The problems of student engagement have haunted universities for a long time. Colleagues complain that student do not attend lectures, do not prepare for lectures, fail to read around the subject sufficiently and sit passively in class without asking any questions. I have certainly observed all of these things and discussed them with colleagues as they seek to improve their teaching and (in many cases) gain confidence at the front of the class.
In some instances, of course, students may be to blame. But remembering that teenage physiology makes it difficult for them to function before lunch time, and that in many cases we are still teaching in the medieval classroom with the teacher standing at the front of static rows of seats, preaching from the pulpit as if knowledge could only be transmitted by the word of the academic – it’s not all their fault.
It is evident that some academics fail to recognise teaching as an academic activity that should be explored, evaluated and reviewed like any other academic activity. This was highlighted by Walker (2013: 54) when interviewing academics about the research-teaching nexus who got the following comment from one academic, “teaching does not challenge the mind enough …. it is like spending time with small children“. There is so much wrong with this statement, where to start?
Of course, if teaching is conceptualised as transmitting content from the book to the students, then why should it be challenging? The only challenge is staying awake. But why do so many colleagues have this obsessive focus on content? Content is available everywhere. Students can access content from numerous sources, and the lecture is just one. There is a whole literature out their about conceptions of teaching, though clearly many of our colleagues are not aware of this, which is one reason why so many continue to promote passivity within their classes and then complain about it.
This was also emphasised to me by a colleague I interviewed a number of years ago who felt that if her teaching was not good enough, she would simply retire to the library and learn the content better (Lomas and Kinchin, 2006). There are plenty of research papers that have considered the development of teachers, with their focus moving from themselves (when they are nervous novices), to the content, and eventually to the students once they have overcome their nerves and realised that the focus of teaching is the students and not the content.
This transition is often a slow an potentially painful journey as academics grapple with the other numerous pressures on their time. However, it is not helped by a denial that teaching has any academic challenge. Just as Reeve (2013) talks about student being agentic learners whose contributions influence the flow of instruction within the classroom, so too should we consider agentic teachers who similarly influence what is going on in the minds of the students. This is part of the teachers’ preparation for class, and reading around the subject in order to avoid being passive teachers. So before teachers complain about student not being agentic learners, should they evaluate their own practice to consider how they act as agentic teachers?
Lomas, L and Kinchin, I.M. (2006) Developing a peer observation program with university teachers. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 18(3): 204 – 214.
Reeve, J. (2013) How students create motivationally supportive learning environments for themselves: The concept of agentic engagement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(3): 579 – 595.
Walker, E. (2013) An international comparison between the research-teaching links in two Schools of Law. Higher Education Research Network Journal, 6: 34 – 38.
available online at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication244483439_student_perspectives_on_research-rich_teaching