University Life: Making it Engaging for Students

In 2017, after almost 6 years in the University system, I have noticed how things seem to be getting less and less engaging for students. I have written about this before: however I am going to get even more specific on how universities, and specifically lecturers and tutorial teachers can improve the experience and make the content stick.

This is advice to anyone working at a University, you can help students become more engaged! 

Classroom Interactionschool-1974369_640

  • Stop assuming all students are the same. Students learn differently. Don’t use the same techniques every single week as it becomes monotonous. 
  • Put a good balance of local and international students in the class. One local per class or vice versa will hamper that students learning process. 
  • Stop people from talking too much, if the same guy has asked questions 3 times and he talks for 5+ minutes each time he is costing the other students money. Stop the question time and tell him he can talk to you afterwards if he has extra questions. People who talk too much in lectures and tutorials are often time wasters who wish to boast about themselves. 
  • Put students in groups where perhaps 2 are local and 2 are international, it is so, so unbelievably unfair to lump a local student with 3 internationals. The local student has to work doubly hard to check grammar, spelling and try to convey the details of the task to everyone. This is the lecturers job. Don’t lump this onto students. 
  • Be nice to your students! Just be a nice person! You can be firm and a taskmaster while being polite and flexible. Be approachable.
  • There is always going to be one kid who is just impossible. He’ll scrape by every time even though you’ve dedicated plenty of help to him. Don’t waste your energy on timewasters, instead spend it with students who want to know what you are teaching. 
  • Hey, here’s an idea. If you finish the content before the time is up, let the kids go early. Don’t stand there trying to pull something out of your arse to waste another half hour of my damn time. It is a terrible learning strategy and will make students forget what you’ve previously taught. Be succinct, get to the point and let’s all go grab a coffee. 

Lectures
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  • Try to change your tone. Don’t speak at the students for 2+ hours in the same tone of voice. It’s unbelievably boring and will make students stop listening to you. If everyone is on their phones during a lecture, that’s YOUR fault, not theirs. 
  • There’s so many amazing ways to make a lecture fun and relevant to the students, use real-life examples, good ones, and ask for the students opinion, do not use examples that no one will understand, such as a sewerage company or a garbage truck company, this is not interesting, it is boring. If you find it fascinating, hey that’s great, but your students do not. 
  • Technology is out there. Use it! Use pictures, videos, social media, apps etc to make your content more fun! 
  • Talk TO the students, not AT them. Be engaging, move around, be ENTHUSIASTIC. So many lecturers I have seen have lost the love for their subject and it really, really shows in their delivery. Talk about your own experiences and get a bit personal, don’t be afraid to show emotion in your lectures.  
  • If class sizes are large and this cannot be changed, find new, innovative ways of engaging all students. 
  • However if it can be changed, make them smaller! A class of less than 30 students (especially at Postgraduate level) is much, much more effective for learning as a discussion is encouraged.
  • Black text on white slides in 2017 with no pictures – are you joking? Try and make the lecture slides on Powerpoint or Prezi GOOD. They actually do matter, we spend at least 1+ hours looking at them. 
  • If you schedule it at 8.30 in the morning or 6.30 in the evening, you will have to work twice as hard to get kids engaged. Do not stand there and regurgitate textbook material at me when I woke up at 5am or if I’m missing dinner to be here, and do not get pissy if kids are quiet at this time! If we aren’t engaged, that is your problem! 

