Blog Archives

Student Disinterest: Who is Responsible?

Sara Briggs wrote a piece (2/7/15) for informED titled: 12 Myths About Student Engagement. The article does a nice job of providing background on engagement and identifying common myths about it. Last week I discussed #1: Engagement in Schooling v. Engagement in Learning. This post considers #’s 7, 9 & 10 dealing with student interest.  [Find the article here: ]

7. If no one responds to your questions, no one is interested.

9. If their performance suffers, they aren’t interested.

10. Disengagement signifies disinterest.

The way the myths are written, and I believe Briggs was intentional about this, suggests students make a choice to be interested or not. The language also implies teachers have little power or responsibility regarding student interest. The statements are myths because student interest isn’t necessarily a choice. defines “interest” as:

  1. the feeling of a person whose attention, concern, or curiosity is particularly engaged by something
  2. something that concerns, involves, draws the attention of, or arouses the curiosity of a person
  3. power of exciting such concern, involvement, etc.; quality of being interesting

Thus in order to be interested, something or someone must “draw attention,” “arouse curiosity,” and employ the “power of exciting such concern, involvement” in order to create interest. The myths are myths because blaming students for disinterest lays the responsibility solely at the feet of students.

If students aren’t interested in a question, the problem may be the question, not the students. It may be how the question was asked (punitive questioning, insufficient wait time). Students may not know the answer but want to find out. A culture of fear may inhibit student responses. If #9 is reordered and slightly reworded it becomes a statement supported by the literature: If students aren’t interested, their performance suffers. And #10 should be similarly edited: Disinterest and disengagement are positively correlated.

In a study of over 80,000 students at 110 high schools, researchers found that when asked why they were bored in class, 75% of students said because the material was not interesting and 39% said the material was not relevant to them (Yazzie-Mintz, E. 2006).  Faculty often shrug off statistics like this by laying the responsibility (blame?) on students. This may be an unpopular position, but I believe teacher behaviors often squelch interest under the guise of “rigor.”



Jokes and impersonations aside, attending to student interest isn’t about “entertaining” students as much as it’s about engaging students through teacher immediacy and employing instructional strategies that promote interest. Schussler puts it this way: “Engagement in learning involves formulating a deeper connection between the student and the material whereby a student develops an interest in the topic or retains the learning beyond the short term” (Schussler, 2009, pp.115-116).

Faculty put a lot of care and effort into lecture prepping, activity planning, creating and assessing assignments. It’s a shame when students aren’t interested in the fruits of those efforts because immediacy and strategies to promote interest have been overlooked. Immediacy behaviors are skills which can be developed,  practiced and incorporated in teaching across disciplines.

Verbal immediacy behaviors:

  • Calling students by name
  • Varying tone / vocal expressiveness
  • Asking students for feedback
  • Using collective pronouns like “we” and “our”
  • Engaging in conversations with students before and after class

Non-verbal immediacy behaviors:

  • Movement around the classroom
  • Gesturing
  • Employing sufficient wait time after asking a question
  • Eye contact
  • Facial expression

These behaviors can make a big difference in classroom climate, how the teacher is perceived and ultimately on learning. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here are three excerpts, from the vast literature on immediacy, highlighting its role in engagement, interest and learning:

Teven, J.J. & Hanson, T.L. 2004. –“Given the movement toward more accountability in higher education and a focus on improving instructional quality, college faculty would do well by developing the skills and behaviors that communicate caring and immediacy both verbally and nonverbally to increase their effectiveness in the classroom.” (p.51)

Bain, K. 2004. –“Create an environment where students: (a) learn by confronting intriguing and important problems, engage in authentic tasks, and examine their own mental models of reality—try to force students into a significant emotional event where they disprove their own “theories-in-use” and (b) feel a sense of control over their education, work collaboratively with others, and receive feedback in advance of any summative judgment of their learning.” (p. 18)

Young, M.R. 2005. –“The results suggest that active, application-oriented experience, delivered by enthusiastic faculty members who provide high personal interaction, along with supportive feedback, clear goals and expectations emphasizing learning over grades will increase intrinsic motivation and the use of self-regulated learning strategies.” (p.36)

The immediacy literature overwhelmingly supports Briggs’ characterizations of #7, 9 & 10 as myths. Student interest isn’t a choice.  Students don’t arrive to our classrooms thinking, “I’m going to be disinterested today.” Teachers can do more to promote student interest, and teacher immediacy is one way to foster it.


