I sat in my home office and peered through the glass door that separates me from the kitchen table where my 11-year old son stared at a computer screen. I saw a myriad of small boxes on the screen, some with cameras on and some with cameras off. My son fidgeted in his chair, threw his head back, and then turned to look at his brother in the next room. Within minutes, he closed the screen of his laptop and I heard him run upstairs.
Over our make-shift work-from-home, school-from-home “lunch break” later that day, I asked my youngest son what he learned in his morning online classes. Between bemoaning the ninth month of online learning and not seeing the application of dividing fractions in “real life,” he admitted to not paying attention to the lesson, to the teacher or to his classmates’ questions. While this scenario is not unlike that of millions of students who are now learning from home during the pandemic and its ensuing stay-at-home orders, it struck me that the challenge is equally as daunting for teachers in both our local charter school all the way through to our faculty at postsecondary education institutions.
Given my student affairs background, I spent years learning about and applying student development theory in practice at colleges and universities across the country. I became interested in the notion of “student engagement” as engagement related to extracurricular activities, co-curricular experiences and all the things students did “outside” of the classroom. I spent years following the work of Dr. George Kuh at Indiana University, who led the team that developed and implemented the well-known National Survey Student Engagement (NSSE) at institutions. But more recently, I’ve come to understand that “student engagement” extends far beyond those activities than encircle the classroom experience. The concept of “student engagement” reflects the whole student experience inside and beyond the classroom, also exemplified by my school-age boys and how they are showing up and participating (or not) in their remote lessons.
I talked with Khasadyahu Zarbabal, PhD, (who goes by Dr. Z) an Assistant Professor of Finance & Economics at Medgar Evers College in New York about his experience as a faculty member throughout the pandemic. Dr. Z helped me to better understand how the faculty role has evolved and why student engagement in the classroom is not only critical to learning the academic material, but ensuring students can be fully-engaged and successful throughout their entire postsecondary education experience.
Alison Griffin: The pandemic has exposed fault lines in so many of our systems and processes—and over the last ten months, higher education has had to quickly stand up new ways of connecting with students and keeping them engaged. What are some of the early challenges you faced as a faculty member in your effort to promote and sustain student engagement?
Dr. Z: Fortunately, pre-pandemic, all of my classes were already hybrid (partially online) so the students were used to checking their email and navigating my online platforms for class. But, in Spring 2020, many of the challenges we faced were based on access to resources for students. Many of our students do not have a computer at home, or if they do, they are suddenly sharing it with other family members.
Alison: Given so much instruction and learning has shifted to remote formats, how are you engaging with students differently from what you were doing before the pandemic?
Dr. Z: For me, I was doing a lot of online and hybrid teaching before the onset of the pandemic.
Candidly what changed was my effort to be human and humane online. Previously, I would devote my in-person time with students showing them I care: talking about life-hacks, easing worries, providing encouragement and general guidance. I would use my time online to share videos of me going over finance material. Into the first weeks of remote learning, I realized that a lot of the personal care that my students needed, had to be delivered remotely. These remote interactions do not replace physical office hours. However, at a time when students are stressed, sick, and jobless, a little effort to show compassion, hear about their challenges, and serve as a hub for support and to point them to both on- and off-campus resources goes a long way.
Alison: Our learning community is so diverse—education experience, age, command of the discipline, among other characteristics. What engagement activities have you found to be most effective with different generations and experiences of learners?
Dr. Z: I like this question because Medgar Evers College expresses student diversity in a unique and dynamic way. NYC is super diverse. I’ve been told this city has the most languages heard on the street daily. Our students are mostly first and second generation immigrants, and span 17-years-old to adults, who are past middle-age. Many of our students are parents and work in some form while attending college. All of my students are now at home, their children are at home with them, and they are trying to do their day job (or juggle work outside the home) and school work on the same laptop their children are now using for remote school—it’s tough! But New Yorkers are tough people!
