Some Thoughts on Student Engagement

The educator and founder of the Understanding By Design curriculum model, Grant Wiggins, recently relayed the results of a survey he administered in a fairly typical American high school. The roughly 1000 students Wiggins surveyed attended a suburban school in the midwest and earned respectable test scores. The survey Wiggins used asked students questions about how they liked their classroom experiences. About 2/3 of the students attending the school answered Wiggins’s survey. Of the students who responded, about 95% reported feeling bored at some point during their school day. About half of the students indicated that they were either bored each day in many classes or a little bored for brief periods each day in one or more classes. In the most startling statistic, only about 5% of the students polled indicated they were rarely bored during a typical day at school. One of the most cited reasons by students in the survey for their boredom was that “the teacher talks too much.”

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Source: https://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2014/05/21/fixing-the-high-school/

After teaching for over a decade and observing hundreds of classes, I can attest to the dangers of too much “teacher talk.” However, is teacher talk, more commonly called “direct instruction,” always a bad thing? What causes student boredom? The fact is, no clear-cut reason has ever been established for what students mean when they say they are bored in schools.

In a 2003 review of the academic literature on boredom, Stephen Vodanovich concluded that there really is no agreed-upon definition of what boredom is (Vodanovich 570). One study Vodanovich found equated boredom with “monotonous or repetitive activities;” in another study it was equated with “a state of relatively low arousal and dissatisfaction which is attributed to an inadequately stimulating environment” (Vodanovich 570). These two definitions, while somewhat different, do present us with a starting point in trying to define what students mean when they say they are “bored” in school. Monotony, repetition, and inadequately stimulating environments are likely to cause student boredom. While this seems obvious when reading it here, the reality is it can happen in classrooms across the world (and in department meetings!). When planning, it is imperative to keep these causes in mind.

To find out definitively the reasons why students feel they are bored in school, a few years ago, a team of researchers began conducting what is perhaps the largest study on student boredom ever undertaken in American schools. Beginning in 2003, the group of scientists and educators from Indiana University set out to measure precisely what students meant when they said they were “bored” in class. The researchers’ intent was to isolate the factors inducing boredom and determine how they could use the student feedback to strengthen classroom engagement. What is now known as the High School Survey of Student Engagement Institute (HSSSE), these researchers administered a questionnaire to students across the country in hopes of figuring out just how engaged—or not engaged—high school students were. In 2009, HSSSE published a report on their findings. 103 schools from 27 states participated and 42,754 students answered survey questions about their classroom experiences. The data told the researchers at the institute a telling story about the state of student engagement in American classrooms.

The researchers at Indiana University defined boredom simply as a “temporary form of dis-engaging from school” (Yazzie-Mintz 6) then asked students two very specific questions about it in the survey. Students were asked the following: “Have you ever been bored in class in high school?” and “If you have been bored in class, why?” The scale of the HSSSE report makes their findings particularly valuable. Nearly half of all students reported being bored every day they were in school. 17% of students polled for the 2009 report indicated they were bored in every class they took. Only 2% of students reported never being bored in school (Yazzie-Mintz 6). This means that out of over 42,000 students, only about 850 reported that they were always interested in what was happening at school. These results mirror closely what Wiggins found in his single-school survey.

The researchers found the most oft-cited reason students were bored in school was lack of engagement during direct instruction, more commonly known as teacher talk. As the bar graph illustrates, when asked the degree of excitement or engagement students felt when a teacher used direct instruction, nearly 45% of all respondents said “not at all.” Of all the pedagogical models identified in the survey, teacher lecture was clearly the least liked activity. Only a little over 5% of students claimed they liked that model “very much.”

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Source: http://ceep.indiana.edu/hssse/images/HSSSE_2010_Report.pdf

For students, the most popular classroom activities in terms of engagement were discussion and debate, group projects, and projects and lessons involving technology. The 2009 HSSSE report made it clear to educators that students respond better to hands-on inquiry-based learning and not direct instruction (Yazzie-Mintz 11). So, if you are a teacher utilizing direct instruction frequently, the statistics indicate that between 1/3 and 2/3 (or more!) of your students will likely be disengaged and probably bored during your talk.

I learned this lesson the hard way. I can remember one lesson in particular that really stunk. At the time, I thought my idea was going to be a dynamic way to bring Greek history to life. I spent the better part of a weekend at the library researching the intricacies of the ancient Athenian political system. I created a PowerPoint presentation that touched on key facets of Athenian democracy from the Areopagus to the Boule. I felt my presentation was good—so good, in fact, I bet it could have been given to a class of graduate students. I was so excited that week to lecture about the Greeks! I had even found a flow chart describing how Athenians participated politically. What freshman in high school world history would not want to hear that explained? In what was my first year or two of teaching, I found nothing odd about the fact that during the presentation, I would be the only one doing the talking. This is what all my college professors did, I reasoned.