Bain, K. 2004. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schussler, D.L. 2009. Beyond Content: How Teachers Manage Classroom to Facilitate Intellectual Engagement for Disengaged Students, Theory into Practice, 48: 114-121.

Teven, J.J. & Hanson, T.L. 2004. The Impact of Teacher Immediacy and Perceived Caring on Teaching Competence and Trustworthiness. Communication Quarterly, 52(1): 39-53.

Yazzie-Mintz, E. 2006. Voices of students on engagement: A report on the 2006 high school survey of student engagement. Bloomington, IN: Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Young, M.R. 2005. The Motivational Effects of the Classroom Environment in Facilitating Self-Regulated Learning. Journal of Marketing Education, 27(1): 25-40.

Engagement in Schooling v. Engagement in Learning

Sara Briggs wrote a piece (2/7/15) for InformED titled: 12 Myths About Student Engagement. [Find it here: ]  The article does a nice job of providing background on engagement and identifying common myths. Teachers have these misperceptions because that’s the way they were taught, or it’s how they learn best, or from anecdotal evidence. Identifying the myths is valuable. But without strategies to supplant the misplaced beliefs, engagement and learning won’t be enhanced. This post and the next few will discuss the engagement myths and provide practical strategies and alternative perspectives.

To start, here are the 12 myths:

  1. Engagement in schooling is the same as engagement in learning.
  2. Participation should be graded.
  3. Personal relevance is just a cute theory.
  4. Pop quizzes motivate studying.
  5. Group projects enhance learning.
  6. Group discussions increase participation.
  7. If no one responds to your questions, no one is interested.
  8. Course size has an inverse affect on student engagement.
  9. If their performance suffers, they aren’t interested.
  10. Disengagement signifies disinterest.
  11. Incorporating the interests of 30+ individuals into your course material is impossible.
  12. Learning necessitates engagement.

Today’s post considers #1: Engagement in schooling is the same as engagement in learning.

For the folks who haven’t gotten on the active learning / engagement bandwagon yet, this misperception may be a primary cause. I suspect there’s a significant cohort of faculty in higher-ed who mistakenly believe the focus of engagement is akin to Kumbaya around the campfire. Kumbaya is engagement in schooling, not engagement in learning. A schooling emphasis centers on showing up, talking for points, and surface intellectual activity. Engagement in learning goes much deeper.

What teachers really need to focus on is fostering a context-relevant climate that fosters engagement. That’s not easy or straightforward. Fortunately, Zepke & Leach (2010) identify ten strategies that promote engagement in learning. Their recommendations are derived from single- and multi-institution studies, qualitative research, and quantitative research with large sample sizes. Each recommendation is supported by numerous references to the literature.

