if they are willing to participate, they may not know what it means to be an active participant, or have the skills necessary to do so. This puts the responsibility on me, as the educator, to make the extra effort, not wait for “the system” to change, or become upset because I want students to come to class better prepared.
What I’ve learned is students take the first step when they decide to begin a new degree program. There is some measure of interest and willingness to become involved in their studies. However, they often do not understand what the requirements will be until they begin taking their first class, and this is a time when they will decide if they have the motivation necessary to continue. It is during those moments when an instructor can have a significant impact on their continued progress. If students find they are in a class with minimal instructor involvement, and the class materials do not seem relevant or may be difficult to comprehend, it is a time when interest in the class may wane. This is the reason why active involvement on the part of the instructor is necessary, to engage the mind of their students in the learning process, which will in turn encourage them to become interested in the course.
The Role of Cognition and Memory
There is a very specific manner in which the mind controls the receipt and flow of information. When the mind of a student begins to receive information, it is stored initially in working memory. There it is processed and within working memory is a minimal capacity to hold information, which means the more coming in, the more information is either processed or discarded. The overall process of cognition is not only about processing information, it includes making sense of the information received. This is important to understand as an instructor for several reasons. First, the mindset of a student will determine whether or not there is a willingness to learn, or at least be open to receiving new ideas, knowledge, and alternative perspectives. Often class conditions, and the interactions with instructors, establish a frame of mind and this can influence or determine a willingness to be open-minded. If interactions are negative, this may establish a resistant mindset and one less likely to accept new information.
Another reason why cognition is important for instructors to know about is the manner in which students engage with course materials. These materials are typically assigned as part of the class, and students will decide whether or not to read and process this material prior to completing the required learning activities. If students do engage in the assigned materials, the goal is not for them to just process information, but to acquire some of it as knowledge held in long-term memory. However, while the mind of a student is processing what is being read, other cognitive factors may come into play, such as the attention span or amount of focus the student is able to hold, along with inherent mental filters and capabilities. When students take information, connect with it, apply it in some manner based upon finding relevance or context, then it is likely to become knowledge and stored in long-term memory.
Development of Active Learning
Have you ever considered if your students retain the knowledge gained after they leave your class? You can assess this yourself by thinking about the last book or article you’ve read. How much of that information do you remember? More than likely you remember what was relevant to your life or career, something specific you made a connection to and it was knowledge which became stored in long-term memory. Most of the information read would have been discarded, otherwise you would remember the contents of the entire book or article. This is the process in which your students will read, process, organize, and retain or discard information they have read. They will remember what is relevant to their particular interests and professional needs, and then discard the rest from working memory.
If you want to encourage your students to improve how they are processing information received in class, the goal becomes to transform them from being in a passive learning state to an active learning frame of mind. How is this accomplished? As an instructor, you can give your students resources and encourage them to change their frame of mind. That approach may help some students. However, a more effective strategy is direct involvement of the instructor within discussions and feedback, prompting students to consider how the information relates to real-world settings, helping to provide the needed relevance and context that will transform information into knowledge.
Five Strategies to Engage Your Students in an Active Learning Process
When I’m teaching an online class, I cannot visibly ascertain if my students are actively reading and engaged in the course materials, until they are involved in class discussions and submitting written assignments. The same is fairly true for teaching a traditional college classroom, except an immediate visual assessment can be made during classroom interactions, such as a class discussion. No matter what classroom environment learning occurs within, students still conduct a majority of their studying on their own. When they come to the classroom, this is a time when an instructor can encourage active learning and cognitive processing. The following five strategies can be implemented to help promote knowledge acquisition and retention.
Strategy #1: Become a Subject Matter Expert
Consider these questions: How well do you know the subjects you are teaching? Do you continue to read and learn more about the subject matter?
