For the past three semesters I have been working to integrate more creative teaching techniques and engagement exercises into my in-person philosophy course. The process has been a learning experience, at least for me, if not always for my students. Here are some of the things I've learned:
1. Starting student engagement in college is too late. If students have never been invited to engage in active learning before getting to college they are not prepared for college-level engagement. This doesn't necessarily mean that efforts to engage them won't work but they will be exceedingly difficult.
2. Students perceive engagement as more work and so are resistant to it. Many students are sincere in their desire to do as little work as possible when it comes to their learning. Efforts to increase engagement in the classroom usually mean more work for students and because of this they are very resistant to attempts to get them to be active participants in their learning. They have been trained to memorize what they need to pass exams then move on. Doing more than this, even if it will benefit them, is not something they are eager to do.
3. Students will engage in pursuit of their own interests. One of the bright spots in my engagement experiments has been to use Google's idea of allowing employees to devote 20% of their work time to their own projects. Similarly, I have made 20% of my students' grades based on their efforts to learn something they are interested in whether or not it has anything to do with the class material. For this portion of the class, students do seem to be willing to go the extra mile in an effort to own their learning.
4. Students need to own their learning. What I infer from point 3 is that the more students are invested in what they are learning and the more they "own" their learning, the more engaged they will be in their learning. Of course, this is a central premise in the unschooling movement. The question for higher education will be: How do we incerease student ownership in their learning?
5. Student engagement is easier to foster in an online environment. In my experience, students are much more willing to engage and discuss their learning in online forums. In the online courses I teach, most students are very active in class discussion boards. Assuming this is an accurate measure of engagement then these students are much more active than my in person students. This could be because online courses attract students already predisposed to be more active in their learning or it could be that students of all kinds are more comfortable engaging with each other and the material in an online environment. I don't know which at this point.
The points I have made here are simply points from my own personal teaching experience. It may very well be that others have had more luck with engagement than I have. Overall, my experience has not been very positive. With the exception of students learning about what they are interested in, I have not seen much increase in student engagement as compared with conventional lecturing.
It is all well to get students engaged with their own interests but what can be done to engage them with learning other material they may be less interested in? Also, what can be done to insure that students who are engaged in their learning will carry this over even in courses and other situations where engagement is important but is not being encouraged. Whether or not faculty members provide opportunities for engaged learning, students need to realize that becoming more engaged in their own learning and taking ownership (as opposed to waiting for it to be offered) is important for their success in college and beyond.