  • Enhance students’ self-belief. Students with fixed theory of self or ability adopt performance goals for their learning and lose motivation when those goals aren’t achieved. Developing students’ confidence in their own competence is a key motivator for engagement. One strategy would be to incorporate student goal setting and self-monitoring of performance.
  • Enable students to work autonomously and with others. This fosters intrinsic motivation and develops students’ sense of competence and self-efficacy. Examples of strategies include choice in assignments, topics, shared decision-making, and collaboration.
  • Teachers and teaching are central to engagement. Teacher attitudes and behaviors are central to fostering engagement. Being approachable, well prepared, and sensitive to students’ needs are all associated with students working harder, getting more from lessons and an increased willingness to express opinions.
  • Create learning that is active, collaborative and fosters relationships. Strategies include learning in groups, fostering peer relationships, and developing social skills.
  • Create experiences that are challenging, enriching and extend abilities. This means setting high expectations, supporting students to achieve high standards, and challenging students to stretch. Students who “reflect, question, conjecture, evaluate and make connections” across ideas are most deeply engaged (p.172).
  • Welcome students from diverse backgrounds. It should not be left to students to develop a sense of belonging. Instead, institutions, programs and teachers need to develop and maintain a culture that is welcoming to all students.
  • Emphasize support services. Teachers should be intentional about incorporating learning and social resources in their courses in order to enhance engagement. Strategies include matching novice learners with more senior students, assigning library-based assignments, and informing students of available resources.
  • Adapt to changing student expectations. This is not about watering down, but rather a recognition that our student bodies have and are changing; “… students expect study to fit into their lives; they do not want to fit their lives into institutional expectations” (p.173). Learning goals (learning focus) are not the same as performance goals (grade focus). Understanding the socio-cultural context of our students is necessary for setting realistic learning goals and enhancing engagement.
  • Enable students to become active citizens. This means a shift in focus from professional development and career-readiness to a more holistic view of student development as citizens. The literature suggests helping students learn to make and defend claims in an uncertain world, act constructively in the political process, and develop awareness of themselves as agents of change increases engagement in learning.
  • Enable development of students’ social and cultural capital. This can be done by providing opportunities to develop a sense of belonging, establishing active relationships with others, and gaining understanding of “how things work around here” (p.173).

Most of the strategies relate to climate and can be implemented across disciplines and institutional contexts. As Briggs notes, “If we keep in mind that environment and engagement are inextricably intertwined, we’ll start to see “student engagement” as a context-dependent quality rather than some ideal state of being that only we, as teachers, can magically and permanently affect with an exciting lesson plan.”

Zepke, N. & Leach, L. 2010. Improving student engagement: Ten proposals for action. Active Learning in Higher Education, 11(3): 167-177.

2015 Teaching Professor Conference Highlights by Tweet

This isn’t a comprehensive recap, just a broad collection of tweets from the #TPROF15. If attribution isn’t given, then the tweet is mine.   [You can follow me: @1313lolita]

Two quick observations: 1.  Tweeting allows an extrovert who wants to clarify her understanding by talking to do so silently!  2.  There is a big difference in Twitter activity between the Teaching Professor and Teaching Professor Technology conferences.

An invitation… Of the tweets below, there are a few that will become favorites of mine.  Did I miss any keepers?  PLEASE share below!  I’d love to hear from you about the conference, or anything teaching and learning related.


Teaching Professor @teachprof

1000+ college faculty are coming together in Atlanta for our 12th annual conference. Follow the learning at #tprof15

Simply doing something a long time doesn’t guarantee doing better.

@BethWhitaker2 Bottom line.   Teach students…..not classes.

What would be the point of teaching if we didn’t let teaching change us?

@educatortrain 4:40pm & we’re still actively engaged – way to put together a conference




Manage decisions. Make self care a priority. Focus on significant results.

Life is like riding a bike. You’ve got to keep moving forward. Albert Einstein.

Realistic expectations. We often set perfection or other unrealistic balance expectations.

Balance as whole and integration. Not parts. Think rhythm and flow.

A significant part of work life balance is managing the mindset we have.

Spend 20% time on your most meaningful to reduce risk of burnout.

Balance is a feeling u get when satisfied with who u are and where you are going.




@RobNursingEdTec  thank you Dr. Monahan for changing the lens in how I look at introverts, classroom environment and learning style

Love a plenary that challenges thinking and encourages reflection by teachers. Great session Nicki!

Equitable approach to risk taking? How often do we ask introverts to stretch? How about extrovert stretching?

Congruent choice. Think pair share adjusted to Think Ink Pair Share.

Equality and equity are not the same thing. Broadening our definition of participation.

Congruent choice, occasional opportunities to work in your preferred format. Sometimes. Stretching is important too.

@fncll Stigma against introversion exists. And passing. So does the seduction to claim introversion because it has cachet in some groups.

Closets are for shoes. Not a good place to live. Not conducive to learning.

@Nursing_Prof It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences. Audre Lorde

Do we try to convert introverts into extroverts?

Do we value extroversion over introversion?

@libmandu In order to flourish, 1. Understand Ourselves, 2. Cultivate our strengths, 3. Spend time in environments with favorable conditions

Lead Question. What is it that I want for my students?



