Before we try to engage students, we should try to engage ourselves

I always sit at the back in lectures. This isn’t so I can misbehave: it’s so I can watch the audience.

It’s fascinating to see the lengths students go to avoid taking notes. I’ve watched people watching people on YouTube, smash level one-hundred on Candy Crush Saga and boldly peruse lingerie on Amazon.

Today’s students, or Generation Plugsocket, present formidable challenges to universities. Senior management have responded by employing heads of student engagement with entire teams to dazzle and cajole distracted students.

One approach has been to get students involved department’s cutting-edge research, theories and equipment. These are collectively known as research-led teaching or research-based learning strategies. They are so commonplace they are now a paragon of teaching excellence. Swansea University explicitly states that students who are taught by staff who bring their own research into the lecture are more likely to be engaged.

The second approach encourages students to become active in university management and departmental politics. Change Agents programs fund students to identify a problem in their department and implement a change. They might set up peer mentoring groups for younger students, or they may redesign their department’s feedback mechanisms. Change Agents are active in Exeter, UCL, and the University of Nottingham.

These strategies are effective at engaging students. At a recent conference on Student Engagement, I and over 200 staff and students celebrated the inventive ways we were combating distraction and diffidence across the country. In the keynote speech, I took my usual place at the back. As a thoughtful, energetic speaker talked about future challenges, I noticed one glaring challenge they had missed: staff engagement.

In this speech on engaging students, I watched the senior academic in the next row drift to a different planet. They replied to sensitive emails on a staffing crisis. I could read every word they typed, and with data protection on my mind, I tried to look away. I couldn’t. The human eye is designed to pick up movement, and their constant flicking between tabs wrenched my outlook to their Outlook.

As I too became disengaged, I focused instead on the inattentive academics and their phones and laptops. They whizzed between Twitter, texting, emails and browsing the web. Somewhere between obtuse and oblivious, they coasted to the coffee break.

I’m not picking on individuals: we all check our phones far too much. But can we fairly bewail distracted students if we are just as bad?

We can engage students through research-led-teaching, but we must also engage staff through teaching-led research. This converse principle declares researchers and lecturers who teach must learn from good educators inside and out of the university. You wouldn’t see a good school teacher pull out their iPhone during a lesson.

Universities long assumed lecturing and teaching were different beasts. Many did not require teacher training for their teaching staff. There are signs that teacher training is becoming valuable. Universities like UCL (where I study and teach) now mandate teacher training courses for postgraduate teaching assistants and new staff. But much of the training counsels research-led-teaching as the antidote to student disengagement and dissatisfaction. This is just once side of the equation. We cannot expect our students to engage fully if our lecturers and professors don’t do the same.

Teaching-led research helps with other problems that students identify. In the latest UK National Student Survey, assessment and feedback scored badly on a national scale. Students dislike feedback that is late, lacklustre and sometimes, illegible. Good school teachers maintain constant feedback loops with their pupils and give regular, affirmative praise on their progress.

I am not suggesting we bulk buy gold stars for 300 freshers on an introductory module. Clearly the challenges teachers in schools and universities face are different. But we ignore good teachers at our peril. The Teaching Excellence Framework has thrown up chaotic results that appear to confirm that a prolific researcher is not always an excellent teacher. It’s time we looked to top quality teachers, rather than top quality researchers, for excellent teaching.

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