Keeping the Engagement

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As our country considers the fallout of this week’s midterm elections, I find myself engaged in an internal dialogue about what goes on in my classroom day-to-day.

Prior to November 6th my students appeared to be of two minds: either they were committed to voting OR they were completely disinterested. Admittedly, the latter perspective has driven me a bit crazy over the last couple weeks. While one of my on-campus classes was anxious to discuss the “caravan” of refugees moving north through Mexico, the other two could not have been less interested. I did my best to remain non-partisan and encourage them to vote. “Which day?” one of them asked innocently.

On the other hand, over the last couple weeks if I were to bring up the World Series, the score of the most recent New England Patriots game, or a local performance by a big-name entertainer my students were full of energy and deep analysis. Even the students who are generally quiet in class could cite statistics on Red Sox pitchers or Tom Brady’s passing numbers.

I cannot help but wonder why it is that when these same students are asked to answer essay questions on an exam their answers lacks detail and specificity. I know they are capable of remembering all kinds of minutia and yet when it comes time for them to apply that skill to the material they learn in my class, most fall short.

Engagement is undoubtedly a key to success whether we are talking about student learning in the classroom or convincing an electorate to vote. This observation is nothing new or groundbreaking. When they are engaged with something they enjoy -- popular culture, sports, etc -- my students demonstrate an enormous capacity for both memorization and analysis of factual material. They read websites and newspapers, and listen to music or to sports radio. The information they hear becomes embedded in their minds without any effort. When citizens believe that voting will matter (ie, have an impact on their personal lives), they vote.

How do I replicate this phenomenon in class? How do I convince my students that engagement with the material in our class will have a significant and lasting impact on their success as students?

I feel particularly compelled to wrestle with this question as we are now past midterm exams and entering what I see as the toughest part of the semester: that period between midterms and Thanksgiving Break when, in my experience, many students stop attending classes regularly and start to miss important deadlines for assignments. Engagement at this stage of the semester may be more critical than at any other point because students have invested a great deal of time in the course and are close completion.

So that’s this week’s big question: what are you doing in class right now to help your students stay engaged?

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.