Combating Student Apathy workshop

For those of you who couldn’t make it to yesterday’s workshop on Combating Student Apathy, here’s a copy of the handout that Erica Dolson and I put together for it.

We had a great discussion, with the attendees coming up with a number of excellent suggestions, ideas and activities that I am planning to try out, so I hope some of them will share in the comments below.

Combating Student Apathy
There is, of course, no one way to combat student apathy, because there is no single type of apathetic student or individual situation where one deals with it. These strategies, tactics and approaches are only some ways in which one can attempt to prevent its appearance or deal with it when it manifests.

Pre-emptive moves:

Grading: From the start of the semester, I use my syllabus and my grading to emphasize the benefits of regular engagement in class. I always weight participation at 20%. I also explain, when covering the syllabus, that it is the easiest part of the course to get an A in, comparing the time/effort that an essay takes to that of raising a hand and contributing to the discussion. I track participation daily, post current participation grades as soon as I have graded the first paper, and continue to update them every two weeks or so. This explicitly shows students how participation affects their grades, as well as illustrating how quickly it can shift (positively or negatively) based on their effort. Every semester, multiple students acknowledge that it contributes substantially to their interest in participating regularly.

Goal-Setting: On the first day of class, my students and I read Montclair’s General Education requirements and the goals of the First-Year Writing Program and have a short discussion of why those goals are important and how they can be met by the ENWR 100 or 105 classes. Then, I set my students to write about their own goals. I emphasize that while the English Department, First-Year Writing Program, and I have specific goals in mind for this semester, it’s important that they develop goals for themselves. So I ask them, “What do you hope to accomplish as readers and writers this semester?” Not only does this give me a peek at their previous reading and writing experiences and how they hope to grow, it helps students feel as though they have a stake in their education.
I keep these essays and, throughout the semester, remind students of their goals and ask them to evaluate their progress in reaching them – and my progress in helping them to reach them. We discuss these during their conference, and students reflect on their goals during an informal course evaluation (both around mid-term). I return them to students at the end of the semester when I ask them to reflect on their growth as a writer over the last several weeks.

Group work: I put six or more choices on the board (discussion questions, tasks, etc.) and then break the class into four groups, who pick one option each. Students then discuss the topics or carry out tasks in their groups, before we reconvene and each group presents their results to the class. One person from each group, determined randomly, has to start things off, with others free to join in shortly. The order in which the groups choose and the spokesperson for each group is determined randomly (I use Dungeons and Dragons dice, since I’m a geek). The randomness of the choices means students do not feel picked on, but also realize they might have to talk. It is low-stakes, since they are not suddenly put on the spot but have a discussion with colleagues to draw upon (but need to pay attention and participate in it). Practice at this activity tends to make potentially apathetic (or, for that matter, shy) students much likelier to participate at other times too.

Class Discussion: One of the places where I most often think about engagement – and where I feel I can clearly see whether or not students are engaged – is during class discussion. The first time I led a full-class discussion, I thought it was completely successful: there was a back and forth, there were fiery comments. Then, as I reflected on that day, I realized the exchange was primarily between 3-4 very vocal students. I found myself wondering, “What were the other 15 students doing/thinking during that discussion?” I had no idea!
Since then, I have been trying different ways to engage as many students as possible. Even if they don’t contribute to the discussion, I want to know that they are thinking about the questions being posed. Here are a few of my favorite ways to have a class discussion:
1. Cross the Room: Sometimes, I project questions onto the board and offer the students two sides. For example:
a – Because I am in a writing class this semester, I can I can call myself a writer.

b- You can only call yourself a writer if you have been published.

As students consider the questions, I tell them to move to the side of the room that most closely aligns with their thoughts. Then, we start our discussion.
I like this because the students get to move around, and this can sometimes bring a new energy to the room. As a bonus, students sometimes leave their cell phones (and other items that contribute to a lack of engagement) at their desks!

2. Yes, No, Maybe: Recently, I gave each student a set of three notecards. One said “yes;” one said “no;” and one said “maybe.” Then, I read key statements from that day’s readings or asked questions that could be answered with “yes,” “no,” or “maybe.” Before we started our discussion, I had each student quietly raise the card that most closely aligned with how they felt. I made sure every student had a thought before starting the discussion.
I like this because I have a love/hate relationship with cold-calling. This lets me know that students have a thought before I put them on the spot.

3. Chalk Talk: At the start of class, I distribute dry erase markers to a few students. Then, I pose a question and have the students with markers put their answers on the board. They pass the markers until everyone has had a chance to write something. We use their notes as a way to jumpstart our discussion.
I like this because it brings writing more directly into the discussion process.

Please note: I don’t do these all the time – the novelty will wear off! And, sometimes, the topic calls for a more traditional discussion. But, when appropriate, these activities do provide a different approach.

Don’t get mad, but do get even: While I rarely use it, I do sometimes emphasize the need for active engagement by having students leave the class. I do this only for activities that they cannot genuinely participate in if they have not done some prior work (e.g. a workshop, if students show up without the required document). I warn students ahead of time that this will occur and, if it does, do not get irritated or upset, simply pointing out that it is their participation (and attendance, since I mark them late the first time, and absent, if it recurs) that will suffer, and that their colleagues are now getting more time and feedback from me. Usually, doing this once a semester is enough to make the point and students are much more on-task subsequently.

Talk It Out: I do not ask students to leave class (although sometimes the idea is tempting…). If I notice a problem with a specific student, I try to pull her/him aside and talk. If I notice a problem with the whole class, I try to address it and problem-solve with my students. The mid-semester evaluations often provide fodder for these discussions.

General advice:
Be like Frozen’s Elsa (Let it go!): While it is frustrating to see apathetic students, at some point one needs to internalize the fact that you cannot force a student to be engaged. Our students (as I point out to them) are adults, who can legally elect the President and go to war. So they can certainly decide whether to be engaged in class or not. Once one has laid out the benefits of engagement and repercussions of disengagement, checked why students are not participating, and provided opportunities for them to do so, one needs to focus on the positives. There are enthusiastic and engaged students who appreciate one’s efforts and make use of the available opportunities—and who will end up neglected if one only focuses on the unengaged. Work with them. Enjoy what they bring to the classes. The rest will shape up—or not. Finally, it’s their call.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again…


One thought on “Combating Student Apathy workshop

  1. All this stuff is pretty fabulous. I’ve used variations of some of these tactics as ways to combat apathy, but I have to admit that a lot of it was just instinctive. Having a ball-plan going in (esp. the breakdown into pre-emptive stuff, fire-fighting, etc.) is really very helpful, though. Thank you, guys. 🙂

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