Friday, August 30, 2013

Facilitating True Student Engagement

Our students at Western Governors University have not always been successful in other attempts at college for a variety of reasons, some internal and some external. Regardless of the reason, many of our students come to us with two loads to carry: a history of failure and a preconceived model of college that does not match our model. Whether they have tried things that have not worked elsewhere or tried things that have worked elsewhere, that rarely translates directly into success at WGU.

What seems to work for the average new student starts with a thoughtful approach to deconstructing the walls of their current and past successes and failures. This deconstruction has to be with genuine concern for each individual student. They sense disingenuity.

Having listened in on calls with students, I can tell when there appears to be a real relationship with a student and when there is tension. As faculty members, our job is to reduce that tension, in terms of removing the extraneous cognitive load that blocks students' full participation in the learning process. I have seen faculty go into a meeting with a student already tensed up and ready for a fight. Ask any faculty member who their problem child is, and they'll list off a dozen problem children. There shouldn't be that many.

Imagine going into a meeting with fists at the ready only to be disarmed by anything from a heartwrenching to a heartwarming tale from the student that explains why they have been so problematic in the past. How much better would that situation be if we're the ones who kindly work through a student's fa├žade and pulls out the same tale, along with their commitment to truly work through whatever they are facing?

Whether it's the first or fiftieth contact, when faculty go into a situation without preconceptions, doing the following will set up both student and faculty for success.

Practice active listening. Restate or paraphrase what was heard, perhaps using the phrases "what I hear you say" or "what I understand" to make it clear that you want feedback to ensure the message came across. This has two benefits: it ensures you understand what they said and it lets the other person know that you're consciously trying to understand what they're saying.

Remember what you talked about. Keep notes, whether on paper or a spreadsheet, of what you discuss. Ask about how those personal situations are progressing when you talk again next week. Refer back to a file you sent or something either of you committed to doing the previous week so they know you remember talking to them.

Give them just a little more than they asked for. Too much extra will confuse them and look like you just copied and pasted everything you had and doesn't leave anything for next time. Exactly what they asked for will meet expectations. But giving them a little more, whether that's answering what you know is the most common follow-up question before they ask it or giving them a call right as you receive their email, they know you're available for them and care about what is important to them. Explain the policy rather than just stating the policy, send a reminder email of what you discussed in your call, and so on.

Compliment more than you criticize. Put the criticism in a compliment sandwich. Find something nice to say, specific and relevant to the situation, explain what they could do better, and reassure them they have the skills to accomplish it.

Remember the real world. Make the examples you give when explaining a concept or process relate to something you know the student is familiar with from a place they work or used to work. When they don't like the case studies or homework instructions, remind them that their boss probably doesn't always give them perfect instructions either. Help them keep their eye on the prize, in thinking about what their next job or two will be after completing their degree by acting as if they already have the degree. WGU is giving them a model that is more like the real world than it is like the other colleges from which they had to drop out.

Ask for more. Is there anything that doesn't make sense? Do you have enough to keep you busy over the weekend? What else can I do for you? Don't stay confused for more than 20 minutes without calling me. Should we set up a follow-up appointment right now?

By actively listening, remembering what you talked about, giving more than is expected, being free with compliments, tying students' learning to what is to come, and ensuring you haven't left any questions unanswered, students will know they have the support of the faculty in whatever they are trying to accomplish. We may be one of the few who really give them complete support in their lives. Don't be their excuse to fail again but be their excuse to be a success. Oh, and these concepts work at any school, not just WGU; if you teach elsewhere, hopefully it's a place that cares enough about students that you would be recognized for doing this.