Tuesday, August 13, 2013

9 Ways to Engage Reluctant Students, aka Tackling the Startup Problem

Any IBL instructor has faced the issue of students who struggle to get going, who seem to want to be passive, and who participate, if at all, only reluctantly. Some years ago, Stan Yoshinobu and I coined "the startup problem" for those students who can't seem to get started with IBL. Let me say up front that I have not solved the startup problem. However, I have developed a number of strategies to use with students who seem disinclined to engage with the class. Let me list them first, and then I will go into detail below.

  1. Engage the student in social conversation. 
  2. Build habits: set action triggers.
  3. Talk about how to succeed in class.
  4. Express confidence in IBL.
  5. Assign a sociable partner.
  6. Invite contributions to discussions.
  7. Invite the student to present.
  8. Shrink the change.
  9. Don't give up.
  1. Engage the student in social conversation. One of my first strategies for getting students involved is to make a human connection with them. Ask how they are doing, ask what other classes they are taking, ask about sports or hobbies, but do something so they feel that I recognize their presence in the classroom, and to let them know they are not invisible in the class.
  2. Build habits: set action triggers. Sometimes one of the root causes of students' lack of participation is lack of (effective) preparation for class. So I often ask students who are not actively contributing what they are doing outside of class. Based on the information I get, I talk with the student about setting aside a time for working on my class. An action trigger is an idea I learned from Switch. It means you agree to take an action based on some event. In conversations with students, this often sounds like, "OK, so you finish putting your kids to bed, and then that's the best time for you to set an hour to work on this class," or "So, you walk out of the class after mine, and you have a break between classes when you can hide out in the library and work on this class." The idea is just that the student has something external to him or her that will trigger some work time.
  3. Talk about how to succeed in class. Closely linked to getting students to make a habit of spending time on the class is helping them understand what to do with that time. In my IBL classes, students are not able to simply mimic a solution provided to them on 20 examples. So we talk about what to do. Read definitions, then reread them. Then try to paraphrase the definition, build examples of the definition, and get comfortable with it. Then read the problem or theorem, and try to understand it with examples. And so on. To the extent that IBL is about not being the source of validation for answers, it is about helping students learn how to learn, which means these kinds of conversations are important.
  4. Express confidence in IBL. At this point in my career, I have a lot of success stories, stories of students who struggled at first, but through determination and good work habits, got through my class and went on to graduate. On the first day of class, I let students know that the road will be difficult but worth it. After that, depending on the class and the number of students having the startup problem, either the whole class will hear one of the success stories, or individual students will hear it. I want them to know that I know they can do it, that IBL works, and that I know it will work for them if they put in the effort.
  5. Assign a sociable partner. If I think part of the student's lack of engagement is shyness, then I may assign a partner who is confident and sociable, who will engage the quiet student in conversation and encourage him/her to participate in discussions.
  6. Invite contributions to discussions. When leading discussions, sometimes I let volunteers share, and sometimes I call on specific students. If I have students who have not contributed in any recent class, I will do a Think-Pair-Share, and then ask a reticent student to share what s/he discussed. By asking for a report on a discussion, rather than asking the student to come up with something on the spot, it relieves some of the pressure on the student, and makes it more likely that s/he will have something to share.
  7. Invite the student to present. In my IBL classes, presentations at the board play a role--sometimes larger, sometimes smaller. But in all classes, students are required to present during the semester. If I have students who have not presented, I will seek them out. At first, I may give a non-specific suggestion, like, "I'd like to see you come with a presentation ready in the next week. Let me know." If a week goes by and I get nothing, then I will typically assign the student to a presentation, and remind them that if they are stuck, or worried about it, that they should come talk to me about their ideas in office hours.
  8. Shrink the change. Sometimes, even after doing the above, even if the student makes a presentation, s/he doesn't seem to be making progress in the class. If the student is not engaged but attending class, then I will try to find a moment at the end of class when I can catch the student on his/her way out the door, and start a conversation. If the student is not attending class, then they get an email from me. This is where Switch comes in again. I want to get the student emotionally connected with wanting to succeed. Have you ever had one of those "Buy 10, Get 1 Free" cards? Research suggests that people do better with a "Buy 10…" card when they get 2 bonus punches when they start the card, rather than if they had a "Buy 8…" card with no bonus punches. Mathematically, both cards effectively require 8 purchases to earn a free item. But emotionally, we feel farther along with those 3 punches on the first purchase. The term "Shrink the Change" refers to trying to make people feel as if they are farther along than they realize. I will do this both in terms of how far they are toward graduation, and how far they are towards passing the class. Even disengaged students have turned in work, taken the quiz and an exam, etc. So I tell them that they have come this far, and this is what they need to do to complete the course. I also try not to overwhelm them, and I usually focus them on the nearest goal. I might say or write in an email something like, "The first step is to come to the next class with a complete set of attempts on all the problems," or, "The next step is to try this specific problem and either bring a solution to class or bring your ideas to me before class, so you can present a solution."
  9. Don't give up. I have been using IBL for more than 10 years. I have seen some surprising cases where students who did not seem to be making progress, even 10 weeks into a 15 week semester, somehow found their way to success in the class. I remind myself of this fact whenever I encounter tough cases. Sometimes if I show faith in the students, that is the small push they need to find the determination to succeed. 

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