Guides & How To's Teaching

How I Engage Students in a 1-Credit Class

For anyone who has ever taught a 1-credit course, whether it’s an intro to the university class or a special topics course, you know gaining student buy-in is a challenge. Engaging students is already difficult but with a 1-credit class, the stakes for students are much lower. The thought “It’s just 1 credit, who cares if I pay attention?” has haunted many a silent classrooms. I’m sure I’m not the only one who googles “classroom activities for college students” for each lesson plan only to end up falling back on the traditional pair and share. Nevertheless, my students walk away from my class saying that they found it incredibly helpful. I could’ve sworn I heard a student say, “This is my favorite class!”, once but that could’ve been wishful thinking. In any case, here are my tried and true methods for showing students the value of my course.

Build rapport early

Now more than ever, college students don’t like to be talked down to. They want to know that you, as a professional, value them as equals. That is why I try to present the content in the most relatable way possible. And no, I’m not talking about putting memes in my PowerPoint.

At the beginning of each class, I always ask them how they’re doing and if they have anything they’d like me to go over before I begin the lesson. I do this because I need them to understand that I care about them as individuals, as human beings, not just as students. Once they understand that, they begin to see me as a person too rather than as someone who just stands at the front of the class blabbering at them for 50 minutes. Sometimes I’ll even throw in a joke or two (whether they laugh or not is irrelevant here…)

I also continuously ask them for their thoughts and views. During the first class session of the semester, we establish the conditions for a healthy discussion together, which we will all adhere to throughout the semester. That way they know that this is their space to share their opinions and questions without judgement. I then give them multiple ways to voice their thoughts (more on that later).

Emphasize that this is a partnership

This relates directly back to the previous point of building rapport. I want my students to know that we are all in this together, both them as the students and me as the instructor. We are both here to learn from each other. They teach me about what is important to them, the challenges they face and the joys they experience. They teach me how to be a better teacher, because I can pretty quickly tell whether a lesson plan or activity is working or not. In exchange, I get to impart a little bit of my own wisdom to them in the hopes that they take something away from it. But all the while, they know that this is happening. I ask for their feedback at multiple points in the semester and always let them know that I do this so that I can make the class better for them! That I am here for them and no one else.

Let them do most of the talking

Once you have built rapport and established the partnership, they will feel comfortable doing most of the talking. I typically introduce the topic at the beginning of class, give them some things to think about and then turn it over to them. I let them talk to each other, whether as a pair or a group. I sometimes give them some discussion questions to help them get started. I then ask them to share what they talked about with the class. Regardless of the sharing format, I am rarely the one to talk the most. Because me lecturing for an hour without a break is not conducive to the partnership we have built.

Provide multiple ways for participation

It’s no secret that some students fear public speaking, even if all I’m asking them to do is share one comment during a bigger class discussion. In this partnership, however, I want everyone to feel that their voice is important and not just the same 5 students who feel confident enough to raise their hand each class. So after attending a workshop on just how to engage those quiet students, I began providing a digital alternative to speaking out loud. There are many apps that do the trick but so far Padlet has been my favorite. The students scan a QR code at the start of class that gives them access to the Padlet. Then, throughout class, they can share their thoughts (anonymously or with names) and their comments show up on the Padlet for everyone to see. This typically eases any nervousness of sharing their thoughts. And for some, they just need to see someone else’s comments first before they feel comfortable sharing their own. Padlet is a great way to gauge the classroom and get people’s thoughts in real time.

(At the beginning of the semester, before I found Padlet, I would have students submit a 1-minute paper at the conclusion of class in which they would write one thing they took away from the lesson that day. I would often be surprised at just how much attention they were actually paying, since their silence throughout class led me to believe that they had tuned me out!)

Use relatable examples

When I introduce new concepts, I use examples that relate directly to them and who they are right now. For example, I introduced health disparities in my class. I showed them a video that explains it in easy to understand terms and uses helpful visuals. I then gave them short articles that related to their own community (I.e. Richmond, VA). That way they could see how this topic that they first found to be abstract and unrelateable directly influences their city and probably people they know and care about. I even use this method when I meet with students during an advising appointment when they tell me they are struggling in their psychology class, for example. I ask them about a concept they’re struggling with in particular and together we come up with an example that involves them and experiences they’ve had. Relating the content back to them is a sure way to help them remember the content beyond the classroom. This also relates directly to my next point.

Give them concrete steps to take after class

I can’t even count the number of times my coworkers and I have ranted about how college is becoming more and more transactional. Education is now seen as a product to purchase rather than an all around growing experience, an opportunity to figure out who you are. As such, students are constantly questioning the value and quality of the courses they’re taking. This is true in particular of 1-credit intro courses. Sure, we as higher education professionals know that these courses are incredible retention tools and that students who take them typically do better academically as well. But students don’t really care about the bigger number. They want to know, “How is this going to help me right now?”. As such, I always try to provide them with concrete steps to take after class. For my lesson on health disparities, the class read an article on the importance of targeted communication to reach at risk communities. So, for their final project, they created a PSA on an issue they care about. For my lesson on mindfulness, we practiced with a guided meditation and I gave them other destress strategies to take home. Not only does this show them the value of my course but it also emphasizes the need to begin thinking critically about how they can use the lessons from their other classes in their everyday lives.

Those are just a few of my methods as to how I engage my students. You probably noticed that my methods are much more about building a genuine relationship as opposed to a list of classroom activities. I have found that even the best classroom activity only works if the above criteria are being met. What are your strategies for engaging your class? Where have you seen the most success?

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