Extra-Curricular
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  • Please, for the love of God make the readings interesting. It is very difficult to sit for 2-3 hours reading 40+ pages of a textbook that is so unbelievably boring that it felt like you have achieved nothing the whole time. 
  • Put yourself in the students shoes! It does not matter if you find this article interesting now! Would you have found it interesting 20 years ago? If the answer is NO, choose another one! Students do not learn anything from articles that offer no relevance to their life or chosen field! 
  • If there is a mid-semester test or assignment due that week, DROP THE WEEKLY TASKS FOR THAT WEEK. Are you kidding me? I have an assignment, a test and a task to do for one subject this week? 
  • In the same vein, make the weekly tasks FUN. Do not mention a topic for 5 minutes (or worse, not mention it at all) and then expect students to spend their weekend working on it, gaining them the sum total of 1 mark if they complete it.
    Things not to do: 
    – Make students post on a discussion board about a topic they know nothing about.  
    – Make the weekly tasks irrelevant to their assignments or exams. Everything should tie in. 
    – Not notify students (eg in class or via email) then wonder why they haven’t done it. Yes there is the responsibility of being a uni student and checking the subject outline, but come on, with three other subjects and probably work as well kids are exhausted, remind them!
  • You are not better than the students. Repeat that to yourself. You are not better than your students. Don’t act like you have some snobby superiority if a kid does not understand the material. That’s your problem because you have not delivered it in a way that particular student can understand. Fix it and get over yourself. Respect your students or they will not respect you! 
  • Different people have different needs. If there is someone who has a baby and is working at Uni from home, they are going to need extra time to talk to you about the material, online is much, much harder than in-class, so take time to give the online kids a break. They are having to work twice as hard as the in-class people learning it practically on their own. 
  • It’s difficult when funds are stretched so thinly at Universities around Australia now, but time has to be taken to make sure your students are having fun. 

Group Work
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  • Group work sucks, understand that when considering whether to have a group or individual assignment. Consider having the small assignment as the group one, and the end-of-semester essay and presentation as an individual one, rather than the usual other way around. This will truly showcase the students individual skills and not give kids such a brain drain in constantly having to organise meetings semester after semester. University group work is not revolutionary and it is not how the workplace actually works so stop trotting that ridiculous fallacy out every year. Many students are already in the workplace and know that this isn’t true. 
    What group work is really for: 
    – Raising the average grade of the class as the excelling students out-perform others. 
    – Giving the lecturer a break and only having to mark 10 assignments instead of 50. 
    – Forcing students to do their own work and lowers the content of the class. 
    Last year, I was in a class that had no content at all, yet claimed it was ‘just like the workplace’ by using groups to do all the work – please, stop. 

Library 

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  • Why the heck is it so difficult to book group rooms? If you’re going to force us to work together at least give us a place we can do it! Let kids have an easy way to book them by just asking at the damn counter if they want to. If library staff do not know how to use their own online systems, this is not good! Fix it! 
  • Hey, lecturers, how about prescribing a textbook that isn’t almost 200 dollars even though it’s only got 40 pages. How about that? Students cannot afford this and you will see a drop in engagement because they can’t keep up. Prescribe GOOD textbooks and let students buy the old versions! The books become irrelevant so quickly and at the end of a degree you bet we are going to be taking them all to the thrift shop, because heck I’m not keeping 3 boxes of textbooks in my house! And they’re impossible to sell because it’s already got 4 new editions since I did the damn subject!! 
  • This one is for the students: SHUT UP IN THE LIBRARY. SHUT YOUR MOUTH. We are trying to study for exams/finish an assignment/collate a group here. We do not need to hear your conversation about how you “tried to call Karen and now she’s not answering but you need to swap a shift blah blah blah” Be quiet!!! Take it outside! 

Exams
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  • “Everything in the course will be covered in the exam” – this.is.not.good.enough. You will not get good marks in your subject in this way. Be more specific! What areas are covered? Give kids a previous exam to look over so they know your style. They will almost certainly have other exams and essays due and to not give them any hints at all is asking for a low average grade. 
  • NO surprises. I’ve gotten questions in exams that we were previously assured wouldn’t be in them! So we didn’t study for them! Take a record of what you’ve previously said to the students, being tricky or unfair is just so below par! 
  • Have a full lecture at the end of semester dedicated to refreshing students minds on what needs to be done in the exam. Ensure you find new ways to give students study tips and how they need to remember the material. Do not introduce new content on the final week of classes. Don’t do it. 

If Universities were up to speed with how the new generation of kids learn, they’d be updating the ways their lecturers and tutorial teachers work too. Universities should keep up with students, not the other way around. Continuing to offer engaging, fun, interesting content and the students will sing your praises, and you’ll set yourself apart from the drones. Listen to your student evaluations. Even the mean ones, take them and use them to improve the way you teach. 

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