These are important questions to ask yourself as a means of ongoing professional development. If you need to learn more about the subjects you are teaching, the time to learn is right away. There is a wealth of online professional organizations which offer professional development opportunities, resources, and webinars. You can also find resources on your own related to the course topics, to supplement the assigned materials. The more you know about the subject matter, and become a subject matter expert, the stronger your teaching presence will become.
Strategy #2: Share What You Know
When you are interacting with your students, whether it is through discussions or feedback, you can share your professional experience and real-world examples. This provides context for students as they learn about new or complex topics, which in turn can help them retain that information in long-term memory. Class discussions provide one of the most effective opportunities to share what you know, especially as you provide additional sources. You can discuss strategies and projects within your career that worked well, and even those that were not so effective. What you have learned in your career can help your students learn as well.
Strategy #3: Consider Finding Additional Sources
The course materials provided in a classroom are foundational for meeting learning objectives and completing the required learning activities. However, those materials are rarely, if ever, meant to be the definitive source for the class. This includes use of a traditional textbook. As the instructor, you know the subject matter and you may find current sources which help to enhance or build upon those required sources. My recommendation is not to find additional sources just for the sake of having additional materials. Make certain there is a purpose for the extra sources as your students will be more likely to read the materials if they can find a clear connection to the course topics and learning objectives.
Strategy #4: Be a Leader in Class Discussions
You know how engaging and meaningful a class discussion can be when your students are posting substantive messages and interacting with one another in a substantive manner. But does this occur naturally? For some students it does and others it does not. This is where you can be a leader and show your students, by example, how to post substantive messages and interact in a meaningful and substantive manner. For online classes, this is especially important as all students are required to participate and be heard, yet teaching students what it means to produce a substantive responses can be challenging. Leading by example is one of the most effective methods of teaching them. In addition, your active involvement in the class discussion can help to keep the discussions flowing in the right direction and allow students to feel included in the conversations.
Strategy #5: Engage Your Students Through Your Feedback
Your feedback has the power to encourage your students to continue to make progress, or it can become something they no longer are interested in reading. Which would you prefer? I often hear from other educators that it seems their students are not reading their feedback and if they are reading it, it doesn’t seem as if they are implementing it. This means we, as educators, are challenged to find new ways of engaging students in the learning process. I have been using video feedback for some of my feedback, as a means of connecting directly with my online students. I don’t use a pre-made script either.
For example, if I am providing discussion feedback, I will open up a student’s posts for the week, and start recording. I will review the requirements, the expectations, and provide feedback about the posts. I speak in a manner which conveys care, concern, and interest in their well-being as a student. This personalized connection helps to overcome the written word being read and forgotten. Perhaps this could help you as well. The feedback videos are approximately two and half to three and half minutes in length, about the same time I would spend creating my feedback commentary.
The Mind is a Gateway to Learning
As an educator, I do not want a classroom full of students who are simply going through the motions. If they are going through the motions, this means I must be doing the same thing. When this happens, there is nothing to be gained other than checking off a box on a degree plan. This is not how I wanted to be involved in classes as a student and it certainly isn’t what I want for my students as an educator. I wanted to learn and the instructors I remember best are those who challenged me to consider new perspectives and dig deeper into the course topics, and they were highly engaged in their online class. Not only do I remember learning in those classes, I was inspired to teach online.
Over time I have learned more about the mind and how it is a gateway to learning. I cannot assume the course materials alone are going to teach the students about the course topics. I fully understand I need to be present in class discussions, sharing my professional insight and experience, to help students think differently about topics they are studying, and encourage them to consider new perspectives through additional sources and real-world issues. Students have lives and multiple responsibilities, which means there is a lot of information competing for their attention, and if any class is going to succeed in providing new knowledge, it needs to build long-term connections in their mind. Reading materials alone is not going to accomplish this goal. But a highly engaged instructor can be the one who helps bridge that gap by utilizing strategies to help students internalize what they’ve read. When an instructor can reach through to students in this manner, then learning is likely to occur.