Engaging Today's Students

From the perspective of a design student today in the digital age, what are the essential components required to engage their heart and mind? What impact might applied relevant learning, student choice, student-to-student student interaction, and assessment, feedback, and evidence of success have on instructional decision-making and student learning outcomes?

Relevant Applied Learning

Recent brain research says that it is important for students to connect life experiences with new learning. In order for learners to engage, students must perceive content and concepts to be useful and worth investing the effort to make sense out of the lesson. If learners can relate to the content, then they are more likely to retain and recall the information. Willis (2006) describes the importance of relevance in how the brain forms long-term memory.

Any new information must enter the brain through [the senses.] …The information travels through [initial pathways] to the limbic system. After first entering the hippocampus messages are sent to the prefrontal lobe storage areas… to reactivate any potentially related memories stored there. …previously stored, related memories can be activated and sent to [appropriate areas] where they are connected to the new information to build relational memories [requiring meaning in order to pass through]. The brain then makes the conscious connections between these stored memories and the new information, and forms a new integrated memory for storage in the frontal lobe.[1]

If we can relate the context of our students’ life experiences with new information, then our learners will be more available to make conscious connections to attend. With each memory we as humans hold, there is an emotional attachment to prior knowledge and experience. If the pathway is open, then the brain actively tries to sort content, find relationships, and engage in the learning process.

Student Choice

Once students are engaged, next is maintaining interest, motivation, and disposition. Research says when students have a sense of control in their educational experiences, their ability to learn and retain the material increases. Reeves (2006) advocates for choice as an essential component to motivating students to their learning.

A recurring theme of the research on motivation is choice. This does not mean that students have the choice of whether to engage in the assigned work, but it does mean that effective teachers can provide choices of how students engage in the work.[2]

Caine and Caine (2006) remind us that learners make thousands of decisions every moment.

Humans have a biological imperative to make decisions in the moment. All students make thousands of moment-to-moment decisions; …Decisions making capabilities are built into the brain, and they are invoked when students ask genuine questions focused on what matters to them. Such decision-making can naturally lead to the development of new knowledge.[3]

Integrating student choice into instruction may seem somewhat unsettling. Reeves points out that students are not choosing if they are going to engage in the assignment work, rather it provides learners options of how to show evidence of their learning. Caine and Caine reassures us that students are more than capable of focusing and attending to something that matters to them, which in turn leads to the development of new knowledge. Teachers acting as facilitators to clarify learning activities and links to learning outcomes can empower students to take charge and make decisions about how they learn.

Student to Student Interaction

Learning is a social process. Research indicates our personal identity is reflective, how we are perceived and treated by others largely determines how we see ourselves. Student-to-student interactions in pairs or small groups honor the importance of social relationships, the need to belong, and the feeling of being connected. Active engagement through collaboration, articulation, and inquiry prompts individuals to challenge their existing learning capacity and strive for acquiring new knowledge and skills. Given (2002) states interaction is inherent in our social nature.

A school must be a community of learners… with rituals designed to embrace each student into group membership; it cannot be just a place where students are obligated to spend time. …Our personal identity is derived from the way in which we are perceived and treated by other members of our groups. We learn, work, worship, and play in groups. As humans we have an inherent social nature.[4]

Constructing a Socratic classroom embraces diversity and creates a climate that invites all students to connect new learning opportunities, reflect on viewpoints, and openly communicate – which in turn motivates all students to learn.

Assessment, Feedback, and Evidence of Success

It is vital to remain flexible with instructional approaches based on students’ learning needs. If we gather continuous informative feedback on students’ levels of engagement, motivation, and disposition, then we can effectively track their progress to ensure successful learning outcomes. Today’s students want to be aware of what they must know and be able to do. If the goal is for our learners are to take responsibility for their learning and transfer understandings into new situations, then we must provide upfront clear descriptions of key knowledge and skills.

Students provide each other or the teacher with formative feedback about their level of understanding “in progress,” so that adjustments can be made by the student or by the teacher to ensure improved outcomes. Not all assessment feedback must be reviewed by the teacher. In many circumstances, students can provide each other with useful input toward better outcomes.[5]

Assessment is an ongoing topic with a long history of discussion and controversy. Millen et. al. offers a balanced approach to assessing student learning outcomes throughout the instructional process. Inviting students to participant at a meaningful level, places learners in an active role to share their voice and insightful input into the learning experience, thoughts, feeling, and ideas with their peers and teacher.

[1]  Willis, J. (2006). Research-based strategies to ignite student learning. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

[2]  Reeves, D. (2006). Five top tips to improve student engagement. Center for Performance Assessment. CPA-00011680.

[3]  Caine, R. & Caine, G. (2006). The way we learn. Education Leadership, 64 (1).

[4]  Given, B. K. (2002). Teaching to the brain’s natural learning systems. Association for   Supervision and Curriculum Development.

[5] Millen, Greenleaf, Wells-Papanek, Orvis. (2007). Engaging today’s students: What all teachers need to know & be able to do. Greenleaf Papanek Publications. www.greenleafpapanek.com