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July 25, 2013 Volume 34, No. 34

Faculty offer tips to engage students throughout the fall semester


Group activities help reboot attention

The first week of classes are referred to by some MU students as Syllabus Week. Bengals Bar & Grill on South Sixth Street even used the phrase for a promotion of free beer at the start of a recent semester.

The implication is obvious: Students view the first week of classes as a throwaway. Instructors breeze through the semester’s agenda, putting off substantive teaching and engagement till later.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Two seminars May 22 at the Celebration of Learning event in Cornell Hall opened a dialogue on the art and science of engaging students from the first class to the last class.

Deborah Huelsbergen, associate professor of art, and Steven Keller, associate professor of chemistry, were facilitators of the seminar “Rock the First Day! Making the First Day of Class Count.” Both are former Kemper Fellows. 

Their first day of classes are perhaps not your average instructor’s first day. “In 10 minutes, [students] will have an impression of us and our class,” Huelsbergen said. She strives to make those minutes memorable.

For her three-hour graphic design course last semester, Huelsbergen snapped photographs of her 20 students (to help her learn their names) and joined them in playing ice-breaking parlor games. The overarching purpose was to help students feel comfortable in the classroom environment so they could be at their most creative during classes. Huelsbergen’s small talk during the day also broke down the barrier between teacher and student. 

For Keller’s inaugural chemistry courses last year, students were placed in groups to solve a brain bender: One of eight billiard balls is the heaviest; find out which one it is by using a balance scale the fewest amount of times. The purpose was threefold: group interaction gets students talking and thinking; the brain bender is surprising and memorable (the heaviest ball can be determined in just two weighs); and the puzzle epitomizes chemistry, which makes predictions by indirect evidence (identifying the heaviest billiard ball without actually weighing that ball).

Throughout the first day, Keller and Huelsbergen weave in the course syllabus and mutual expectations.

“You need to find a way to make the first day so engaging that the students can’t wait to get back,” Huelsbergen said.

Throughout the semester, the best instructors also come up with ways to humanize themselves. “Do something to make yourself as uncomfortable as you know they’ve been during the semester,” Huelsbergen said. Last semester, Huelsbergen wrote and read a poem to her class about teaching. Presenting something you created can be a nail-biter, and Huelsbergen admitted she was nervous. But the payoff, she said, was enormous.

“Every student was locked into my eyes,” she said. 

The afternoon seminar “How to Get Your Students’ Attention Without Wearing a Clown Suit” explored similar themes.

Erica Lembke, an associate professor of special education, recommended that instructors plan a variety of special activities during courses to break up the traditional classroom experience.

Getting to know students one-on-one is another important task, teachers say. Bryon Wiegand, associate professor of animal science, shoots the breeze with students when he sees them on campus. He typically starts a conversation by asking what city the student is from. Wiegand said he keeps a geographical Rolodex in his head so he can personalize his response with an experience he might have had in or near the student’s home city.

Other faculty spoke of meeting with each student during the semester, such as in an office or a coffee shop. “Meet with them in space outside the classroom,” Lembke said.

An effective way to keep the learning curve rising is to form student groups for select activities. The practice reboots student attention, instructors say.

Alexandria Sicarudes, assistant professor of English, said a challenge is getting quiet students to interact in groups. Last year she experimented with putting the quieter students in the same group. The strategy worked better than she had hoped. This group came up with the most perceptive ideas, Sicarudes said.

Faculy talked about how they prepare themselves for the first day of class. Some said they start thinking about the first day as soon as the previous semester ends. Others likened teaching to a performance, saying they psyche themselves up immediately prior to the first class.

Wiegand said the transformation for him is like flicking a switch. “I want to give them their money’s worth,” he said.