In my classroom, I tend to focus on the similarities across students rather than the differences. When I was in the corporate world, I had a mentor who told me that what makes certain people successful is their ability to connect with the custodians and taxi drivers, as well as with clients and the CEO. I find ways to connect with all of my students, regardless of their background or education experience. In fact, most of my students could use an extra dollar or another hour of sleep. Finding ways to meet them where they are and find ways to support them is important to me.
Engaging my students has required a lot of trial and error over the years—this isn’t a unique challenge to COVID-19. For example, online discussion forums haven’t worked for my students, it was just an extra to-do. Today’s students are juggling multiple responsibilities. They want to focus on the material, and in a certain way, on practice more so than theory. So I brought in people from Wall Street, non-profit leaders, and those in marketing, to give a different perspective to help students show different paths to finance.
Given Medgar Evers Colleges is in New York City, I can connect my subject matter of finance in a tangible way as Wall Street is literally a stop on our subway line. Because the financial markets reflect so many aspects of life (e.g. health care, education, transportation, entertainment, technology, etc.), I find that activities where students can express their own views and expectations generate a lot of engagement in the course material. Critical to student engagement is showing students what you can do with a degree and motivate them to achieve excellence right now. Show an end goal beyond grades.
Alison: Higher education has been under pressure over the last few decades to focus more on outcomes, rather than inputs. A key component of measuring outcomes is really understanding student engagement. How do you measure student engagement in your classes?
Dr. Z: I have been able to leverage technology as a way to supplement my traditional classroom tactics—both before and during the pandemic. For example, I’ve used academic video platform Echo360 to help me measure student engagement. Whether I’m in a classroom or I’m teaching online, students use the platform to notify me if they’re confused during class (without having to make themselves known), share questions with their peers, take notes time-synched to the lecture, and respond to interactive polls to demonstrate their understanding of key concepts. I’m able to understand where there were common points of confusion in the class, who is revisiting course videos after class, how students are interacting with the content.
I want students to play with and struggle with the material. Based on the data from student polling, video viewership metrics, and traditional classroom participation, I can determine if students need additional support—whether that comes through “hands-on” activities such as stock market simulations or extra credit assignments that challenge them to think differently about a concept.
Alison: What adjustments have you made in your own teaching style based on that feedback?
Dr. Z: Because of the technology I’m using in the classroom, I have gone from using polling to test students’ understanding of concepts, to also incorporating polls to ask more fun, opinion-based questions. By leveraging technology to draw out students’ opinions, I have observed their grasp of the material is stronger and they engage differently with me—and their student peers.
Alison: Are there instruction methods or tools that you will continue to leverage as we move through—and out of—the global pandemic? What are those methods or tools, and how will you implement them in a post-pandemic environment?
Dr. Z: My commitment is to prepare students for the world to come. In the short and medium term, I am convinced that multiple platforms, remote work, and video conferencing will be the norm. Students will take these tools and ways of engaging and learning with them from the classroom to their work environment. As the next generation of learners—and workers—students will set and shape corporate culture. Many shy away from face-to-face time , and they don’t like wasteful meetings (I don’t blame them!), so they are looking for new tools and resources to be efficient, but engaged with those around them. Looking ahead and finding ways to support their transition from school into the workplace is important to me. I am committed to creating an asynchronous learning model, with opportunities for live interaction (virtual or physical).
Alison: What advice do you have for faculty looking for new ways to engage students in a virtual learning environment?
Dr. Z: Get properly trained. Many technology companies that provide tools and solutions to faculty hold regular seminars on topics ranging from how to implement active learning and to facilitating better online engagement. It is as critical to be trained in the tools as it is to understand the concepts. There are also some great breakthroughs on best practices for managing online discussions. I’ve only just started to learn more about these practices, including how to inspire students to initiate, moderate, and summarize a discussion. Just like my students, I am in a constant state of learning.
Furthermore, I would encourage my faculty colleagues to have guest speakers, special events, and “field trips” in the virtual learning environment. Continue to engage with student clubs. Many of the best practices were not used by a lot of faculty members pre-COVID, and the current scenario has forced many of us to level up and provide richer learning experiences for our students.