About a week after their first test, during the first round of midterms of the semester for undergraduate students, mid-semester complacency came swooping into my classroom. My once invigorated students suddenly started going through the motions of class rather than actively engaging with me and the material during class. Worried that I was going to lose them to this complacency for the rest of the semester, I frantically wracked my brain for ways in which I could grab their attention and help them refocus on the material at hand.
After a particularly grueling example involving a word problem and a piecewise function, I asked my students, “What questions do you have regarding the process that we just went through?” and gave them a couple of minutes to review their notes and formulate questions. Gripped by the mid-semester complacency, my students lethargically looked through their notes and shook their heads indicating to me that there were no questions. Instead of taking their word and moving on, I was inspired to not move on and instead ask a question that would lead to discussion and had the potential to pull them out of the complacency that they were experiencing.
The first test was still recent enough that my students remembered the feeling of not knowing how to complete a problem on it so I drew from that experience. I looked out across the sea of students and told them what their lack of questions meant to me was that they were all going to get a problem like this correct on the next exam.
Suddenly my lifeless class had life, and throughout the room there was laughing and many audible no’s. I latched onto the no’s and asked again where were their questions. Immediately I got feedback from the students about where they were struggling and we had an excellent class discussion regarding the questions they had and how to overcome those struggles. Since then, the number of questions in class has increased and the students overall seem more engaged with the material.
Obviously this is not a fix-all solution and I wouldn’t recommend using it all the time or even frequently because it will just become routine for the students. They will expect it and just nod their heads that they can do it. However after a particularly difficult example it might be something to try if you are struggling with student engagement and complacency like I was. After all it is a new question and they can’t just answer like they usually do, and you can catch them off guard and elicit a whole new level of engagement from students that wasn’t there before.
What strategies have you used in your classroom to get your students to genuinely engage? Share your tips in the comments below!