Sponge activity. Soak up the downtime and frame the lesson.

Engagement through anticipation with a little bit of ambiguity

@CherpaColleen Thank you to all our Snowball brainstorming participants. You were a blast

Teacher need to say it exceeds student need to know it

Jigsawed. Active learning on active learning. Great session.

Honor the learning that already exists in the room. Student generated content instead of presenting it.

The snowball brainstorm results are more easily shared! Not your ideas. Freeing for shy students



Effective practical strategies for establishing group cohesion. Great session David Neumann!



@DeanBeckman Loved @jenniferwaldeck and her talk at #tprof15. At times a tough crowd, verifying her prediction of defenseness to some ideas.

@ollied Combating negative behaviors is really all about fostering a positive, compassionate social presence in online/f2f classes.



@ollied If you’re in the Courage to Teach session and want the full HERI report, here’s the link



 @emediafrontie One of the MOST popular attendee ribbons! CGQ7dEBUkAMEYye.jpg-large



 @dalerebhorn I wonder if the fear of online learning would be different if profs had experienced a good online class themselves as a learner.



@nathangwebb “Most people would rather die than think; in fact, they do so.” – Bertrand Russell

@RobNursingEdTec arrangement of words, sentence structure, word choice can manipulate the reader. Critical thinking is needed to prevent

Teaching critical thinking is the toughest thing we will do as professors. Nice work! D Halpern!

Dialectical bootstrapping. Helpful matrix to structure critical thinking.

Ask students rewrite a slanted question in the opposite direction then try to write neutral. Collect data. Powerful lesson.

We are teaching students for a test we will not administer!

Rational thinking is surprisingly dissociated from intelligence.

Critical thinking is not a natural byproduct of what we do in class. It requires thoughtful planning

@jaymelinton Earth endangered by new strain of fact-resistant humans.

Critical thinking is an attitude toward information.

Critical thinking purposefully overcomes biases.

Learning how to learn + thinking critically = 21st century education.

@libmandu Halpern, D. F. and Hakel, M. (2003) Applying the science of learning to the university and beyond: Tea…. Change 35:4, pp. 36-41.



Strategies for ST performance produce an illusion of mastery, ie cramming.

Errors are not the enemy of learners or learning.

Undesirable difficulty = ones students are ill equipped to deal with.

Desirable difficulties. Practices to SLOW learning to make it more durable.

@jkobrien Low stakes assessments every class: helps attendance and retrieval of info over time among other benefits.

Daily assessments can REDUCE test anxiety. They feel better prepared.

@RobNursingEdTec freq. quizzing leads to better retention and decreases the”illusion of mastery” that occurs with studying alone

@HHayesPACS We assume that whatever produces good learning NOW produces good retention LATER. Not true. Easy learning = Illusion of mastery.

Short term learning is what we see in class. But ST learning isn’t a clear predictor of LT learning.

Students may be terrible predictors of their learning. Rely on the literature. Not students!

@HHayesPACS Roediger: “Every time we test a student, we change what they know.” Think of testing as a learning activity, not just an assessment

Retrieval practice effect. Testing memory strengthens learning and retention.

Cumulative finals reinforce spacing.

Every time we test a student we change what they know.

@dalerebhorn Xyz wxy yzx zwx structured learning is more effective than www xxx yyyy zzz. Differences are key. Mix related concepts

Don’t trust student feedback re learning performance. They confuse easy with learning.

Mixers struggle at first but they retain!

Practice in blocks is seductive. Don’t be fooled!

Mix. Don’t block learning activities for Better learning and retention.

One and done coverage isn’t as effective as looping back to review concepts.

@KellyButzler Mark McDaniel amazing at speaking “naked” at #tprof15. Who needs ppt?

Space presentation of material over time; you get better retention.

Answering WHY questions improves test performance, in controlled experiment.

Rereading notes is absolutely ineffective.

An invitation repeat: Of the tweets above, there are a few that will become favorites of mine. Did I miss any keepers? PLEASE share below! I’d love to hear from you about the conference, or anything teaching and learning related.