January-April 2023Vol.XXXV No. 3

In Defense of Student Engagement

Sam Christian

In a recent Faculty Newsletter article, (“Never Mind the Firehose, You Can’t Even Lead Them to Water,” November/December 2022) W. Craig Carter discusses a noticeable drop in student engagement during lectures, with many students either not attending lecture or being distracted by electronic devices. Dr. Carter postulates remedies to this problem, concluding that the issue cannot be solved on a class-by-class basis due to predicted pushback from students, and that instead, some sort of institutional policy is needed.

I, as an undergraduate student, write to present my differing perspective on this issue. First, I agree that there are many factors that actively inhibit student engagement during lectures. It is all too easy to sleep in and skip lecture, or open one’s phone and read through emails instead of paying attention, as we have all experienced.

But I believe that faculty should not try to police student engagement during lecture, and that in fact, overall student engagement with class material is currently healthy.

It is important to differentiate between classes where active vocal participation is a core component of the class, and those where it is not. Some classes, primarily in the humanities, require discussion and back-and-forth participation during class time. For these, I agree that policies enforcing student engagement are warranted. However, for classes where students are passive listeners to a professor lecturing, as is more typical in STEM courses, I believe that there shouldn’t be, broadly speaking, policies enforcing student participation.

Save for a graduation requirement here and there, students are fundamentally motivated by a desire to learn the material presented in the class. This is broadly true thanks to the large amount of freedom MIT allows students in choosing their major and courses. In this sense, the intentions of professors and students are well-aligned: the professor wants the students to learn the material thoroughly, and the students do as well.

Since students generally have the same educational goals as professors, the actions of students should be treated in good faith, as autonomous individuals, and not adversarially.

Dr. Carter mentions that there is inevitably pushback from undergraduate students towards any policy restricting electronics in class or requiring attendance. But the reason behind this resistance is important: a wish for more autonomy in the learning process.

We undergraduates have all had bad days where we realize during a lecture that we can’t concentrate. This is no fault of the professor – simply the foregoing circumstances of our day.

At this point, we might, as autonomous adults, open social media, or check our emails. But this doesn’t mean we have given up on the learning process. Our fundamental goal is still to learn the material, and MIT students spend many, many hours outside the classroom doing just that.

Many students at times would appreciate a policy forcing them to not be distracted. But there are circumstances where they would resent such a policy because they truly want or need to do something on their device, and use their autonomy to do so, all-the-while knowing that they will need to catch up on lecture material outside of class. Ultimately, it is not the responsibility of faculty to teach students how to balance their life.

As aforementioned, the classroom is a small part of the MIT student’s learning experience. Although the professor might view the lecture as the core component of the class, the average student sees the lecture as just the starting point in their journey to understand the material. After attending lecture, students will spend on average nine – and often many more – hours per week sharpening their understanding of their material through working on problem sets, talking to their peers, and reviewing course material.

No possible classroom policy could modify the root motivation of students. If students are taking a class because they actually want to learn the material – which is true for the vast majority of students – they will still work diligently towards a comprehensive understanding of the material, regardless of how they act inside the classroom. If a student, only taking a course because it is required, is forced to pay attention during lecture, they will still not review material outside of classes. They will still submit rushed, lackluster problem sets and will still often perform poorly on exams.