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My Students Look Bored in Class
Bored students in Dr. Mike Wong's class
Facing bored students frustrates Dr. Wong.
Dr. Mike Wong, who teaches a large mechanics of materials class, is frustrated that his students appear bored and disinterested. Mike wants his class to be an engaging and instructive experience, so he talks with a research colleague who offers useful suggestions for enlivening the course.
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Dr. Wong is disappointed in his students' reactions to his teaching. Though he has some attentive and interested students, the majority of students look bored in his class, with that glazed-over look in their eye, and a surprising number skip class altogether.
Strategies Menu
Since this class is required for civil engineering and materials science students, it is a large class with over 100 students. Mike understands that in a large class students can easily hide among the sea of people, but he hates the lack of responses.
Mike taught this class last year in his first year in the civil engineering department and has been using the curriculum provided by the original professor. The students have weekly homework, bi-weekly quizzes, and three exams. He tries to be an energetic lecturer, and he usually starts the class with 5 - 15 minutes answering questions and then spends the remaining 35 – 45 minutes explaining new concepts.
All of this left has left him wondering, “Am I a boring lecturer? Are the students confused? Should I modify the course structure or material?” He would like to get more interest and response from the large class, beyond the vocal students who sit in the front.
Mike mentioned his frustrations to a research colleague who then brought up three general suggestions that may increase his students' engagement in class:
  1. Consider asking questions that promote deeper thinking, rather than generic questions such as “Are you following this?” For example, ask “How would you explain constitutive theory to a non-engineering friend?” Also, since students are likely intimidated speaking up in a large class, asking for a show of hands may give you a greater response than asking for a volunteer.
  2. The attention span of adult learners usually lapses after 15 – 20 minutes of listening to a speaker. Breaking up a lecture with an activity can bring back students' focus.
  3. Make it easier for students to stay focused by breaking up the lecture with activities. Consider assigning in-class problem solving to pairs, small groups, or the whole class, and then walk around the classroom to help. Also students could provide feedback to their peers, field questions, defend their answers, provide real world example, or write test questions.
  4. Help the students become more responsible for their own learning with improved questioning, interactive teaching methods, or other activities. Offer mini-lectures on effective studying and exam preparation or change graded quizzes to non-graded self-check quizzes that emphasize learning over scores.
After considering this advice, Dr. Mike Wong thoughtfully chose the questions he asked his students and he used a few simple in-class activities. These subtle changes resulted in more class discussions, and many students showed improved understanding of the concepts.
Asking better questions for engagement
The questions you ask in class can often determine how students respond. These sites explain how to frame questions that increase student involvement and student learning.

“Any Questions?”
Explains how typical questions asked in engineering courses (such as “Do you have any questions?”) affect student response. Offers guidelines for asking thought-provoking and response-provoking questions instead.

Teaching Engineering: Lectures (PDF)
Explains advantages and disadvantages of the lecture as a teaching method and offers suggestions for maximizing student learning, including a section on asking questions (pg 101-103).

How Teachers Speak: Specific Methods
Offers methods for engaging your students in lectures, discussion groups, and labs. Includes specific advice for asking questions, especially in a large class, and includes tips offered from science educators.
Improving the lecture with activities
Breaking up a lecture with questions and other activities will help keep students alert, interested, and learning while forcing students to think more deeply about the concepts and leading students to take more responsibility for their own learning.

The “Change-Up” in Lectures
If you have ever noticed students nodding off after 20 minutes into a lecture, you will appreciate the anecdotes and suggestions in this article. Incorporating an activity midway into a lecture offers the change in pace that can help students maintain focus.

Enhanced Lecture Formats
Four simple suggestions for breaking up a lecture with interactive learning activities. Suggests lengths of times for each component.

Interactive Lectures
Explains the benefits of interactive lectures and offers suggestions to increase student participation and engagement in a lecture.

Teaching Engineering: Discussion (PDF)
The first section of this book chapter, Chapter 7: Nontechnological Alternatives to Lectures, explains how to integrate discussion into an engineering lecture. See pg. 114 – 121.

Encouraging Class Discussion
Twenty-three suggestions for integrating discussion into a lecture.
Helping students take responsibility for their own learning
Many students are used to being passive receivers of knowledge in a lecture format but will benefit from taking a more active role in their learning. The links below, along with the previous strategies, may help educators guide students to take more responsibility for their learning.

Teaching Students to Fish
A mechanical engineering TAs' account of guiding his students to answer their own questions rather than just immediately giving the students the answers.

Navigating the Bumpy Road to Student-Centered Instruction
Describes how student-centered instruction can shift some of the burden of communicating course material to the students. Since students can resist the shift to more responsibility, this article by renowned engineering education researchers also helps educators address the attendant concerns.

Capturing and Directing the Motivation to Learn (PDF)
Explains several suggestions for motivating students to engage in their own learning. Read the sections on helping students think about personal learning goals and teaching students skills for independent learning.

Motivating Students' Best Work
Fourteen specific suggestions for understanding and building a relationship with students so they will work hard, including giving students skills and knowledge to do well in class and modeling your own high standards to students.

Field-tested Learning Assessment Guide for STEM Instructors: Assessment Primer
You can help your students become more reflective and effective learners with the aid of classroom assessment techniques because ssessment can help students diagnose their own learning.

How do I get my students to prepare for class?
Suggestions for developing non-graded or graded assignments to motivate students to study the readings before class.

Engineering Excellence: How to Make an "A" in Every Class and Have Fun Succeeding
Though this online Powerpoint presentation is from the perspective of a student advising other students to become more effective learners, instructors and faculty members may find helpful tricks to pass onto their students.
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