Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Student Engagement and Writing

Student Engagement in Literature and Writing

In a 2011 blog post called "Death to High School English," writer Kim Brooks argues that middle and high school English classes, as they are now taught, are ineffective.  

She implies that focusing on "fun" projects, like acting out scenes from books and plays or keeping journals to the exclusion of a focus on the hard work of writing a paper, is doing our college-level students no favors. They enter college with no knowledge of basic grammar and mechanics, no knowledge of how to evaluate or incorporate source content, and no understanding of basic organizational structures.  These students, with skills lacking that used to be taught from grade school through high school, are then placed in a composition class at the college level with so many skills lacking that faculty don't even know where to begin teaching.

The question Brooks investigated was why this isn't happening.  Why aren't these skills being taught?  To paraphrase the answer: Students don't view writing as fun, which means administrators who think "fun" is the same as "engaging" encourage "fun" over research and writing, which means teachers are so overwhelmed with fun remediation of basic skills they never get around to teaching research and writing. Oh, and class sizes have grown so large that the individualized attention the students need in order for remediation to stick has become an impossibility.

But the story doesn't end there: The students can't write cover letters, resumes, or professional email messages.  They fail to communicate effectively.  They cannot comprehend trade magazine articles or essays.  They come to college and fail, not because they don't have the capacity to understand college-level material, but because they can't read or write about college-level material at a college level.

Engage With the Material

What a mess, right?  But Brook's reaction to "We don't teach writing because it's not fun," is priceless: "Sometimes we do things not because they’re fun but because they’re important."  And therein might be part of the solution.  Even if I don't want to do the dishes, they need to be done, so I do them.  I engage with the dishes.  Once they are done, I am fulfilled - at least a little.

There are two different dictionary definitions of  "engage."  One definition is to capture someone else's attention, and the other is to get involved (understood you).  In other words, the first is what the course material should do (with some help from the teacher), and the second is what a student should do.  In the classroom, both of those definitions must be met for real engagement to take place.

Students must engage with the course content, not just the teacher.

As a college-level composition teacher, I cannot change what my students did or did not experience in high school, but I can make sure I remediate the skills necessary to make writing engaging, if not always fun.  I can help my students learn something about writing, find some success, and therefore be fulfilled - if only a little. That's the essence of engaging. They, the students, must engage with the material in a way that is fulfilling.

Beyond the Dictionary: Defining "Engagement"

If engagement was as easy as opening the dictionary, however, good writing wouldn't be an issue, so what else can we do?  How can we dig deeper?

The University of Exeter has what is called a "Student Engagement and Skills Hub" online.  They offer worksheets and examples for institutions to use to help define engagement and engagement strategies at the department and university level.  The worksheets and prompts can also be used to help teachers define personal philosophies of engagement on a class-by-class basis.  For example, in my introductory literature course, I take silent students and furrowed brows as a sign students are engaged in the material.  Personally, I do not want to capture a student's attention in that class; I want the material to capture a student's attention.  I am not the star of the class, the literature is the star in that class.

Here are the roles we all play:

1. I choose and present literature I believe will capture the attention of the specific group of students in a particular section of my course.  In order to do that I must pay attention to my students; I must engage with them.
2. The students then engage with the material through the step-by-step process of active reading. They put their heads down, furrow their brows, and ponder the greater meaning of what they've read. They tell me and one another, in writing, how they've engaged with each reading.
3. I allow students to engage with each other and with me (to a lesser degree) when we discuss the literature.

Here is an anecdote: A student once actually told me he wasn't looking forward to taking my classes because he had seen these behaviors, silence and perseverating looks, from previous students through my classroom windows.  Once he was in the class, however, he admitted his preconception and laughed.  "They were just genuinely interested in learning something," he said.  "They were thinking about the stories."  In just that moment, he said something momentous: Engagement is not about entertainment or "fun-ness." Engagement is about being genuinely interested in the class content, in the act of learning something. Students are engaged with the material and the process of learning because learning the material, pondering or contemplating it, is also somehow fulfilling.

An outsider may believe furrowed brows and silent students are signs of a disengaged class, but in my very particular class these are generally signs students are engaged with the material, even when the students are not being entertained by the teacher, videos, multi-media presentations, cartoon characters on worksheets, songs, dances, games, or other fun stuff.

The trick, if it can be called a trick, is to make certain the students not only understand the material, but know, on some level, that understanding the material and learning about the material will somehow be fulfilling to them.  Some call this the "What's-in-it-for-me?" (WIIFM?) principle, others refer to this idea as "making the content relevant" to students' lives, some study this concept as a method of contemplative education, and still others make it happen without ever referring to it directly.

And the neat thing?  All of this can happen in writing classes when we make the learning, the hard work of writing a research paper, worth the effort.  We have to make the students want to contemplate the material, ponder their own questions, remember the impetus or genuine inquiry that made them choose a particular writing topic in the first place.   There's no amount of song and dance or fun and games that can help a student engage in his or her own writing material.  Songs, dances, fun, and games, help students engage with a teacher, but they can't take the teacher with them to the next class, the next job interview, or through a degree program.

Need some more ideas for student engagement? Try

Motivate the WIIFM? Student With a Learning Audit Assignment
Student-Centered or Curriculum-Centered?
The Benefit of Play in the Composition Classroom


  • Brooks, K. (2011). Death to High School English.  Retrieved from [Blog]
  • University of Exeter. (n.d.). Student Engagement and Skills Hub. Retrieved from [Exeter Web Site]

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.

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