January-April 2023Vol.XXXV No. 3

Dealing with the Lack of Student Engagement in Lectures

Richard de Neufville

In his article, “Never Mind the Firehose, You Can’t Even Lead Them to Water” (MIT Faculty Newsletter, November/December 2022), Craig Carter correctly confronts us with the fact that many of our students are not engaging with our lectures. They are out in cyberspace, playing games, watching sports, IM’ing, etc. As Prof. Carter points out, this phenomenon is easy to observe, when we take the time to do so. Intuitively, we also know this is happening.

As faculty we need to address this issue. When our teaching format fails to engage students, we are far from doing our best; we are wasting both our time and theirs. This is unacceptable.

We can and should be able to engage students effectively in the cyber age. Although the headline title associated with the article suggests that we “Can’t”, this overstates the case. Carter’s conclusion is that “the classroom behavior that [he] is observing defeats MIT’s mission, and that our faculty should consider a remedy carefully. The sooner the better.”

I agree. We should pick up Carter’s lead. We can find solutions and we “Can” engage students effectively. We need to think about how the lecture format often does not deliver for us. In this vein I offer a diagnosis, suggest an approach, and describe a solution that delivers well for me.

A Diagnosis

The lecture format developed as a means of delivering information when books or other written materials were expensive or otherwise unavailable. It has been a necessary device in the past; perhaps still 50 or 100 years ago. It isn’t any more.

Frankly, the lecture format is fundamentally unappealing. Few of us like to be talked to for an hour or more. It’s especially challenging when we try to grasp new ideas we don’t yet understand. We get lost. Our minds wander. And many students miss words or struggle with accents or phrases. Simply put, lectures are not the best way to pass on information!

The information age offers many new possibilities for sharing information efficiently and effectively. We use them all the time.

We “read” newspapers online when we please. We watch television. We listen to podcasts. In short, we get our information in many ways, when we are ready. Importantly, we can get it in short bursts, with the ability to pause and consider. Lectures do not provide this capability. Simply stated, lectures generally are not compatible with the possibilities of how we now expect to receive and absorb information.

Moreover, lectures inherently do not engage students. A lecture talks at students, it does not engage them individually. Yes, we can pause our lectures and ask for questions, but this is imperfect process. Many students hesitate to display their misunderstanding. Others like to grandstand. And if we cold call on students the results can be embarrassing. In many ways the lecture format is not fit for the purpose of engaging students.

A Suggested Approach

Students are easy to engage when they come to class prepared; when they have reviewed and thought about the material for the next class. They may not yet understand the topic, but they will have reactions and questions. They are then ready to engage with the instructors when we offer them opportunity.

How can we get students to prepare for class? You might well ask! If they don’t come to class, or don’t listen to the lecture in class, how can we expect them to make a special effort in advance?

It really isn’t so hard to get students to prepare for class if we set our minds to it. Indeed, this is often the norm. Teaching in many schools and professions rests on the expectation that students must prepare in advance for each class.

Law schools and business schools, for example, commonly use the “case method.” This approach requires students to prepare in advance as standard practice. Students know that they will be called upon to discuss the class material. They will hear different points of view and appreciate the issues and subtleties. They come prepared and do engage with instructors – and with each other.

In a similar vein, our colleague John Belcher in the Physics Department has led a team to develop Technology-Enhanced-Active-Learning – TEAL instruction at MIT. Its essence is to create an environment where student engagement is central to the learning process.

Keep in mind that student engagement is not the primary objective. It is a means to achieve more effective teaching and learning. As various comparative studies of TEAL instruction have demonstrated,

“The teaching methods used in the TEAL classroom produced about twice the average normalized learning gains for low-, intermediate-, and high-scoring students when compared to traditional instruction. These findings replicate the results of studies performed at other universities.” (See http://web.mit.edu/edtech/casestudies/teal.html.)

The bottom line is that our teaching can not only engage with our students, but by doing so, we can improve the effectiveness of our teaching.

