One of the trickiest things to do is get students to engage and talk in the classroom. But why do we want to? Why does class engagement matter? Why do we care that students are talking in U:PASS?

Firstly, when students talk to each other, they realise they’re not alone. They lose the feeling of being alone and start to understand other students are struggling to learn too. Also, U:PASS leaders are mentors to the students. If there is no discussion in the classroom, students won’t talk to the leaders, and the leaders won’t be able to mentor them appropriately. You can’t mentor if you don’t know what they need!

One of the main goals of U:PASS is to help the students form friendships and learning communities that will last throughout their degree. To form these communities, they need to engage and get to know each other. Another reason is it’s genuinely more fun to collaborate rather than always sitting in silence. Using the language of the discipline helps them to form their discipline identity too (thanks to Dr Anne Gardner from Faculty of Engineering and IT for this thought). And finally, collaborating builds graduate attributes, including working with other people and practising your communication skills.

There are 3 principles you need to consider in getting students to collaborate in the class room.

They are the environment you set up, the learning design you create, and understanding the people you are working with.

First, the environment…

Students will feel less intimidated if they see you as one of them. So sitting alongside your learners in the classroom is important. Similarly, avoid standing at the front. Standing at the front implies a hierarchical relationship where you will talk and they will listen. If you stay away from the front, you can avoid that expectation of that type of learning. This is useful for any type of teaching, not just U:PASS facilitation.

Try putting the furniture in a group arrangement and ask the students to sit or move into groups. Students are much more likely to engage with each other when they are sitting next to each other versus across the room. Sometimes you will need to be quite firm to get the students to move as people naturally sit far away from each other when given the choice. One thing I’ve done even in lecture theatres is asked students to turn around and work with the person behind them – it’s quite possible. Lucky for us, there are lots of collaborative spaces at UTS though!

Learning design

The second thing to consider is how you design the learning activities the students will do. The first thing you can try is butchers paper. Using butchers paper encourages students to form a group around the paper, to contribute to what’s being put on the paper, and takes the focus away from individual worksheets to a group worksheet, of sorts. Another strategy that has been found to be helpful by leaders is limiting the resources. If students have to share the worksheets, then they need to talk to each other.

It’s really important to design activities that are group-based. Ask the students to work together in groups, and say that any of them could be asked to speak on behalf of the group, so they all have to understand the answer they prepare. Breaking them up into groups is easy. You can simply number the students, allocate via month of birth, or height, or anything. It’s fun to mix it up and if you don’t break groups up you will get students who are used to slacking off together slacking off again. Pushing students to talk to students who they wouldn’t normally talk to will also increase the engagement and comfort in the room in the long run.

Another element that really encourages students to work together is competitions. If they are part of a team, competing against their classmates, that can encourage collaboration. Games can also be a wonderful and creative way of getting students to learn and work together. Often times, games are really remembered too – which is an extra bonus! Some of my favourite games are Charades (for example, miming a movement when learning about the different ways a joint moves), Who Wants to Be A Millionaire (team based groups working on increasingly harder questions), or even just using an interactive quiz like Kahoot or Socrative.

Understanding students

The third element to getting students to talk in the class room is understanding them. Some students are scared to speak for fear of being judged or thought stupid. Other students need time to form their answer, either because they reflect before speaking, or because they need to translate their thoughts into English. And a final reason students don’t speak up is that they just don’t know what the answer is.

To help with the fear, set the expectations of the class. Encourage students to make mistakes, be genuine and open, and build friendships and rapport with the students. Try hard to learn names – students will forgive you if you get it wrong – but name tags and rolls are your friend. There’s something powerful about learning names and someone knowing who you are which speaks to our identity.

Be encouraging and gentle. But most of all, be kind. When students don’t know the answer, redirect them. To lecture notes, textbooks, worksheets, online resources, or to other students who have already got the answer.

To sum up:

  • Manage the learning environment to create collaborative spaces.
  • Design the learning to be collaborative
  • And don’t forget the reasons people don’t speak and collaborate. Be kind, compassionate and genuine.

Image credit: Chris Shain.

  • […] In general, engagement happens more easily when learning is designed to be student-centred, students are actively doing things (applying ideas to practice, working on projects), and they’re learning collaboratively. Also, it’s important to be inclusive – to design and promote opportunities for all students to be actively involved and to learn. For more specific tips, Faculty Focus has a helpful list of 10 ways to promote student engagement. And don’t miss UTS’ own Georgina Barratt-See’s post My students don’t talk!. […]

  • Lol – I probably should’ve drafted a reply first.

    Remember that HELPS (where I work) runs Conversation classes.
    These are run by native English speaking volunteers and run approximately 15 times across the week during semester. This is a non-threatening, relaxed way to help students practise their English without judgement. I’ve run a few – they’re fun too.

    We also have one to one buddies available – again, an hour a week of practice with a native English speaker. We’ve recently had a whole bunch of volunteers from ABC!

  • I have found that there are certain students who do not engage in class and it seems to be a cultural issue. These students are also not getting jobs post graduation so I am wondering if there is a connection. Will try your ideas to support their engagement in class.

    • Yep, I think there is definitely a strong cultural component with some students. When I’ve talked to U:PASS leaders from some cultures, they’ve explained that it’s not appropriate in their culture to talk in the class – it’s all about listening and that shows respect. My advice: make it explicit to the students that you are wanting them to talk. Encourage them. Break them up into groups so they’re not with their friends and will get to know other students. Be kind because they are often still trying to formulate answers in English. Give them easy questions to answer that will build confidence.

      It’s an ongoing challenge definitely.

      • Another thing – it’s anxiety producing to have to talk in front of the whole class. The “Think/Pair/Share” approach is useful here because students can test their ideas on other students before saying them in front of everyone. And then, even if they’re wrong, the embarrassment is shared.

        Another strategy is that you ask the students to tell you what they think quietly – to check for them. Then at least they know they’re “right”, even if their pronunciation or emphasis or whatever isn’t perfect.

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