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Gretchen McKay is experimenting with classroom activities to help students re-engage in the learning process.

I, along with faculty colleagues from many different types of institutions, am finding that students are just not as engaged as they have been in the past. In the fall of 2022, more students than I have ever encountered during my 25 years of teaching were tardy or missed classes. Some disappeared altogether. There were students who did not seem to understand the need to take notes, read for class or otherwise engage in the course material.

Could it be that education has become so transactional that the human connection and engagement with ideas are just by-products of degree attainment? Do students just think, “I will sit here for x number of hours and do the things you ask me to do, and you will give me a grade?”

That doesn’t sound very inspiring, and it doesn’t sound like a focus on learning. With an increasingly businesslike higher education landscape and an emphasis on the “return on investment,” students are missing the value of learning, critical thinking and wonder.

I am beginning to think the only way out of this is to focus on the relational aspect of education. This concept has been written about by others, namely Peter Felten and Leo M. Lambert in their book Relationship-Rich Education. How Human Connection Drive Success in College (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020). The authors discuss the need to have several levels of interactions and relationships for students to feel supported and mentored during their time in college.

Changing from a transaction-oriented focal point is going to take some doing, and some faculty will most assuredly feel it’s not their job. But I want to know what my students want to know, and I want to know what my students need to know. And if they cross the threshold into my classroom and don’t want to know anything, I want to help them figure out what they might want to know. To that end, here are some approaches I have begun using:

  1. Explaining the “why.” Individual classes need to spark more curiosity than checking requirements off a list. We set curricula for general education and our majors and minors. Thus, we presumably know why the course sequences in programs are set up in the ways that they are. But do our students? Maybe we need to tell them why they are taking a course in a particular sequence, or why they have specific requirements for their general education.
  2. Beginning with a “mystery box” exercise. In my History of Exhibitions course, I began the semester with a random “mystery box” exercise. I chose objects collected through the years from my office and randomly assigned a box to each of my six student groups. They were asked to figure out what the objects were, why they were together and what they mean to me. Each group was allowed to ask me one question. This exercise helped them get to know me through these objects, but also began the semester-long lesson on how objects tell a story.
  3. Allowing students to see me as vulnerable. In my Art of the Medieval World class, I opened the class by sharing about myself. While worrying a bit that this was rather narcissistic, I did it to show them vulnerability. My intent was to show them how I got to this point in my career, despite having to overcome some troubles and pitfalls along the way. Being vulnerable about how hard it was to get where I am in life is important role modeling for students. I talked to them about the difficulties I had in publishing my latest book and told them about failing my first French translation test in graduate school. Learning can be hard, and failure is often part of the journey. But that grit and resilience are muscles we all have—muscles we need to flex and use from time to time.

Will these types of activities make a difference and help students re-engage in the learning process? It’s too early to tell, but signs are good. While I can’t fix their problems outside the classroom, I can try to spark wonder within it. I can have them partake in what it is like to be a scholar who finds things out, rather than telling them what I and others in my field have already found out. In so doing, I hope I can make my classroom a relational space for my students to discover what higher education is truly about.

Professors, administrators and staff: Can you identify an uplifting, memorable moment or conversation with a student facing a challenge, a time you really felt that working in higher ed was personally rewarding? Share your story here.

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