Engaging students for more effective teaching does require us to change our pattern. We need to move away from our ingrained, well-honed, received habits of lecturing. We need to adapt to the technical possibilities we now have at hand.

We need focus on ways to have our students come to class prepared. We need to provide them with materials designed to help them receive ideas and concepts in keeping with the new possibilities for sharing information efficiently and effectively.

We also need approaches that are scalable. For most of us, the TEAL approach is beyond our means. When built, many years ago, each TEAL classroom cost a reported $1.5 million. This approach is not widely scalable, neither for us individually, nor for our departments or institutions.

Fortunately, we now have access to a broad range of applications with negligible costs. Call this a silver lining to effort to teach during Covid, if you will. In any case, our institutions have provided us with all kinds of new electronic supports. And many of us have invested significantly in learning how to access and use these technologies.

The Solution That Works for Me                       

For the last two years I have abandoned lectures entirely. While I was good at it, I recognized the issues Prof. Carter described. Lecturing for an hour or more was simply neither a sufficient, nor an effective way to distribute information. Lectures were out of tune with recommended presentation practice.

I completely transitioned to the “flipped classroom” approach. Its crux is that students must come prepared for class. They can then participate in discussions, joint problem-solving, and meaningful Q&A with the instructor. This innovative approach has been widely discussed for years. My personal experience is that it’s now coming into its own, thanks to the range of apps now routinely available to us. (See for example https://teachingcommons.stanford.edu/teaching-guides/blended-and-hybrid-teaching-guide/frameworks-blended-and-hybrid-teaching/flipped.)

An essential difficulty with making the flipped classroom work, is to make sure that students come prepared. My solution is to make prior preparation an integral part of the grade for my courses. Simply put, my students earn 30% of the course grade by demonstrating that they have somehow prepared. It’s a strong incentive!

Instead of lectures, I distribute class material as sets of “pre-reads.” These consist of short slide sets, videos, Panopto recordings with closed captions, topical publications, etc. I try to keep each single element to 10 minutes or less. This seems essential to me. It allows students to consider each element of what might have been a lecture in their own time before passing onto the next element. This approach mirrors the way we are increasingly used to receiving information. Each assigned set of “pre-reads” might take an hour.

How do I make sure the students have prepared for class? By also assigning an electronic questionnaire to each set of “pre-reads.” Google Forms is what I have been using. The questions on each Form invite comments and reactions on the pre-reads. Students get credit for preparation when they turn in their completed form before class.

I don’t grade their responses – the questionnaires are not tests. The student reactions demonstrate a student’s pre-class preparation – and provide the basis for classroom discussions and engagement.

The questionnaires help me organize the class discussion and activities. Google Forms deliver the student responses in graphs, pie charts, and an Excel spreadsheet. I can display results on the screen to share points of view and stimulate discussion. I can focus discussion on the issues that are most bothersome. I can make connections between the class material and issues that students are confronting in their complementary classes. The student engagement is intense and seems to be most productive.

Student reaction is most positive overall. The students’ main pushback is that that they do have to prepare for my classes! It’s not what they are used to. It shifts their study patterns. Instead of eventually reviewing the material when it comes time to do problem sets or other assignments, they have prepared in advance and explored the material in depth in class time. The students end-of-class evaluations do not indicate any increase in time spent out-of-class compared to the lecture format.

Institutional administrative reaction to my adoption of the flipped classroom has been bizarre. When I inserted the “The class is flipped” into my course descriptions, I met all kinds of questions from the Dean’s Office, the Committee on Curricula, and the Registrar. If I wasn’t lecturing, was I really coming to class and teaching? Was I imposing a greater burden on the students? Why should we advertise teaching style to students? With staff help, I overcome these objections. As we know, there is substantial inherent resistance to innovation. This is not a good reason to hold back innovative improvements to our teaching.

Overall, I certainly have a lot to learn about how to be most effective. Your collegial guidance will be most helpful. I hope that some of us can work together to overcome the issues that Craig Carter has highlighted. I look forward to this. Thank you in advance!