Supporting Classroom Engagement through Emotional Connection

Also published at Nightingale

Adult learners can be notoriously stubborn and less receptive to change, leading to reduced engagement in a classroom setting. Here are five tips for creating emotional connections to increase classroom engagement.

Growing up, the school was a place many kids groaned about attending every day. From having to wake up early to slogging through a day of classes, school often incited apathy. As an adult educator, I now empathize with my old teachers and understand the struggle to engage students. It’s even harder in an age of technology to focus a learner’s attention on anything other than phone alerts or email. With life events warring for attention, students lose their emotional investment in education. The question I ask myself is: How to flip the switch from non-engaged to an engaged learner?

Engaged Learners

First, let’s look at the characteristics of an interested learner. An engaged learner doesn’t have to be a facsimile of Dead Poet’s Society but does precisely that — engages. They are curious, ask questions, and are responsive in a classroom.

There are many variables indicating engagement, but one of the most important? Participation. The student will answer and ask questions and show a natural curiosity. They will also participate non-verbally through body language, like eye contact.

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Non-Engaged Learners

On the opposite end of the spectrum are non-engaged learners. But first, a disclaimer:

A certain level of emotional intelligence needs to apply as an instructor. It’s easy to judge from the instructor seat when a learner disengages from the classroom. There can be many reasons why the student is not engaged. Whether for personal reasons or being uncomfortable in a group setting, it’s our responsibility to tread with care and lead with empathy.

End disclaimer.

In most technical classrooms, you’ll be standing at the front. This view allows you to see all the characteristics of a disengaged student under your microscopic lens. One of the most obvious is a student avoiding looking directly at you. Not only will they frequently look down, but their body language will loudly state Please Don’t Call On Me. How many of us have been the student who averts their gaze?

While randomly calling on students may have been the practice 20 years ago, research has proven different strategies to promote engagement. To gain the trust of your disengaged student, avoid this practice. It can have the adverse effect of reduced student trust and increased defensiveness. Additional characteristics to look for are a general disinterest in the class and appearing bored.

Adult Learning

Learning about the characteristics of an engaged and disengaged student is essential. But what about adult learners? What are some of the differences to look for when teaching adults?

Malcolm Shepherd Knowles is best known for coining the term Andragogy. Andragogy is:

“ the art and science of adult learning, thus andragogy refers to any form of adult learning.” (Kearsley, 2010)

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Malcolm Shepherd Knowles

Malcolm’s 4 Principles Of Andragogy are well known through-out adult teaching spheres and instructional design. If you’re going to teach adults, you should know Malcolm. Include his principles in any curriculum and classroom facilitation with adult learners.

  1. Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.
  2. Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for learning activities.
  3. Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance to their job or personal life.
  4. Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented.

I’ve been teaching adults for nearly ten years, but I went to college to train to teach first and second graders in the Mid-West. While I learned the theory first, it was the eventual practice that provided my first authentic taste of the classroom. The most significant difference between teaching kids and adults? Kids will trust you implicitly until you give them a reason not to. While adults will dis-trust you until you prove yourself worthy.

Trust is at the heart of promoting engagement with adult learners.

Make It So

At this point, you can identify which students engage and which do not, with provided caveats for adult learners. It’s time to consider how to flip your non-engaged student to an active class participant. Remember, it’s not possible to engage all students all the time (see the disclaimer above). We are not Jean-Luc Piccard telling Number One to ‘Make it So,’ and it happens.

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While it’s the instructor’s goal to reach every learner, it’s not realistic to assume this will happen. It saves a lot of emotional turmoil to set clear expectations with yourself. Promoting classroom engagement requires a connection with your students. How to do that?

  1. Keep it Relevant. Adult learners are autonomous and bring a lifetime of experience in the classroom — whether through life or work. Acknowledge this experience. Tie their real-world experience into the class to increase engagement and emotional connection. If you are teaching a class of adult learners, remember they are there by choice.
  2. Encourage independent learning. Often instructors will avoid “rabbit hole” discussions. These rabbit holes can derail a plan and can be a distraction. Rather than viewing these conversations as a distraction, consider them an opportunity to encourage independent learning. Provide resources for further education that give the student a chance to invest in their own time. By allowing independent study on their own time, you will keep students interest in a subject.
  3. Emotionally Relevant Content. When a learner feels connected to a subject, an emotional connection can happen. Emotional connections can increase when a learner relates to relevant images or graphics used in the classroom. Try pairing the appropriate photos with storytelling. Storytelling examples from your own experience can inspire and motivate learners who may not feel engaged. If something you did is relevant to the class and changed your life, why not share it?
  4. Emphasize impact. Adult learners need to know the real-world benefit of what they are learning. How will the topic relate to their current lives? There needs to be a bottom line, whether it will help land a new job or an opportunity at an existing one. Communicate the impact on the learner. When there’s a real-life opportunity on the line, learners engage.
  5. Leggo the Ego. My final tip is this: be humble. Being humble does not mean you aren’t the expert in your given field or lack confidence, but acknowledges the learner may be an expert in their area as well. Leaving your ego at the door will help students see how invested you are in their well-being and increase their respect and engagement.

When promoting engagement, as with any skill, you will benefit from time. The more time you have to work with learners, the more they will trust you and engage in a classroom. If time is not a luxury you have, use the tips I have listed to promote engagement in a shorter period. Each time you teach, you’ll learn a new way to connect with your students.

Make it so!

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