Female professor likes student interest in the lesson at the lecture in university classroom

As a full-time faculty member celebrating the end of year ten teaching in higher education, I have found that my engagement with students significantly influences student success. While I cannot do the work for students, I can do the work for myself to be better, show up better, and perform better for them. As faculty, what we do matters. What we say matters, and what we do not say matters. How we show up and perform matters to students and dramatically impacts their success. This post will explore some of the learnings I have held onto over the past ten years of teaching.

Engagement Starts Before the First Class

While many institutions are moving toward faculty sending some form of contact before the first meeting, not all have implemented this effective practice. Whether face-to-face, online synchronous, online asynchronous, or hybrid, faculty teaching in any of these modalities should send some basic information to students before the first day of class. I send my communication to students about a week before the course starts. Some basic information that would help students prepare and be more ready for the course includes:

  1. Faculty Name, Email, preferred method of communication
  2. Course Title and information/description 
  3. Course Modality
  4. Location/Time/Meeting Expectations
  5. Instructors for what to expect/prepare for on the first day  

While this may feel like a no-brainer for some faculty, and for others may feel like extra work, I have found it incredibly beneficial for students. This is especially helpful for students who may already be anxious or nervous about your course. I advise you to draft an intentional and thoughtful welcome message to your students that you can recycle semester to semester. Your students will appreciate you for this. You also will appreciate yourself, as I have found that this simple yet impactful approach cuts down on pre-semester emails and first-day confusion.

The First Day

Just as contact before the course starts is essential, equally as important is the engagement and energy that the first day will bring to students. I am not saying we need to jump through hoops and put on a circus show; however, first impressions mean a lot to us and our students. So, remember, your students are watching and observing you and your personality and energy just as much as you are watching them. Please think deeply about what experience you want your students to have on the first day. Here are some questions to consider as you plan and create the first-day experience for your students.

  1. What is the goal of today?
  2. What do I need to be mindful of and reminded of?
  3. After class, how do I want students to describe their experience? 
  4. What’s one word that describes my intentions for today?
  5. What does showing up to be in service to my students look like?

These are a few questions you could ask to be intentional about how you are thinking, planning, and showing up for the first day of class. I revisit these questions often, as, after a few years, the first day of classes could become routine or mundane, so I try to intentionally shake things up so that I bring a fun and light energy. This helps me to connect with my students and what they might need from me. On that note, it is vital that we, as faculty, remember that we should build with our students. We should include them in the learning process so we can co-create a space conducive for all to learn. Moreover, we must remember that our students are the experts of their lived experiences, and we should allow them to use that knowledge in the classroom to facilitate new learning and growth.

Regular Semester Check-ins 

In addition to first-day support, regular check-ins have proved to be helpful for me and my students. I encourage a variety of check-ins throughout the semester, and I do class, individual, department, and personal/self check-ins throughout the semester. Below, I will also include some started questions you can use as you check in:

Class/Group Check-ins:

  1. What’s working?
  2. What needs to be changed?
  3. What do we need from ourselves and each other to be successful?
  4. What’s missing?

Individual Student Check-ins:

  1. What do you want or need more or less of from me?
  2. What do you want to continue doing to be successful?
  3. What do you want to start doing to be successful? 
  4. What do you want to stop doing to be successful?

Department/Colleague Check-ins:

  1. What is something new you are trying?
  2. What is something that has surprised you this semester?
  3. What support do you need from me?
  4. What tips and advice might you have for finding balance?

Self Reflection/Personal Check-in:

  1. What does a pause look like?
  2. What do I need to be supported?
  3. What is driving me right now?
  4. What do I need to say “no” to?

Engagement is Continuous!

As faculty, we must remember that engagement is continuous. While I provide some check-the-box to-do list items above, we must also acknowledge the continuous effort it takes to be impactful with engagement. We should make time for collaboration with our students and colleagues. We should also make time for professional development. Some of the best ideas and approaches to student learning have come from professional development workshops and conferences.

I have also learned to look at the course syllabus and all of the materials and assignments to be co-created, co-edited, and co-evaluated with my students. Years ago, I switched my approach and philosophy to be entirely student-centered and focused. That means the learning space is co-created and is not “my” classroom but “OUR” classroom. It is one thing to shift terminology and language from “my” or “our,” I encourage you to be sure your actions align with your words.

Lastly, remember to put a diversity, equity, inclusion, anti-racist, and accessible lens on things. DEIAA should be woven into all approaches, learning activities, and reflections for you and the students. Your approaches to student engagement and success should help remove barriers, not create them. I encourage you to use methods that honor universal design and evaluate all that you know and do inside and outside the classroom.

Author Bio:

Antione D. Tomlin, PhD, PCC is a tenure-track Associate Professor + Chair of the Academic Literacies Department at Anne Arundel Community College. Dr. Tomlin is also an ICF Certified Life Coach.

Feel free to join in the conversation on Twitter at @TomlinAntione.

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