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2012 March 19 - 12:00 am

POV: The Professor as Entertainer: Keeping Students Captivated and Engaged

Tracey McKenzie
From the very first day of class, I feel a simultaneous connection and disconnection with my students. We’re both nervous wondering how this class is going to go. But we have two completely different perspectives.

Student: Why do I have to take this class that has nothing to do with my career field?

Professor: How can I teach these students who have a sense of entitlement and consumer mentality?

This is one of the most challenging aspects of teaching today, in my opinion. Recently, I had a student who blatantly plagiarized. When I pointed it out, she became belligerent. Today, there is a sense of “I’ve paid for the class, and you have to do what I’ve told you to do.”

How do you respond to the sense of entitlement and consumer mentality, to a sense of “I already know it all?”

Do you lower standards, so students don’t dispute grades? Do you spell out each detail, so the expectations are beyond crystal clear? What can you do when you are teaching human behavior and a student decides that because she is human, she already knows the causes of homelessness. Her argument is not sociologically grounded; rather, it’s based on what she believes is common sense. How do you convince students that you have important knowledge to impart and that there is value to your class?

I acknowledge that most students are not taking my class because they have a thirst for sociology. They signed up for the class to earn required credits for a degree. Part of my job is to help them discover why my class matters. To do that, sometimes you have to be creative.

You could try to convince students of the value of a well-rounded education with the adage that they will be more interesting at a party. But I have found that students learn better through experience. Learning communities are a good example of how they can see the connections of seemingly disparate disciplines. I can talk about causes and consequences of poverty from a sociological perspective, while my co-teacher is talking about government policies and programs from a political science perspective. We are both talking about the same issue, but we have different lenses. Instead of compartmentalizing knowledge, students can see how our disciplines intersect and comingle.

Professors complain that they do not want to be entertainers, but we need to be aware of our audience. Students may be thinking, “I am taking these classes to get a job.” Somehow each class should contribute to their personal and intellectual growth. I believe it is my job to entertain them — in a sense. We need to keep them captivated with engaging and interactive lectures. In addition, sometimes if I simply tell students about an issue, they don’t believe me. However, if I help students discover new ideas, they will internalize them.

I can tell students about the struggles faced by low-income families, but most students are staunch in their preconceived notions of individuals being able to alter their circumstances, regardless of the situation. Instead, I give them a scenario of a single mother without a degree or job experience. I ask them to create a budget. Students identify the obstacles and struggles. Their perspectives broaden.

I believe this kind of “entertainment” puts the learning responsibility more on the students. I am not just lecturing on what they were supposed to read. I am making the assumption that they have already read it, understand it, and can apply it.

You might catch yourself wondering, as I have, “I learned this way. Why can’t they”? But the bottom line is that if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. The exhilarating thing about teaching is that we have the opportunity to change with each generation and learn from students. Another wonderful aspect of teaching is that you cannot teach the same way all the time — we must continually relearn how to teach.

As a professor, I do not want to become obsolete. Today’s students have unlimited access to information, so the classroom experience has to be unique and significant. Who is going to ask the penetrating questions or deeply analyze the subject or show students how to apply it to their lives? Those are things I can do through teaching. There is nothing wrong with a consumer mentality if the desired product is a quality education. Teaching is a performance art which requires a dynamic connection with the student audience. And as our audience continues to change, perhaps we must, too.

It’s YOUR TURN:  CCW wants  to hear from you!
Q:  What are the best ways to captivate and engage today’s community   college students?
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