How to Shake up Your Lectures, and Combat Student Disengagement (Opinion)

Student disengagement has become something of an epidemic in higher education: it is hard to find a professor anywhere who isn’t wrestling with the issue. When students complain that their college treats them “like a number,” it’s not just the administration they’re talking about. It’s a classroom problem as well, and traditional lectures perpetuate it.

Who wouldn’t feel anonymous when faced with a stereotypical “sage-on-stage” lecturer who speaks at length for 50 minutes, never addresses students by name and leaves the grading of assignments to teaching assistants?

Lectures also keep students anonymous to one another, because all eyes and ears are expected to be trained solely on the speaker. It’s all about one-way communication, instead of an active dialogue.

The lecture format treats all minds as being equal, which is laudable. But it also treats them as being perfectly alike, which they are not. Engagement comes from within, and students should feel empowered to invest their personal selves in their learning. As I discovered while researching for my e-book, Innovative Professors: The Top Tactics for Creating a More Engaged Classroom, professor s can be alive to that dynamic, and easily tailor their classrooms to encourage it.

Each of the dozen-plus educators I spoke with had a different perspective on the problem’s root causes, manifestations, and impacts. And nearly all of them had abandoned traditional class lectures for a more varied program of classroom activities. Here are some innovative ways to get students to apply themselves in their work and own their education, as well as better prepare them for a successful semester and beyond, as they hone useful traits for future success in the workplace.

Change the Scene

Sometimes the best way to liven up the stuffy, stale classroom is to change up the scene altogether. If it makes sense for your particular course, try hosting each class in a different location on campus. Choose a place relevant to each week’s lessons and conducive to group discussion. With this approach, it’s possible that different locations can enable better memories of that week’s specific lesson.

And moreover, as David Matthes, College of Biological Sciences Professor at the University of Minnesota stated during our interview, “…The consistent change of location gave our group a stronger sense of community. We really bonded, and when people are happy and engaged in their learning, and when they care what their classmates think, they do better work.”

Take a Back Seat

If you find your lectures falling flat, let students take turns teaching part of the course. What the students learn by preparing and presenting to their peers sticks with them more than the standard lecture format can.

Instruct students to switch it up, for example, with a hands-on workshop, a song and dance, or a brainstorming session. The point is to enable students’ self-discovery, and have their voice be heard and respected as they lead and perform for their peers.

Let Them Figure it Out

The traditional lecture doesn’t do much in the way of problem-solving skills. Presenting information one-way to a room full of students can result in great note-taking skills, but doesn’t necessarily address how to think critically about the subject matter.

Consider providing minimal, vague guidelines on assignments, and have students find their own way to completion. It can be initially frustrating for students as they adjust, but the beauty of this approach is that it helps them realize there can be more than one pathway to resolving an issue and it challenges them to practice independent thinking.

Run Classes Like Meetings

In order to better prepare students for the way they’ll be expected to work once they begin their careers in the “real world,” try running classes like business meetings. Instead of traditional lectures, organize each team of students to meet with you on a specific timeline and discuss project proposals, goals, or evaluation criteria. Students can take turns preparing agendas, driving the meeting and focusing on action items, which results in lively, engaging, and more focused conversations.

As Said Easa, Department of Civil Engineering Professor at Ryerson University told me, “The quality of the work the students produce is excellent: it has resulted in many conference papers and national awards. And I think they cap their degree with a strong sense that they’re prepared to start a career.”

Ultimately, while each professor I spoke with had their own unique approach to innovating the traditional lecture format, they all had two things in common. The first is that each solution was, in some measure, an antidote to the anonymity problem.

For example, during my research, when I spoke with Lori Peek, Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder, she explained “When students feel unseen, unknown and unheard, they find it easier to be disrespectful and to lash out at one another in discussion…They feel they can stand up and walk out of class anytime.”

The anonymity problem promotes less effort into coursework and more seeking out distractions — all clear signs that they’re disengaged from learning.

The second quality all the professors had in common was the sense of pride and accomplishment gained from the lasting impacts of their innovative teaching. They reported increased attendance to better comprehension to higher performance.

In every case, instructors were active in their search for solutions to the disengagement problem. As a result of their own efforts, they were reinvigorated by their own classrooms, and seemed to have found a further measure of joy in their work. Shaking up classroom routines, it turns out, increases faculty engagement too.

Philip Preville

Philip Preville

Philip Preville is Higher Education Writer at Top Hat, and a member of the Professional Advisory Council with the Department of English at Ryerson University. A former Canadian Journalism Fellow at Massey College at the University of Toronto, Philip is also a National Magazine Award winner.