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Engaging Students

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Ever wonder what PWR students really think their instructors could do to engage them? This page offers some quick insights from past PWR students on starting class, keeping the class engaged, and maintaining student investment in major course assignments!  

Q: What do you think is the best way for an instructor to start class? 

Start class by chatting with your students. Try holding a round table discussion about the latest Stanford Daily headline, a new music release, or a current event. Even if it takes a couple minutes of class time, this will get students interested and awake and give them a sense that their instrucro cares about them as people.

Try a short writing exercise with an interesting prompt. This will get students into the mood to write and start thinking creatively! 

Share something (a quick story, video, etc.) and build in little bit of time just for class bonding. One student suggests: "Something we do in EDUC193A sections is "check-in questions," which are a fun question like "Best thing you did over spring break?", "Favorite fictional character and why?", "Favorite historical figure and why?", or "Surprising fact/fun fact about yourself." Extra points if the questions are fun and relate to the theme of the PWR section OR lead into the material for the day. Going around the room would only really take like 5-10 mins per class, which I know is a lot of time, but really makes a difference in terms of making people feel comfortable with each other and engaged in the class. I also personally think it helps humanize the instructor if they also participate in the questions too! :)"

Review the goals of the course and what the topics are that will be covered that day (and how those topics tie in with the overall course goals and trajectory). This will help students know what to expect during the class session. One student explains, "I've noticed that students--myself included--feel that pwr can be a bit nebulous, because you don't know where you should be with respect to the final RBA and presentation. Students like to know where they should be at, and how the work they are doing in class relates to these major assignments)."

Make sure students have an opportunity to state their preferred pronouns. 

Q: How do you think instructors can help students become engaged in daily class activities?

Give students as much choice as possible. Let them choose specific paper topics, where to hold class (i.e. outside, in Meyer Green), etc. Give students a sense of "ownership" in the course. One student suggested: "By varying activities, clearly demonstrating their relevance in the current world, and incorporating work time for the larger homework projects (papers, presentations, etc)"

Mix it up. Change the location of class, hold faculty-student conferences in the bookstore or at Coupa Cafe, bring in an occasional guest speaker. These sorts of strategies vary the pace and format in a way that keep students engaged.

Let students "walk and talk." Asking students to discuss their paper topics in a different space than the seats in the classroom can be helpful at the brainstorming stage. One student described how in their PWR class, "we would pick a partner from class and walk around the Quad. This really helped me get engaged and invested in mine/others topics. I think that making class activities as interactive/discussion-based as possible would also help increase engagement."

Make material accessible to people of all backgrounds. Students want to feel like they understand the activity enough in advance to be able to engage with it during class. One student suggests that instructors "provide questions to think about and context while reading something in class. By doing this, it helps students who may not have come in with the context or framework for completing a certain assignment. Another idea is to provide reasons for why the instructor is assigning a reading or activity. By framing writing, reading or speaking as an activity designed to help achieve the overall goals of the course, I believe students would be more likely to engage."

Keep it lively and fun. A little humor and character go a long way. Even if students occasionally roll their eyes, a comic and fun-loving touch will get them to look forward to their PWR class or wonder what will happen next.

Give students space to share. Allocating some class time every day to let students share their progress can be a helpful way to make them feel accountable to the full class community. One student explained how her PWR instructor "encouraged us to go around the room and share one thing (about how our paper was going, something new we learned that day). It helped to feel like I was part of a community where I was free to speak."

Don't worry if you hear your students complain. Complaining about class, particularly a required course, is an easy topic of conversation among students. Use this to your advantage. For example, don't hesitate to remind students about how this class connects to their other coursework at Stanford and that they will use the skills they are developing in your section whether they are poets, engineers, computer science majors, or social scientists. Try to help them understand that learning to communicate effectively is a life skill, not just a requirement.

Q: How do you think instructors could help students generate interest in the course's major writing assignments?

Give flexibility in choosing topics. Students want to feel like the research they're doing in PWR will help them understand ideas and topics with personal interest to them. One student explained that they think PWR instructors should help their students learn how to flesh out personal interests into academic topics.

Clarify the relevance to the current world or to their future in academics at Stanford. By helping students see the transferable value of what they're learning in PWR, students develop greater investment in the work. 

Allow the students to be creative, but be clear about your expectations from the beginning. Students want to have the flexibility to pursue something of interest to them, but also want to understand the assignment guidelines clearly enough to know what the scope of the project is and what's possible for them to pursue in a 10-week quarter.

Many of these ideas were drawn from a handout developed by JP Schnapper-Casteras, a former member of the PWR UAB and from a survey distributed to tutors at the Hume Center in 2017.