Wednesday, May 25, 2011

When Students Aren't Engaged

Recently, Michael Hyatt blogs about The Benefits of Playing Full Out. In that post, he begins by saying, “I attend a lot of conferences and meetings. I have noticed that most people play it safe in these settings. They are reserved—arms crossed and skeptical—or simply distracted, hunched over their smart phone. Precious few take the plunge and play full out.”

But rather than focus on what attendees ought to be doing, I’m more interested in the question of what we can do when we are speaking to a crowd like that. We can’t send the audience to a conference attendee training session before we start and yet, a speaker’s success requires that the audience learn.

The crossed arms and skepticism, as well as playing with the smart phone, are protective mechanisms. Instead of faulting the attendees for fearing things we think they ought not fear, if we want to engage the audience, we must become the protection.

One thing people fear is the dunce cap. In a room full of people they don’t know but would like to make a good impression on, they fear that the instructor will make them look silly or stupid. So, they cross their arms. “Don’t come near me.” Crossed arms can also be what they do when they aren’t sure what else to do. The same is true about playing the smart phone. They have a room full of people who may be watching them and they don’t know what to do with their hands, so they cross their arms or they look at Facebook on the smart phone or they fidget with their pen. Skepticism comes from people doubting the speaker’s ability to teach them. It isn’t that they don’t want to learn or that they want the speaker to fail—quite the opposite—but experience has given them reason to doubt the speaker’s ability.

The audience will uncross their arms and put away their smart phones if you give them something to do with their hands. One mistake that is easy to make is to think that we have to wait until all of the class has arrived before we start. A better approach is to begin the moment the first student arrives. Give him something to do. For example, you might hand out questionnaires as the class members come in. When it is time to start, a few minutes discussing the answers will help determine what the students already know.

Never ask a student a question that he can’t answer. Nothing is ever gained by making a student feel dumb. Instead, look for ways the student can readily apply the material you are teaching. If you ask a question and the students aren’t sure what you’re asking, something is wrong with the question. Reword the question so that they will be able to answer it. And avoid questions with one word answers. Look for questions that spur discussion.

Skepticism often comes in a couple of forms. Either the student doubts you can teach him, or he fears you’re just going to dump a bunch of material on him that he doesn’t care about and certainly won’t remember. For such a student, you need to show him why you believe the subject is important and how you have put the material to use. In so doing, you will also help him see why it is important to him and how he might be able to put the material to use in what he needs to do.

People have attended enough boring classes to have an expectation that any class they attend will be boring. They come prepared to get through the time without too much mental anguish, but what they would really like is for the instructor to engage them in the material. Even in situations where the student is required to attend, the student desires this be a good use of his time, since he has to be there anyway. But no amount of “playing full out” on the part of the students will save a bad class. Students have very little power in that regard, but the instructor can do much to turn a class into an enjoyable learning experience.