When I gave my presentation, I talked to my students about how Solon laid the foundation for Athenian democracy and how the reforms of Cleisthenes organized voters into demes to limit the power of the aristocracy. Throughout the course of about twenty-five slides, I broke down the nature of the Athenian political system as my students sat and listened during the 70 minutes of class. I did a great job of explaining the intricacies of Athenian politics; my graduate school professors would have been so proud. The only problem was my audience was about twenty-five fourteen-year-olds who after politely listening to me for a few minutes became more interested in what was for lunch than they were in my telling them about the history of ancient Greek politics. My excitement giving the lesson quickly dissipated as I realized the students did not care that much about ancient Greece—or at least my version of ancient Greece. I knew by looking into the eyes of my students as I talked about Solon that I had lost them.

As I progressed in my teaching career, I realized that the more I lectured, the more I bored many of my students. In fact, my Greek democracy presentation became legendary in its ability to induce boredom. I even used it to threaten students if they acted up. “Hey, if you guys don’t behave, I can always give my Greek democracy presentation,” I would say to nervous laughter. The reality was my students did not hate history. My students just preferred to be active in the discovery process instead of having me discover history for them.

I found that very few students wanted to sit for an entire class period and listen to me talk. Over the years, I found myself editing more and more out of my presentations in hopes of engaging students. In fact, I stopped giving the Greek democracy presentation all together. After a few years of teaching, I realized I was not as successful as I thought. I needed to listen to my students through surveys and daily feedback about what was and was not working for them. I needed to tailor my classroom activities around what they liked to do. In short, I realized a student-centered classroom was essential if I was going to engage, inspire, and get students to love history.

Sources:

Vodanovich, Stephen. “Psychometric Measures of Boredom: A Review of the Literature.” Journal of Psychology 137.6 (2003): 569-595. Web.

Wiggins, Grant. “Fixing the High School—Student Survey, Part 1.” Granted, and…~thoughts on education by Grant Wiggins.” N.p. 21 May 2014. Web.

Yazzie-Mintz, Ethan. “Charting the Path from Engagement to Achievement: A Report            on the 2009 High School Survey of Student Engagement.” Center for Evaluation & Education Policy. (2009): 1-26. Web.

Making the Classics Relevant

This post is by Bree Valvano, an English teacher at Randolph High School

While I believe reading classic literature is a valuable experience, helping students see how the themes and ideas in these works are relevant to their own lives can be a challenge. My Ancient_Greek_theatre_Segesta996English IV classes recently finished reading the play Antigone. While no one can argue the value of the play, I wanted to come up with a way for my students to demonstrate their understanding of the major themes while also showing them how the themes are still relevant and how they connect to their own interests. The Antigone Making the Movie Project helped me to achieve my objective.

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For this project, students were challenged to create a prospectus for a movie connected to one of the themes in the play. Students had to select the theme that was most interesting to them and create several documents including a rationale, a movie poster, a script for a major scene in their movie, and a movie trailer using iMovie. The results were outstanding. One group focused on civil rights and fighting against discrimination. One group focused on a female’s right to play football, a typically male sport. No matter what movie idea the students decided to focus on, they were required to make connections between the theme in Antigone and the theme in their movie. Below you will find two movie trailers my students created for the project. When you give students choices and the power to create something that is meaningful to them, you will be happy with the results.

 

Let’s Bring Back Dialogue

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In the April issue of Educational Leadership is an article called “The Art of Dialogue.” I think it’s an important read for both teachers and administrators. Oscar Graybill–director of Socratic Seminars International–and Lois Brown Easton discuss the benefits of dialogue in an organization over other forms of communication. “Genuine dialogue affects a school’s culture,” they write. The authors cite a former study that divides talking into four different categories:

  1. Conversation: talk about personal and social matters that is usually not directed or facilitated
  2. Discussion: talk that has a purpose and the purpose is often to make a decision
  3. Debate: talk that is an extreme form of discussion where people are forced to take sides
  4. Dialogue: talk that is more structured than conversation with the goal of engaging people in building their understanding of an issue

These four ways of talking all achieve different results. However, the authors contest that aimages focus on using dialogue during meetings can help people “dig deeper into ideas, become more thoughtful, listen well, recognize assumptions, and see connections.” For organizations, dialogue can help improve how people talk about ideas and can lead to more collaboration.

