By: Donna Downs, Taylor University
Key Statement: Intentionally developing a welcoming classroom environment increases student engagement and cultivates meaningful classroom relationships.
Keywords: engagement, motivation, relationship
Maintaining student engagement is difficult; this is not a controversial opinion or surprise to most faculty. Stoner and Fincham (2012) say, “Part of the responsibility of being a faculty member is to identify what motivates students and to adapt teaching styles so that they are conducive to effective learning” (para. 4). Although researchers suggest flipped classrooms, engaging humor, and online polling, I have found taking a more personal approach to engagement to be successful, specifically the following three guidelines: show your human side, share your professional experiences and wisdom, and admit your mistakes. In my 30 years of teaching, I consistently find that engaging students and promoting a true learning environment by using these three guidelines develops classroom camaraderie.
Cultivating Camaraderie in the Classroom
1: Show Your Human Side
At times I begin class by playing a 70s song. I grew up in the 70s; by sharing, I teach students something about my personal history. No matter how erudite we are, students won’t learn from us as well if they don’t appreciate us as humans and feel welcomed into our lives. Sharing something about ourselves, along with challenges and triumphs throughout the semester, promotes not only attention in the classroom, but lifelong connections. Lejano et al. (2013) say, “Stories, or narratives, create the glue that binds people together in networks, providing them with a sense of history, common ground, and future, thus enabling them to persist even in the context of resistance” (p. 2).
Storytelling also encourages a growth mindset in students (Irizarry, 2022). Recognizing themselves in their faculty members’ behavior, students are “opening up their minds to new information” (p. 505). Fostering a growth mindset is crucial for both students and faculty as we seek to develop diverse relationships and understand one another, thus enhancing classroom camaraderie by showing our human side. We move from being siloed into establishing commonalities (“perceptional repositioning,” according to Irizarry [2022, p. 513]). When we as faculty share our human side, our students are likely more open to learning what we teach and engaging with others in the classroom.
2: Share Your Professional Experiences and Wisdom
Along with establishing a personal connection with our students, we can enhance course content with our professional experiences by sharing what we have accomplished that makes us experts. Recently, I observed a business professor who mentioned her “previous life” with a large marketing firm and what she learned as she managed accounts there. This not only showed her expertise, but students were impressed that she had actually done the types of work they would do after graduating. What we’ve experienced and how we portray that in the classroom can establish camaraderie and enhance engagement by motivating students to explore the profession and demonstrating application of the subject matter they are learning.
Addy et al. (2021) reiterate the idea of faculty designing courses for student success, explaining that “what, how, and why you are asking them to do things in certain ways” (p. 60) should be made clear and is supported by your expertise. When faculty bring their experiences in the classroom and provide real-life examples of how certain scenarios played out in their past, applying textbook concepts to life experiences, students will likely better understand the “what, how, and why” and be more open to learning. Likewise, when students understand how sharing experiences enhances learning, they could be more willing to both share their own diverse experiences as they apply to content and analyze and share their insight.
We all have different experiences to bring to the learning environment, and when we talk about more than the textbook and move into what we’ve learned as practitioners, we bolster what Irizarry (2022) refers to as the 4Es–engagement, empathy, ethics, and equity. The way we support our pedagogy through our expertise can be a catalyst to building classroom camaraderie and stimulating learning.
3: Own Your Mistakes
As college professors, especially when we bring lived experiences into the classroom, we’re touted as “experts” in the areas we teach. Sometimes, however, we make mistakes in imparting information or in how we actually present it. When I came to the classroom after working in PR for five years, I made an AP style mistake correcting a student’s paper. When she broached the subject with me, I quickly apologized and thanked her for bringing it to my attention. Had I not established a positive classroom environment in advance, however, she may never have felt comfortable approaching me. Geurin (2020) discusses seven benefits of apologizing to our students, including the healthy example it sets, the connection it builds, the influence it creates and the care it shows. When we open the atmosphere to stand corrected, students feel more comfortable and are more willing to engage with us, both in our expertise and our errors because we’ve demonstrated our own infallibility.
Encouraging students to step out of their comfort zones is an agreed-upon commonality for higher education. When we step out of our own comfort zones and approach mistakes with humility and the intent to make changes, students are likely to feel safer in making their own mistakes and participate more, increasing camaraderie and interaction in the classroom (Hogan & Sathy, 2022).
As we claim responsibility for mistakes we’ve made in teaching or learning and show we’re willing to adapt, we demonstrate vulnerability and shift power dynamics in the classroom, facilitating trust.
Researchers readily admit that “student engagement continues to be one of the biggest challenges facing academia today. Educators often possess knowledge needed to teach a class but lack the technique or approach with which to make the content engaging” (Seidman & Brown, 2013, p. 393). Engagement comes in many different styles. Gen Z, our newest students, value trust and fairness, personalization, connectedness, and immersive storytelling, among other characteristics (Schweiger & Ladwig, 2018). The techniques mentioned here aim to overcome the challenge of reaching this generation in particular, and all our students in general. By following these guidelines, I’ve nurtured much deeper relationships with my students; they want to do better in class because of the human connection we have with one another. In keeping these ideas in mind, we’ll find ourselves becoming not only better teachers, learners, and facilitators, but, in the long run, adaptable human beings who are more able to engage students as they learn from us and we learn from them.
What am I doing in the classroom that shows my human side, and in what ways does that enhance student engagement in my classroom?
What life lessons have I learned that I can share with my students to promote their learning?
Am I owning my mistakes in the classroom and being accountable for my actions? Do I expect more from my students than I expect from myself?
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