Last month, university teachers from different disciplines and levels of experience across UTS gathered at the LX.lab to discuss how to address disruptive behaviours in the classroom. One of the core observations made by the group was the withdrawal of student mental and emotional engagement in the classroom

Following the concentrated and severe national crises that students have experienced in recent years (e.g. housing, COVID-19, natural disasters), increased financial and emotional pressures on students have impacted classroom engagement. Particularly in online classes, teachers now struggle to win the attention of students who dial in from full time jobs, varying home environments and other demanding scenarios where they are present, but not participating.

Many university teachers now face the question: ‘How can we encourage students to take agency over their own learning?’. I propose an approach that seeks to flip existing power dynamics between teachers and students to support first engagement, then collaborative learning between students.

Pass It On

Over my last five years teaching at UTS, I have trialled different approaches to flip the power dynamic between myself as a teacher and the students to support their agency in learning. 

My most successful approach involves passing along accountability for class participation to the student’s peers. For example, when prompting a discussion in the class, rather than call upon individual students to speak, I ask for a volunteer. After that person has shared their perspective, I ask them to select the next person to share, and the process continues (with live feedback from me).

I’ve observed many groups lean into the fun of this ‘pass it on’ rotation, with students calling out friends that have their cameras off to go next (as a game to catch each other off guard) or to highlight someone’s great hat, cat or flat layout. This can sound something like “I don’t know anyone here, but Rebecca has a really cool poster on the wall. Becs do you want to go next?” or “Oi Dylan. You there, mate? You’re up next, hey.”

Using this approach, I have observed students more readily volunteering to share with increasing comfort speaking to the class and greater attention paid to group discussions. Additionally, the communication between students across the class during these interactions sparks familiarly and a sense of play that translates into group work

Classes that I teach in the TD School involve a lot of group work across different disciplines, faculties, life experiences and personal backgrounds. The familiarity sparked between students using the ‘pass it on’ approach fosters an environment where students take more agency for their own learning in the classroom. As the teacher, I can step back from a traditional authoritative role and become a resource they can draw on to support their thinking during class time. 

Share It Around

Previously, I have shared this approach with many of my colleagues, particularly those frustrated by the ghost culture of online classes. Many have found the approach helpful and extended the concept in their own way to flip power dynamics and support student agency towards learning. 

To address the growing demands of life that compete with student engagement in the classroom, we need to adapt discussion formats to connect with our changing audience. Students and teachers alike struggle through the complexities of education as it evolves over time. Seeking opportunities to share experiences and therefore improve classroom communication (such as the TATAL series, which is soon exploring the post-pandemic classroom) is beneficial for both parties. Any feedback or extension on this concept by teachers inside and outside the university context (e.g. facilitators) is very welcome – please add any comments below! 

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