Learning and practicing dialogue take time. Schools that understand and value the benefits of a culture of shared understanding don’t just find the time—they make the time for teachers to practice both structured and open dialogue. –Oscar Graybill & Lois Brown Easton

I think it’s true that organizations do not make enough time for dialogue. The authors believe that if dialogue is implemented regularly the “resulting power shift breaks down traditional, hierarchical leadership.” I also think it’s true that organizations (and classrooms) need to find the time for genuine dialogue. A good place to start is with establishing norms for what successful dialogue looks like. The authors include a list of fifteen rules for guiding dialogue that I’ve included below. Let’s use them to bring back dialogue!

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Source

Graybill, Oscar, and Lois Brown Easton. “The Art of Dialogue.” Educational Leadership 72.7 (2015): n. pag. Web. 27 April 2015.

Primary Sources & Post-It Notes

This post is by Michael Lonie, a history teacher at Randolph High School

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Recently, I have been exploring new ways of integrating primary source analysis and discussion in the social studies classroom. In my Advanced Placement European History course, we constantly read, annotate, and analyze primary source documents to help the students better understand the major trends and paradigm shifts in European thought. I noticed that things began to get a bit stale in our normal classroom discussions, and I wanted to attempt a lesson that would both reinvigorate the conversation, while continuing to assess all students on their comprehension of the material. My solution came in the form of a wonderful professional development offered by the instructional coaches at Randolph High School. At a recent workshop, the coaches introduced ways to use Post-It notes of all shapes and sizes in a variety of different classroom activities. This “Post-It Pandemonium” is entirely student-centered, and provides easy ways for teachers to assess progress and comprehension while keeping students engaged in the lesson.

In order to apply these Post-It activities in my AP European History course, I designed a discussion-based lesson centered on the European philosophers Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill. For the lesson, students were attempting to evaluate the differing opinions ofScreen Shot 2015-04-14 at 12.42.54 PM the two philosophers regarding individuality and community in nineteenth-century Europe. In preparation for this lesson, students needed to read and annotate a primary source packet with documents from both philosophers, as well as a variety of different critiques to their positions. Upon arriving to the class, students were divided into groups of three, and given a large Post-It note. Half of the groups were assigned to be experts on Marx, and the other half of the students focused on Mill’s theories of Utilitarianism. Students then had time to summarize their philosopher’s position regarding individuality on the Post-It note, incorporating evidence from the text. After placing these large Post-It notes on the board, a representative from each group chose a Post-It from the opposing philosopher, and, on a separate, smaller Post-It, had to write how their philosopher would respond to the ideas written on the original note. During this time, I circulated the room, and was extremely impressed with the high level of discussion occurring within each group. The students worked diligently to assume the role of their philosopher, and to justify their beliefs with textual evidence.

After placing their philosopher’s rebuttal on the board, I decided to add one last twist to the lesson. After briefly discussing the initial analysis with all students, I gave each group a Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 12.41.21 PMcritique of their original philosopher from a nineteenth-century intellectual (i.e. Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Pope Leo XIII). Students then had to read the primary source from their critic, and, on an even smaller Post-It note, write how this critic would respond to the writings of their original philosopher. When the students placed their final products on the board, they had a chain of Post-It notes analyzing their original philosopher’s beliefs, a response from either Marx or Mill, and a critique from nineteenth-century society. We ended class with a brief discussion, peppering in any material the students may have missed during their small-group discussion. Based on the exit tickets from the class, students were not only able to meet the lesson’s objectives, but they appeared to have a fun time along the way. As I circulated the room, I found myself engaged in the small-group discussions, and was able to interact with students individually. Overall, I found that incorporating Post-Its into my classroom discussion was a simple and engaging way of assessing student learning, and I would definitely plan these activities into future lessons in the social studies classroom.

Student Engagement

hands-raising-student-engagement-stakeholder-participationI’ve been thinking a lot about student engagement lately and how to get all students in a class excited to learn. A great lesson introduction, a passionate student-centered teacher, and a classroom environment that encourages risk-taking and freedom of expression are essential ingredients. What else needs to happen?

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Robert Balfanz’s Report

In a 2007 report on why students drop out of school, Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins categorized all dropouts into four categories. One of these categories he called “fade outs,” a group of people he believed were inclined to drop out because school was not relevant for them. Fade outs are “students who have generally been promoted on time from grade to grade and may even have above grade level skills but at some point become frustrated or bored and stop seeing the reason for coming to school,” Balfanz writes in his report. “Once they reach the legal dropout age they leave, convinced that they can find their way without a high school diploma or that a GED will serve them just as well.” This lack of relevance between a student’s life and what is learned in the classroom can plague lessons and, at its worst, incite students to drop out.

Today our humanities teachers had the morning to discuss student engagement during a two-hour professional development session. We did an activity in which all teachers in our department wrote an answer to this question: What is engagement in the classroom? I loved the responses. “Engagement is getting every student actively induced in the learning process,” wrote one teacher. “Engagement in the classroom is students caring enough about your content to want to actually learn and learn more about it,” wrote another. I put all responses to the question from teachers in a word cloud to better visualize answers. A few words jump out at me. Making, sharing, connecting, participating, connected, actively, working, curiosity, and of course, relevant. For me, relevance is key. Relevance answers the age old question of why do I need to know this? Relevance is key for Robert Balfanz as well. Balfanz writes that “high schools have to actively structure their electives and the themes of the core course to stress the relevance of what is being learned to adult success” if they are to thwart the problem of fade outs. I think one of our teachers summed up the importance of relevancy better than I ever could. “Engagement is relevancy as perceived by the student,” they wrote. For educators, ensuring content is relevant to students’ lives is paramount to making the learning environment an engaging one. Using current events in class, tying content to students’ interests, and giving real-world scenerios for students to study can help bridge the gap between what is purely theoretical and what is relevant.

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Edtech Innovation Growing in the Garden State! #innovateNJ

innovateNJ logoImagine what can happen when the smartest, most motivated educators engage with the most creative edtech entrepreneurs. That’s the premise behind the newly announced Summit for School Innovation. Edsurge and the Office of School Innovation for New Jersey just announced a new conference on May 12. It’s a one-day “summit for school innovation” to be help in Atlantic City for innovative district leaders.

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Here’s what will happen at the event:

  • Workshops will be held to give education leaders the inside track on emerging tech and trends
  • Participants will be able to engage in small group sessions with leading edtech companies selected based on district priorities
  • Thoughtful conversations around critical issues such as data management, evaluating tech, and building partnerships
  • The ability to meet and share experiences with peers from other schools and districts

For more information and to register, click here.

For a summary of the event, click here.

On Cheating

In a recent interview by Serena Golden on Inside Higher Ed, James M. Lang, an English professor at Assumption College, answered questions via e-mail about academic integrity. Lang has a new book that was recently published from Harvard University Press, called Cheating Lessons: Learning From Academic Dishonesty. “Lang reviews research on both academic dishonesty and human learning to build a case that the most effective instructional strategies to minimize cheating are the same ones that will best help students to understand and retain the course material,” summarizes Golden. Here are some excerpts from Lang’s interview responses I found particularly compelling:

Cheating is an inappropriate response to a learning environment that’s not working for the student.

The fascinating discovery I made in my own research was that the features of a course that do tend to induce cheating were also ones that tend to reduce learning.

Too often we think about courses as “covering” material. As plenty of people have pointed out, though, just because you are covering something doesn’t mean that the students are learning it!

But I think every day we are preparing to step into a classroom, we have to ask ourselves this question, and be ready to answer it: Why should students care about this material?

And when we link our material to real and fascinating problems or questions — the types of problems or questions we tackle in our own research — then it becomes easier to help our students learn to care about our courses.

Some students cheat because they have poor metacognition — that is, they have an inaccurate picture of their own understanding of the course material.

Without question, the best means of improving student metacognition is with frequent, low-stakes assessments.

Whatever you are going to ask students to do on their graded assessments, give them the opportunity to try smaller, low-stakes versions in class or on homework assignments before they have to ramp up and try for the grade.

As much as possible, when it comes to academic dishonesty, we should keep our eyes focused on the design of the course and the assessment system.

The research clearly suggests that faculty inconsistently report instance of cheating in their courses, and the most frequent explanation they give for that is that they find administrators siding with students over faculty, or they find the bureaucratic procedures required to pursue a case of academic dishonesty incredibly time-consuming.

Don’t take it personally. Students cheat on assignments or exams; they don’t cheat on you.

What has Lang done to his own teaching after researching and writing about academic dishonesty? “So beginning this year,” he wrote, “I have reframed my courses around big questions that I hope will capture the interest of my students, and I have redesigned my assessments systems in order to give students more choices in how they demonstrate their learning to me.” Developing lessons around essential questions, transfer goals, and authentic problems can help motivate students to learn. Scaffolding assessments and giving choice to students when they are asked to demonstrate understanding can help eliminate academic dishonesty (hopefully).